Should Democrats Have Sat Through the State of the Union?

No, They Shouldn’t Have Showed Up in the First Place
U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he delivers his first State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress January 30 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Applauding behind Trump is Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a Catholic. (CNS photo/Win McNamee pool via Reuters)

About halfway through President Trump’s dreadfully long, low-energy State of the Union address Tuesday night, I asked myself a question: why am I watching this?

Anyone who joined me in sitting through the speech was reminded that Trump is a pathological liar and shameless demagogue. He repeated obviously made-up claims, like the assertion that the recently passed tax cuts were the largest in history—as any informed person knows, they aren’t. He misled viewers through his frequent omissions: never mentioned was how disproportionately these tax cuts benefit the wealthiest Americans, or what programs would eventually be slashed to pay for them.

But attempting to fact-check Trump, as we know, is almost beside the point. His lies are so many and so frequent, and his ignorance so vast, that the task truly is never-ending. Last month, Esquire announced that Trump had blurted out his “2000th lie in office.” No one seems to really care, or at least no one in the Republican Party or much of the right-wing press. We knew before he was elected that Trump was a liar. The journalists who continue to dutifully correct his lies are doing important work, but as a political matter, is it even relevant? Trump was elected after making ludicrous promises, like claiming that Mexico would pay for a wall along our southern border. He was elected after he was caught admitting to sexual assault on tape. He defied nearly every “norm” that previous candidates, whatever their other sins, had adhered to. If fact-checking truly mattered, someone else would have given the State of the Union this week.

One lie, however, deserves special attention: his contention that a “a single immigrant” could lead to “virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives” coming to the United States through what’s properly called family reunification, or what the GOP calls “chain migration.” He coupled the demonizing rhetoric with demagoguery, inviting the families of two young women killed by MS-13 gang members in Long Island to be in the gallery and calling on Congress “to finally close the deadly loopholes” that let such gangs “break into our country.”

But as a leading researcher on Central American gangs pointed out in the Washington Post, the “estimated 10,000 MS-13 gang members in the United States account for less than 1 percent of the estimated 1.4 million total gang members in the country.” What Trump did was scapegoat all Latino immigrants on prime-time television. It was shameless to use victims as props, and to deploy the pomp of the occasion to make it all seem “presidential”—a designation too many in the press reached for after the speech.

A speech filled with lies, one that sought to stoke bigotry and fear against Latinos, has actually redounded to Trump and the GOP’s political advantage.

Despite all this, Trump’s immigration proposal, as Thomas Edsall explained in the New York Times, “has put Democrats in a bind; they know it and he knows it.” Why such a proposal is being taken at face value is beyond my comprehension; we know Trump is incapable of keeping his word, and is so ignorant and incompetent that it will be impossible for him to defend and advocate for such proposals in any policy negotiations. But Trump’s framing of the issue—the offer he made during the State of the Union—is shaping up as problem for Democrats, according to Edsall:

He proposes to more than double the number of Dreamers granted a path to citizenship, a significant concession to Democrats.
 

In return, he seeks approval of a set of policies strongly opposed by the left, each of which is designed to stem what Trump sees as a threatening increase in the nonwhite population of the United States.

In other words, a speech filled with lies, one that sought to stoke bigotry and fear against Latinos, has actually redounded to Trump and the GOP’s political advantage.

Which is why, even as I asked myself why I was watching the speech, I began to think: What if in the first place all of the Democrats had stayed away? At least eleven of them boycotted the address; imagine Trump delivering his misleading and divisive speech to a half-empty chamber. The visuals would have been striking. It would have dominated discussion for days, giving Democrats the chance to say forcefully why they made such a move. Rather than merely reacting to Trump’s gambit, they could have gone on the offensive and laid out an alternative to the president’s plans. And they would have unambiguously proven to their constituents, especially immigrants and those who will bear the brunt of Trump’s economic plans, whose side they’re on. Left-leaning activists and the party’s base would have thrilled to such a display of backbone. Yet instead, Democrats sat there sullenly when Trump talked about standing for the National Anthem and clapped at the occasionally unobjectible applause line.

As Damon Linker noted afterward, “The mind-warping weirdness of the Trump era is never more apparent than when the president attempts to enact one of the highly formal, choreographed events in the theater of American democracy.” Trump “stood before Congress and the nation and spoke, like all presidents do, of wanting to unite the country. With his every utterance  he demonstrated just how hollow these gestures toward unity have become.”

Democrats shouldn’t have played along. They shouldn’t have taken part in the pageantry that only served to give Trump a sheen of normalcy and the trappings of responsible leadership.

But apparently the speech was a hit. Admittedly those who watched skewed toward Trump supporters and Republicans, but 75 percent of viewers approved of the speech. All the fact-checking turned out not to matter. The lies didn’t hurt Trump. The demagoguery redounded to his advantage. And the Democrats sat there, some with glum faces of course, passively listening to it all.

And let’s be honest. The State of the Union, in its current form, is more fitting for the subjects of a monarch than citizens of a republic. The sniveling adoration of Dear Leader always is disgusting; as long as Trump is president, it’s genuinely degrading. This was the year to change that.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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