Last night’s State of the Union address and rebuttals were a fight over what constitutes “real America.” They weren’t a rehash of the debate about whether American authenticity is clustered at the coasts or spread out over the heartland. Rather, it was a contest for which politician, party, or movement has the most accurate assessment of what it feels like to be American today.
This is Trump’s home turf, or it used to be. Since he launched his presidential bid in June 2015, he’s painted a picture of an America in disarray. “Our country is in terrible trouble,” he said back then. “We don’t have victories anymore.” He evoked Mexicans invading and Chinese people stealing jobs. “When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks. They beat us all the time,” he said.
The media at the time hashed and rehashed Trump’s remarks, fact checking lies and condemning his racism, laughing all the way. Trump’s candidacy was a joke, they said — a clumsy Charybdis of falsehoods and xenophobia that would swallow itself before it caused too much trouble. But of course, those predictions were wrong.
What most missed then, but which should be obvious now, is that between his bigoted bromides, Trump was painting a picture of an America that felt more familiar to millions of viewers than anything they’d been served for years.
He acknowledged that although unemployment numbers were low and declining, the “real unemployment” numbers were higher — “anywhere from 18 to 20 percent.”
“Don’t believe the 5.6,” he warned during that first Trump Tower address. “Don’t believe it.”
“A lot of people up there can’t get jobs,” he said. Health care costs were going up. We spent relatively more on education, with fewer returns. Deductibles were “going through the roof.” Obamacare needed to be replaced with something “much better for everybody.” The infrastructure, airports, roads, “everything” was like “a third world country.” And the thing is, he wasn’t all wrong.
He struck his darkest note on his first day in office, during his inaugural address:
Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
Trump was successful in large part because he is impressively adept at diagnosing America’s problems. “Make America Great Again” is not only a regressive slogan that recalls more prejudiced and unequal historical periods fondly; it’s also an acknowledgement that America, as it is, needs improvement. Or as Barack Obama put it, it could be “more perfect.” In 2016, the Democratic Party at times lost sight of the fact that making America great was a goal shared by both parties. Instead, it defaulted into “America is already great,” offering a platitude which couldn’t compete with the reality of unpaid bills and soaring health care costs.
Increasingly, however, Trump is in a political pickle — one that flows from a promise made during that inaugural address: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Trump’s brand is diagnosing America’s ills, but as he ages into his incumbency, those ills increasingly manifest on his watch, and he’s forced to lean more heavily on new manufactured crises that can’t be attributed to his leadership.
As in his January Oval Office address, Trump’s State of the Union remarks were full of inaccurate fearmongering about the border. He criticized the high cost of health care and, in a somewhat unexpected turn, the scourge of childhood cancers and HIV.
But now it is Trump who must defend his record. It’s Trump who feels pressured to make the case that America is already great.
In the first portion of his remarks, he did exactly that. He celebrated combat veterans from WWII (when America presumably was great) and then lauded American astronauts who are “once again” going into space, drawing a rhetorical line between these achievements. He bragged about an “unprecedented economic boom” — a boom that started before his presidency and continues despite it — and held up low unemployment numbers as evidence of his leadership prowess.
Trump is facing is the impotence of incumbency.
The Trump who advised Americans to consider “real unemployment” numbers is long gone. In his place stands a man so eager to defend his record that he reported employment statistics, his best Trump card, four different ways so as to magnify the impression of his success: “5.3 million new jobs”; “600,000 new manufacturing jobs”; blue-collar jobs, growing faster than anyone else thought possible; more people working than at any time during American history. Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.
Trump’s focus on jobs numbers is understandable given how little else he has to brag about: Cutting more regulations in two years than any other administration had done in four; a transparent greed-driven tax cut for millionaires and billionaires that’s growing more difficult to spin as tax season approaches and Americans start to see the consequences on their returns; America becoming the world’s No. 1 oil producer at a time when scientific consensus says that oil dependence is a death sentence. The accomplishments enumerated during last night’s address were underwhelming at best.
But what’s important to note here is that Trump is facing is the impotence of incumbency. Without being able to point to policies that have materially improved people’s lives, he’s forced to argue that his paltry efforts have made America great. And given the state of the nation, that’s no enviable position to be in.
In her reply, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams was able to capitalize on Trump’s new posture. To justify his lack of accomplishment, Trump had to invent a twisted fantasy-scape of marauding Mexican murderers, while tiptoeing around his broken promises with vague references to health care costs that didn’t directly implicate his attacks on existing health care infrastructure.
Abrams was free to fill the role Trump once played so well, accurately identifying America’s problems.
But Abrams was free to fill the role Trump once played so well, accurately identifying America’s problems: Voter suppression; farmers hobbled by a tariff war; factories closing; children caged at the border. Even Fox News pundits had to acknowledge: “She seemed to get more to what people’s lives are like in the reality.” With a diverse crowd standing behind her and a message that gave voice to a broad range of concerns, Abrams won the fight over what America really looks like.
Abrams deftly ran through the panoply of policy issues ignored by Trump, and offered a warm, compassionate alternative to Trump’s drowsy teleprompter recital. Our strength as a country, she argued, is our ability to pull together to advance common goals. “We may come from different sides of the political aisle, but our joint commitment to the ideals of this nation cannot be negotiable.” Unfortunately, Abrams argued, Republicans have bargained away their commitment to the ideals shared by most Americans. “Under the current administration, far too many hard-working Americans are falling behind, living paycheck to paycheck, most without labor unions to protect them from even worse harm. The Republican tax bill rigged the system against working people. Rather than bringing back jobs, plants are closing, layoffs are looming, and wages struggle to keep pace with the actual cost of living.”
Her message was concise and effective: “With a renewed commitment to social and economic justice, we will create a stronger America together. Because America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That is who we are, and when we do so, never wavering, the state of our union will always be strong.”
And while centrist hacks (and complicit mainstream media outlets) attempted to construe Sen. Bernie Sanders’s State of the Union response as a racially motivated upstaging, his State of the Union response, which he has given for the past two years, was, in fact, a complement to Abrams’s successful rebuttal.
Whereas Abrams had only 10 minutes to respond, a limitation intrinsic to the party’s official address, Sanders had the space to articulate, in detail, exactly where Trump went wrong. If winning the game is about accurately diagnosing the country’s problems, then Bernie came to play.
“I want to talk to you about the major crisis facing our country that, regrettably, President Trump chose not to discuss,” began Sanders. America is great again, he offered, appropriating Trump’s thesis before flipping it on its head: At least it is “for the members of his Mar-a-Lago country club.”
“For many of President Trump’s billionaire friends, the truth is they have never ever had it so good,” argued Sanders. “As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.’” Today, as then, the economy is great for the rich. Twenty-five hedge fund managers on Wall Street made nearly twice as much as all 140,000 kindergarten teachers in America, explained Sanders. Meanwhile, the “real wages for the average American worker are lower today then they were in 1972 … 46 years ago.” If Trump once wanted Americans to focus on “real wages,” Sanders was happy to oblige.
Sanders adroitly undermined Trump’s claim that his leadership resulted in low unemployment numbers, pointing out that job creation tapered off during Trump’s first year. He explained that the average worker received a raise of merely $1.60 a week, while “the three richest people in America saw their wealth increase by more than $68 billion.” He argued that Trump was right to want to address infrastructure, but wrong to try to privatize our highways — selling them off to the highest bidder for individual gain at the cost of citizens.
Sanders painted a clear picture of the winners and losers of the Trump era. Under this administration, Walmart, Pfizer, and other big corporations have paid out big bonuses to their CEOs while laying off employees — many of whom were already struggling to get by with the support of the social safety net. And the Vermont senator called Trump out for vowing to protect that social safety net as he supported cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Sanders pointedly highlighted Trump’s hypocrisy about violence committed by undocumented immigrants, explaining that they commit less crime than natural-born Americans. He called out Trump for talking about the murder of Americans by an undocumented man in Nevada while staying silent about the deadliest incident of gun violence to ever happen in America, which also took place in Nevada in 2017. Sanders castigated Trump for failing to mention climate change, and for undermining the security of “Dreamers.”
But in the most powerful part of his address, Sanders didn’t merely react to Trump. In an ad lib not captured in the official transcripts, Sanders asked the only question that really matters: “Why don’t you do what the American people want you to do rather than what wealthy campaign contributors want?”
What do the American people want? Sanders ran down the stats:
… And on and on and on.
A $15 minimum wage; free public college; government assistance for child care — what Americans want are progressive policies. So, Sanders asked, “why isn’t Congress and the White House doing what the American people want them to do?”
The answer is not complicated, he explained in a familiar but still salient refrain. “The answer has everything to do with the power of the monied interests.” Greed is destroying the nation, says Sanders, not Mexicans. The 1 percent is the source of American hardship, not the border.
In a separate response for the Working Families Party, Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s new lieutenant governor and a rising progressive star, hit some of the same notes as Sanders, singling out the wealthy few as a barrier to social justice advocacy. “We need a movement that sees our fights for economic justice, and racial justice, and climate justice, and for a real and reflective democracy as all bound up together,” he said. “Our movement seeks not only to change what is possible, but what is expected. We must commit ourselves to an America that works for the many, not the few.”
There was perhaps no greater testament to the power of Sanders’s reframing than the fact that Trump’s remarks seemed to anticipate not the official Democratic Party’s response, but rather the rhetoric most famously advanced by Sanders and fellow democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Here, in the United States,” said Trump, “we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — and not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.”
But Sanders, who was spotted scribbling notes during Trump’s address, was prepared to respond to this line of attack: “Trump said, ‘We are born free, and we will stay free.’ Well, I say to President Trump: People are not truly free when they can’t afford to go to the doctor when they are sick. People are not truly free when they cannot afford to buy the prescription drugs they desperately need. People are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. People are not truly free when they are exhausted because they are working longer and longer hours for low wages. People are not truly free when they cannot afford a decent place in which to live. People certainly are not free when they cannot afford to feed their families.”
By the end of Sanders’s remarks, it was clear why Trump felt the need to call out socialism. Genuine, progressive populism — messaging that put society’s and people’s interests first — is a threat to Trump’s oligarchy-dressed-in-populist-clothing. Ocasio-Cortez agrees.
“I think that he needs to do it because he feels like — he feels himself losing on the issues,” Ocasio-Cortez told Rachel Maddow following Trump’s remarks. “Every single policy proposal that we have adopted and presented to the American public has been overwhelmingly popular, even some with a majority of Republican voters supporting what we’re talking about.”
“I think he sees himself losing on the issues, he sees himself losing on the wall in the southern border, and he needs to grasp at an ad hominem attack, and this is his way of doing it. What we need to realize is happening is this is an issue of authoritarian regime versus democracy. In order for him to try to dissuade or throw people off the scent of the trail, he has to really make and confuse the public. And I think that that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.”
Ocasio-Cortez is right; fear tactics and money only go so far. To paraphrase both Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders: They’ve got money, but we’ve got people.