By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – If there was one overarching takeaway from President Donald Trump’s first official State of the Union address, it was this.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
It’s an election year.
In the days before the speech, the president’s staffers had said it would serve to pull together a deeply divided America. They hinted the address would present a kinder, gentler Trump, one who would strike a more conciliatory tone.
That didn’t really happen.
Although the president made a head feint or two in the direction of bipartisan cooperation, the bulk of his speech focused on appealing to key elements of his base and other Republican constituencies. He was less bombastic than he often is on Twitter or at his ongoing campaign rallies, but he wasn’t exactly Mr. Rogers.
He did make calls for unity and bipartisan cooperation, but he preceded or followed them with rhetoric designed to inflame his base and enrage his opponents.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the part that was the heart of his address – the extended section on immigration and immigration reform.
He began his appeal for his immigration reform package by saluting the parents of two girls murdered by a gang of undocumented immigrants in Long Island. Then, he implied that all undocumented immigrants – including the “dreamers” – were criminals, thus justifying his often-radioactive rhetoric on the issue.
It was an odd argument, for a couple of reasons.
The first is that, logically, implicating all members of any demographic for the actions of individuals makes about as much sense as arguing that all U.S. military veterans must be deranged terrorists because Timothy McVeigh served in the armed forces before setting off the bomb that killed men, women and children in Oklahoma City.
The second reason it didn’t make much sense is that it was bound to infuriate the Democrats whose votes Trump needs to pass his immigration package. Angry people don’t listen very well, which makes persuading them difficult.
Maybe, though, that was the point.
Part of the president’s immigration plan involves allowing 1.8 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. That piece of the plan is anathema to Trump’s most devoted supporters, who see it as both amnesty and a reward for bad behavior.
To make an offer to his opponents, he first had to reassure his most devout supporters that he still was one of them.
That was the way it went for much of the hour-and-20-minute speech. With one hand, the president offered a warm wave of welcome. With the other, he extended a middle finger.
He touted America’s economic recovery without acknowledging that the most spectacular job gains and stock market spikes took place before he took office. He boasted of his foreign-policy prowess without once mentioning Russia and the ongoing investigations into his alleged ties with that nation. He lauded his efforts at reforming government performance without acknowledging his attempts and acts to fire subordinates who balk at pledging undying fealty to him.
None of this should be surprising.
Even when he’s on his best behavior – as he was Tuesday night – Trump is still Trump, the most polarizing figure in modern political history.
His speech reflected that.
Those Americans who love Donald Trump doubtless still love him after watching it. And those who oppose him didn’t hear anything to change their minds.
And those voters who haven’t made up their minds about him – some polls suggest there may be as many as two of them – probably spent the night with ear muffs on, just trying to make the noise stop.
That’s why the president’s speech did make sense in political terms.
Winning political strategies in this new era focus less on persuading undecideds (because there are fewer and fewer of them) and more on motivating one’s own base while discouraging the other party’s.
The real goal of the president’s speech was to touch as many sweet spots as possible with his base and sow confusion on the other side of the divide. He stirred up his supporters and tried to inoculate himself and them from charges that they’re dividing the country.
It really wasn’t about public policy. It was about politics.
But this, of course, is an election year.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.