A strategy laid bare: Trump sees value in national division

When the nation's highest civilian honor went to a right-wing media personality, it served as an oddly appropriate capstone to Trump's broader goals.
Image: *** BESTPIX *** President Trump Gives State Of The Union Address
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) attempts to shake hands with President Donald Trump at the beginning of the State of the Union address on February 04, 2020 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

At an event in Michigan last week, Donald Trump referenced the U.S. House vote on impeachment and how pleased he was with the final vote tally. "We won 196 to nothing," the president said. For emphasis, he added soon after, "196 to nothing."

In reality, the vote on the first article of impeachment was 230 to 197, while the vote on the second article was 229 to 198. But in Trump's mind, it was a shutout in the other direction -- because the votes from the Democrats and Congress' lone independent, in a rather literal sense, didn't count.

I thought of this watching Donald Trump's State of the Union address because it was a continuation of the theme: the president seems vaguely aware of the existence of his political opponents, but he's convinced himself that they simply don't count, and as a consequence, there's no point in acknowledging them, reaching out to them, or trying to find common ground with them.

In 2020, the state of our union is bitter, but that's not an accident of circumstance; it's the end result of a deliberate strategy, hatched by a president who believes toxicity works in his favor.

I don't generally see political developments the way the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan does, but her reaction to Donald Trump's State of the Union rang true:

"This is a big night, a cleaved down the middle night with no one trying to hide the divide. No ameliorating courtesy, no enacting of formal regard. Just the great divide, unhidden and out there for all the world to see."

There was no meaningful pretext. The president, poised to be acquitted in an impeachment trial led in part by Senate jurors who've acknowledged his guilt, saw value last night in trying to tear the country apart -- confident that his chunk would be bigger than his rivals'.

He lied about matters large and small. He refused to shake House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's outstretched hand. He talked up a divisive culture war. He saw no need to extend an olive branch to his partisan foes -- those who happen to hold the majority of one chamber of Congress -- because he apparently didn't care if they were inclined to accept it.

When First Lady Melania Trump put the nation's highest civilian honor around the neck of a right-wing media personality, it served as an oddly appropriate capstone to the president's broader goals. The New York Times reported:

In an unusual departure from protocol, Rush Limbaugh was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Trump during the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, one day after the conservative talk show host revealed that he had advanced lung cancer.

Mr. Limbaugh, 69, sat next to the first lady, Melania Trump, in the gallery of the House of Representatives, where he joined Venezuela's opposition leader, a top border patrol agent and several other guests of Mr. Trump.... The first lady presented the medal, which is usually bestowed during a ceremony at the White House, to Mr. Limbaugh.

Limbaugh's rhetorical record is too lengthy to review in a single blog post, but a compelling Media Matters' assessment noted that Trump "conferred one of the nation's great civilian honors upon a man who has trafficked in hate and is responsible for some of the most vile degradations of the nation's political discourse."

As disappointing as it may be to see the president cheapen the Medal of Freedom -- again -- it wasn't exactly surprising. Limbaugh is on Trump's "team," and last night's national address was intended to send a signal that the president is indifferent to those who are not.

It's also a sign of things to come. Election Day is 39 weeks away, and Trump used his State of the Union address to signal his intentions: the next nine months will be devoted to motivating the Republican Party's far-right base, ensuring they're both satisfied and electrified.

Buckle up.

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