Claremont Institute Senior Fellow John Marini is one of the few experts on American Government who understood the rise of Trump from the beginning of the 2016 election cycle. Now he looks to the fundamental question that Trump's presidency raises: is the legitimacy of our political system based on the authority of the American people and the American nation-state, or the authority of experts and their technical knowledge in the service of "progress"?
A Speech Divided?
In some ways, President Trump’s State of the Union was a speech divided against itself.
On the one hand, the President extolled the virtues of “groundbreaking criminal justice reform;” ad-libbed a commitment to welcoming legal immigrants “in the largest numbers ever;” pushed once more for a new entitlement, “nationwide paid family leave;” and played, alternatively, both small-ball and the identity-group-hustle on topics like the eradication of AIDS and female employment.
These were some of the weakest parts of the speech. Anecdotal stories about redeemed criminals may be moving, but the rule will likely be closer to what Senator Tom Cotton has predicted: more criminals will hit the streets, sooner—with predictable results, as Joseph Bessette has written in the Claremont Review of Books (“More Justice, Less Crime”). The foreign-born population in America is at its highest levels in a century, hardly an opportune time to welcome a surge of immigrants, even legal ones. The reckoning with the debt-financed welfare state is coming—let’s not add another national entitlement.
On the other hand, Trump talked of the common sense necessity and morality of border walls, sticking it to Nancy Pelosi’s recent nonsense about the “immorality” of physical border security; had some ad-libbed fun with the Democrat ladies in white, many of whom seemed to be cheering, somewhat avariciously, for their newly-acquired jobs in Congress; touted our punitive tariffs on the intellectual property thieves in China; set up the passage of the U.S.M.C.A. (Trump’s NAFTA replacement) by a Democrat-controlled House as a fight between the #Resistance and the prosperity of working Americans in the crucial swing states of “Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, [and] New Hampshire;” immediately followed his call for a new national paid family leave entitlement we can’t afford with very frank language about recent Democrat endorsements of infanticide in New York and Virginia; reminded his audience about the substantive—and positive—results of his NATO-bashing; and enunciated his administration’s Monroe-doctrine stance on Venezuela, followed in the next paragraph by the juxtaposition of the “abject poverty and despair” caused by socialism and the recent pro-socialist rhetoric of the anti-American Left.
Perhaps most importantly, Trump repudiated the bipartisan foreign policy establishment conventional wisdom with a single sentence: “great nations do not fight endless wars.” Finally, echoing his first inaugural—and in an implied endorsement of American nationalism and a challenge to identity politics at the same time—he ended the speech with a call for a common American identity rooted in love of America, American greatness, and the maintenance of “America first in our hearts.”
On balance, then, the speech reflected much more of the populist and anti-establishment brashness we’ve come to expect from the President (and which helped get him elected).
The viewing public liked the speech, according to CBS and CNN polling. I doubt the President reads this site (give us time!), but the weaker parts of the speech can perhaps be seen as an attempt to address a sentence from Michael Uhlmann’s post on this website after the midterms: “If Trumpistas think they can govern without RINOs or suburban women, they are mistaken.” On the one hand, Trump was courting, among others, suburban women and a sub-species of anti-NeverTrump RINO. On the other hand, Trump was sounding some of his greatest hits, with a few new notes added in, in preparation for a very high-stakes run-up to 2020.
It will be interesting to see the political, rhetorical, and constitutional fight play out over the next 22 months—Americanism, properly understood, is once again at stake, as it was in 2016.