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Trump was trying to channel Reagan. He sounded more like Nixon

You would think one of the president’s advisers would have warned him

President Donald Trump gestures to House Democrats during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump gestures to House Democrats during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION  — “The state of our union is strong.” It is the line that is prominently featured in the speech of every president when he (and so far, it’s been a he) stands before Congress for a political ritual that remains impressive. Political theater? Sure, and why not. A country without a monarch craves a little pomp now and again, no matter the partisan sniping that precedes and follows it.

But what does that statement actually mean once the booming chants of “USA, USA” — which are sounding more aggressive than affirming lately — fade?

It was in the news, briefly and certainly not prominently enough in a country that considers itself a beacon, that our government has misplaced children. The Trump administration has said it can’t guarantee that all the children and parents separated at the southern border will ever be reunited. In fact, while the political parties and the president haggle over the type and price of border security, the administration admits that bringing families back together is not a priority and may not be a possibility.

Is that a sign of a strong union or one that has forgotten the values that make it strong?

In response to an ACLU lawsuit challenging the government’s separation of thousands of children at the border since 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement shared that information, as well as the estimate of “thousands” of children, the number before the administration’s 2018 “zero tolerance” policy was put into place.

Jonathan White, who heads HHS efforts to reunite parents with children placed in “sponsor” homes, said removing the children “would present grave child welfare concerns,” according to an Associated Press report. He said that “it would destabilize the permanency of their existing home environment, and could be traumatic to the children.”

One would think the trauma occurred when children were taken from parents and placed with sponsors, be they other relatives or a foster family. But that cruelty, it would seem, was the point of a punitive policy to discourage migrants from seeking asylum at the southern border.

The president’s speech Tuesday night doubled down on his rhetoric about the dangers of illegal immigration at the southern border that he believes should prompt quick action on his demands for a wall. His facts have been challenged — a lot. For example, though Trump uses El Paso, Texas, as a poster child for a barrier’s effectiveness, the county’s sheriff says the city was safe long before a wall was constructed.

It’s more accurate to judge the speech less as a state of what our union believes than as a preview of the divisive social issues on which the 2020 presidential race will certainly be built whether or not a wall is. That the president’s properties recently have been firing members of their undocumented workforce proves just how cynical the message may be.

What about the values of honesty and transparency? While Trump was reaching toward the lofty sentiments that marked the speeches of a Ronald Reagan, who, interestingly, was born on Feb. 6 in 1911, the president instead channeled former President Richard M. Nixon’s pre-resignation State of the Union, which cautioned against continuing the Watergate probe.

You would think one of the president’s advisers would have warned him against risking that comparison by saying that one of the things standing in the way of America’s progress would be “ridiculous partisan investigations” — or, in other words, the House of Representatives doing its long-neglected duty of oversight of the executive branch. That comment resulted in one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s more obvious eye rolls, and not even all of the usually applauding Republicans were on board.

But while you could argue that the outreach was less than advertised and the partisan finger-pointing as strong as ever in the very long speech, Trump did tout a bipartisan success, one that took a first step in advancing criminal justice reform. It offers, perhaps, one hope for those hoping for something meaningful to get done in the two remaining years of the president’s first term, which will be chock-full of campaigning that will keep what seems like half of the Senate — including declared and undeclared candidates — busy.

Stacey Abrams, in her Democratic response, presented her criticism with an optimistic face. Her opening, very human anecdote of her family, one that “went back and forth between lower middle class and working class,” illuminated the too often ignored black and brown folks who make up a large part of the hard-working, “working-class” American archetype.

She mentioned party priorities — gun control, climate change, health care reform and more — that differ from the GOP agenda, and emphasized her leadership on the issue of voting rights that has Democrats and Republicans battling in states across the country. She also offered a challenge for the president she is “disappointed” in: “I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties, and respect the extraordinary diversity that defines America.”

Returning to those all-American values — truth, justice, diversity — is a lot to ask of the same Donald Trump for whom the insult Tweet is an art form.

But there’s always infrastructure.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3. 

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