Hidden just slightly beneath the surface of Donald Trump’s rather dull first State of the Union speech was another, darker speech—unusually dark for a peacetime address of its type.
As I wrote in an analysis Tuesday night, the speech was long and fairly conventional, especially for an unconventional president. Trump went through the motions of calling for bipartisanship, but the moments when he reached for inspirational rhetoric felt strange and disorienting.
That’s because darkness is the president’s default political mode. Pundits (and former presidents) found Trump’s inaugural address, with its talk of “American carnage” startling, but as the State of the Union demonstrated, it’s much stranger to hear Trump reach for brightness.
“Americans fill the world with art and music,” Trump said toward the end of the speech. “They push the bounds of science and discovery. And they forever remind us of what we should never, ever forget: The people dreamed this country. The people built this country. And it’s the people who are making America great again.”
With the exception of the last line, this was a sort of rhetoric rarely, if ever, heard from Trump. Yet in between the inspirational flourishes of the start and finish of the speech, and after a stout plea for credit for the booming economy, the address was filled out with dark and even bloody imagery.
Trump made liberal use of Lenny Skutniks, the invited guests who presidents use as foils for particular portions. Like the original Lenny Skutnik, a hero who rescued victims of a D.C. plane crash shortly before the 1982 State of the Union, many of Trump’s were heroes of disasters, whether natural or man-made: A Coast Guard petty officer who saved lives in Hurricane Harvey; a firefighter who combatted the California wildfires; a North Korean defector; the parents of a young American fatally sickened while in North Korean captivity; a soldier who fought ISIS in Raqqa; a Border Patrol agent targeted for killing by the gang MS-13; the parents of teens killed by the gang.
“These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown,” Trump said. “Six members of the savage MS-13 gang have been charged with Kayla and Nisa’s murders.”
As is often the case, and as was the case in Trump’s pseudo-State of the Union in 2017 (newly inaugurated presidents don’t deliver true SOTUs), these moments were the most emotional. But many of them carried a dark undercurrent. This was particularly true of the MS-13 cases.
The toughness of Special Agent Celestino Martinez is indeed impressive, and it’s impossible not to grieve for the parents of the slain teens. It’s worth concentrating on the point that Trump sought to make with these examples, though. While there’s broad agreement that MS-13 is a dangerous and bloodthirsty gang, there are sharp divisions over the scale of the problem. The president has tended to exaggerate when discussing MS-13. Beyond that, many immigrant advocates objected to Trump positioning the gang alongside “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, a group for which Trump called Tuesday night for a path to citizenship.
“MS-13 is an example of some of the worst of criminal gang behavior,” Senator Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, said on MSNBC Tuesday night. “To equate that with Dreamers and DACA was completely irresponsible, and it was scapegoating, and it was fearmongering, and it was wrong.”
The New Yorker also recently reported how some Long Island teens feel trapped between deportation threat and the gang itself. It’s also unclear whether MS-13 is actually sending members across the border as unaccompanied minors, or whether the gang is recruiting immigrants once they’re in the U.S.
This was not the only case in which Trump reached for violent examples to bolster the case for his preferred changes to immigration policy. “In recent weeks, two terrorist attacks in New York were made possible by the visa lottery and chain migration,” he said. “In the age of terrorism, these programs present risks we can just no longer afford.” Those examples, critics were quick to point out, were not typical—most such attacks are carried about by native-born Americans who are radicalized.
Trump’s view of the world beyond America’s borders was no less dark—a globe occupied by rivals, rogue regimes, and terrorists. “In confronting these horrible dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means to our true and great defense,” he said. Trump warned that “we have no choice but to annihilate” terrorists (but that they should be sent to Guantanamo Bay when captured.
He warned of “the depraved character of the North Korean regime,” using the wrenching story of Ji Seong-ho, who was run over by a train when he passed out from hunger while trying to steal coal to barter for food, and later escaped North Korea. Trump did not use any of the explicitly threats of “fire and fury” that he has at times in the past, but said, “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this very dangerous position.”
Of course, appealing to fear, and especially the fear of crimes by immigrants (real or imagined) is hardly new for Trump. His campaign kick-off notoriously demonized Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, and he was eager to denounce “radical Islamic terror.”
Two things make the present situation unusual. One is that a year in, most presidents are eager to celebrate their accomplishments. But Trump is a doomsday prophet, not a sunny Reagan-esque figure, and the gulf between the public’s expectations and Trump’s natural inclinations helps explain the uncanniness of the State of the Union.
The second is that Trump looks like a man in search of a villain. In domestic politics, he has found occasion to feud with Republicans and Democrats and to gripe about the Russia probe, but he avoided shots at Congress or Robert Mueller in the State of the Union. One reason Trump continues to speak about Hillary Clinton is surely that there’s no clear leader of the Democratic Party for him to attack instead.
During the campaign, ISIS served as a useful villain in a broader sense, but as the president pointed out in the speech Tuesday, the U.S. has dealt the group a huge blow, chasing it from its territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq, and and ISIS-inspired attacks in the U.S. have not managed nearly the lethality of similar attacks in Europe. Trump without a clear villain to rail against seems just as out of place as cheerful Trump.