The most divisive president in modern history stood before the nation on Tuesday night and insisted he wants nothing but unity.
Donald Trump talked in his first State of the Union address about “one team, one people, and one American family” who share the same destiny. That’s a welcome change of tone coming from a man who has tweeted insults nonstop for a year now. But they are hollow words unless he follows up with real deeds.
And to truly unify the nation, Trump must first confess his part in dividing it. In his first year in office, he has shown very little capacity for calling Americans to common purpose. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be so quick to attack anyone who disagrees with him. He certainly wouldn’t demonize entire groups of people, or wink and nod to racists and extremists.
In his nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress, Trump recognized everyday heroes and offered support to those still recovering from floods and fires. But he also resurrected controversies he stoked, including his criticism of NFL players who don’t stand for the national anthem.
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Reverting to form, Trump exploited deadly tragedies caused by MS-13 gang members to promote his divisive plan to overhaul immigration and ramp up border security. He’s holding out the prospect of citizenship for Dreamers, but only in return for slashing legal immigration and for financing his wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats aren’t buying this awful deal, and some invited Dreamers to attend the speech.
While Trump bragged at length about his biggest legislative accomplishment – the tax cut law – it’s also divisive. Despite the $1,000 bonuses being handed out to some employees, the law will deliver the lion’s share of benefits over the long run to corporations and wealthy individuals, widening the gap between haves and have-nots in America.
Trump delivered a very rosy view of the economy, declaring that “there has never been a better time to start living the American dream.”
Yes, the stock market is in the stratosphere, but that rewards investors and people lucky enough to have 401(k)s and does very little to help millions of working families. Under Trump, while corporate profits are skyrocketing, real weekly wages have barely budged. More Americans are without health insurance and relying on food stamps. There are still wide racial disparities in unemployment and poverty.
The president called for bipartisanship, appealing to Democrats to back him on a $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild roads, bridges and other crumbling infrastructure. But after being bashed and belittled by Trump for months, who can blame Democrats if they’re skeptical and resistant?
Still, if the White House puts out a credible plan, there’s plenty of work to do. California is well-positioned to come up with matching funds to land federal grants, thanks to voter-approved bond issues for water projects and the gas tax signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year to pay for road and bridge repairs and public transit.
Yet any bipartisanship could quickly evaporate, as campaigns ramp up for the all-important congressional elections in November. Trump and his Republican enablers will do everything they can to keep control of Congress and protect his presidency, including trying to impede the Russia investigation. The president seems far more focused on the Russia probe than “building a safe, strong and proud America,” as he promised Tuesday night. That’s a shame.
In a lunch with network anchors hours before his big speech, Trump said that he wants to unite the country but that it’s difficult to overcome “tremendous divisiveness” without a terrible major event.
He’s wrong. It doesn’t require a war or another 9/11 to bring Americans together. It calls for commitment to the cause. It would require honesty from the president. It demands, in short, leadership. That is sorely missing from the Oval Office right now.