Donald Trump struggles in many areas, but when it comes to the politics of division, the president is a master. He rose to political prominence by championing a racist conspiracy theory against the nation’s first African-American president, and soon after advanced his Republican candidacy through ugly and divisive appeals.
And yet, there was the president yesterday at a luncheon with journalists, previewing his State of the Union address, and touching on a theme he said is important to him. “I would love to be able to bring back our country into a great form of unity,” Trump said. “Without a major event where people pull together, that’s hard to do. But I would like to do it without that major event because usually that major event is not a good thing.”The president read a more articulate version of this sentiment from his trusted teleprompter last night:
“[I]t is not enough to come together only in times of tragedy. Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people. This is really the key. These are the people we were elected to serve. […]
“Americans love their country, and they deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return. For the last year, we have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government.”
To be sure, it was a bit jarring to hear a president who tends to lie uncontrollably talk about restoring “the bonds of trust.” Similarly, it seemed bizarre for Trump to talk about summoning “unity” after recently denouncing Democrats as mindless obstructionists who are determined to undermine our troops and who want dangerous criminals to pour into the United States from foreign lands.
But to appreciate the inherent contradictions of the president’s message, one need not consider recent history – because the speech itself stepped on the message Trump ostensibly considered important. He wants Americans to set aside differences and “seek out common ground,” but in the same State of the Union address, the president embraced his standard culture-war tactics, relying on demagoguery to present immigrants as dangerous, chastising “Obamacare,” and taking a not-so-subtle shot at athletes who protest against racism.
In other words, Trump sees himself as a leader who’ll advance the nation toward “a great form of unity,” but he hasn’t the foggiest idea how to achieve such a goal and seems wholly uninterested in figuring it out. The result was a president who lamented disunity while taking steps to make it worse.
At its root, part of the problem is that Trump doesn’t fully appreciate what “unity” means. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump did a nice job explaining the president’s perspective:
A president sincerely looking to unify with the opposition would probably be more deliberate about not saying things that intentionally irritate them. He would also, over the first year of his presidency, have advocated policy positions that weren’t almost uniformly ones that meet only the desires of his base of support.
Trump’s rhetoric on unity has never been sincere. Trump sees political agreement in the same way he sees the Justice Department or the military: as something that is owed to him as president. Trump’s calls for unity are calls for the United States to support him and acquiesce to his policy goals…. He keeps giving speeches in which he calls for America to unite around him – and then keeps reminding Americans why they don’t want to.
Ultimately, however, the man can only suppress his instincts for so long. To this extent, Trump’s State of the Union address was emblematic of his presidency: dishonest, hollow, lacking in substance, and eager to drive a wedge between his perceived friends and enemies.