Donald Trump addressed both chambers of Congress yesterday, in what would have been called the State of the Union address, if first-term Presidents gave SOTUs. I’ll say this: it was considerably less unhinged than usual. Trump stuck with the script, for the most part, and his speechwriters served him well. He didn’t brag about his electoral victory, and he didn’t insult people gratuitously. He pretty much stuck to policy. There was some boasting, of course, but that’s fine; it’s normal for Presidents to highlight their administration’s achievements.
I’m sure, from Congress’s perspective, it would have been nice if the speech had included some policy specifics, especially on such issues as replacing the Affordable Care Act, tax reform, and infrastructure repairs. But if we didn’t already know that this President isn’t any kind of policy wonk, his recent discovery that health care reform is ‘complicated,’ which apparently came as news to him, was especially relevatory. What we’re going to get from this White House is general outlines, not policy specifics. And that’s okay; every President finds his own approach.
There were even moments of grace and eloquence. “A new national pride is sweeping across our nation, and a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp. What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit.” That’s baloney, of course, but it’s pretty sounding baloney, for all its lack of nutrients.
No, what was wrong with Trump’s speech was, basically, all of it. Like most State of the Union addresses, he talked about both what’s going right and what’s going wrong. That’s the point of a SOTU. Here’s what’s going well, so we should keep on doing more of that, and here’s what’s going badly, so we should stop doing thus-and-such and see if we can fix the damage. It’s a useful annual exercise. And the problem here is that none of the problems Trump wants to solve are actually problems. I’m not saying we don’t have problems; of course we do. But he doesn’t have a clue what our actual problems actually are.
So for example, this:
We tended the borders of other nations while leaving our own borders wide open for anyone to cross and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate.
The US border is absolutely not ‘wide open for anyone to cross.’ If that were true, we might actually have a problem with illegal immigration, which we don’t. In fact, the unauthorized immigrant numbers have barely grown at all over the last seven years. And we certainly have a lot of people dying from illegal drug use; 52,000 in 2015. Most of those aren’t from cocaine pouring across the borders; they’re from opioid painkillers, illegal prescription drugs. Trump’s solution, of course, is to build a ginormous wall between the US and Mexico. This will accomplish nothing. We do have a problem with Mexican drug cartels (the last group on earth to be deterred by a wall), but the solution to that problem involves working with Mexican authorities, not offending them.
We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism. According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offense since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.
He’s defending his travel ban here, and it’s completely bonkers. Here is the number of jihadists who have perpetrated terrorist attacks in the US: 12. All of them, without exception, were American citizens or legal permanent residents. Refugees from Syria, Libya or Somalia (all banned from the US according to Trump’s executive order), have committed zero acts of terrorism. Refugees to the US are very very carefully vetted. The travel ban is, again, an ineffective response to a non-existent problem. It’s also damaging to America’s interests and makes it harder to actually fight against terrorists.
We must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited: 94 million Americans are out of the labor force, over 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million Americans are on food stamps. More than one in five people in their prime working years are not working. We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years. In the last eight years, the past administration has put on more new debt than nearly all of the other presidents combined. We have lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was approved , and we have lost 60,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.
These statistics are completely misleading. Take that first number: “94 million people out of the labor force.” That includes retirees; my parents for example. I’m on permanent disability; it includes me. It includes high school kids, and college kids. It includes trust fund kids. It includes people living off their investments. It includes stay-at-home Moms and Dads. It includes adults who went back to college. In fact, the US unemployment rate is currently 4.9%. That’s very good. I don’t personally know a single person who wants a job and can’t find one, and I was our ward employment specialist.
Trump also refers to international trade agreements as though they’re the Black Death. The US has absolutely lost manufacturing jobs since NAFTA passed. There is, and was, pain. But NAFTA also created jobs, 4.9 million of them, more jobs than were lost, because of increased trade with Mexico and Canada. Losing the TPP and NAFTA will harm the US and world economies. So Trump insists that he’s going to create millions of jobs, and undo the damage done by free trade through protectionist tariffs. He’s invented a non-problem and is proposing a ludicrous solution.
Trump also loves to talk about the US trade deficit as though it’s a huge problem that needs an immediate solution. It isn’t. My son, the economist, points out that he’s running a huge trade deficit with Smith’s (the grocery store nearest his apartment). For a long time, now, he’s been taking food from Smith’s, and all they get in return is cash. It’s non-sustainable! He’s never so much as given them an avocado. Of course, they don’t actually need an avocado–they have plenty. But still, he’s running a deficit.
That’s what the US is doing. We’re trading good for capital. That capital we can subsequently invest, growing our economy. It’s really not that big a deal.
Trump is right when he says American companies pay higher corporate taxes than other companies do internationally. That’s why so many American companies are moving off shore. Trump wants to cut the corporate tax rate, a reform I’m actually okay with. And he says he’s going to cut middle class taxes. And rich peoples’ taxes, too. Without cutting spending, and while increasing spending on the military and infrastructure. Yeah, that’s all gonna be real sustainable.
Anyway, that’s Trump’s speech. He hardly ever actually identifies a real-life, honest to goodness problem. His ‘crises’ are straight from his own dystopic imaginings. And so his solutions have the same fairy-tale quality. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and he has no idea what to do about it. Someone wrote him a pretty speech, and he read it competently. That doesn’t make him “presidential.”