Donald Trump’s State of the Union address was far more than the usual laundry list of policy proposals and heartwarming moments with heroes from the balcony (although both were much in evidence). With this address, he honed and perfected his pitch for another term and for the future of American politics. The 2020 SOTU was the fullest expression of Donald Trump’s governing philosophy we have seen to date.
In essence, the president told Americans that he agrees with Democrats that we need a big, energetic government, but not their kind of big, energetic government. With Trump you’re getting economic nationalism, patriotism, an emphasis on American accomplishment rather than failures, celebration of American civil religion rather than a renunciation of it, and a bold, ambitious outreach to African-Americans.
In essence, he’s saying, “We can talk about history or we can make history going forward. Which do you prefer?” He clearly believes (with some evidence) that he is opening a new period in African-American prosperity through his protection of the American working class.
This last part is critical. You can either turn your magnifying glass on 1619 with the New York Times and the Democratic Party as you try to deconstruct America and all its promise, or you can use 1776 as a base from which to build. Notably, Trump spent little time bemoaning problems of over-incarceration and a malfunctioning criminal justice system with adverse racial impact. Instead, he became the president who actually achieved the first major steps to reform.
Trump clearly believes the answer to America’s tragedies in the past is a bright future explicitly for Americans, including African-Americans. His version of that future involves American citizens working to produce American goods rather than legions of disenfranchised persons living on a universal basic income with a highly developed knowledge of why capitalism is racist, predatory, and destroying the environment. The vision is more fundamentally positive (despite the occasional belligerence of the messenger) than it is critical.
At the same time, Trump is throwing away the Republican-libertarian emphasis on small government, which has typically been more honored through lip service than through concrete policy. He is offering more benefits, more protection, and more cooperation between the public and private sector.
He wants big, active government, but not run by the secular liberals. Rather, he is proposing big, active government the way regular folks (as he sees it) want it. This government will offer family leave to parents and intervene in a health care marketplace that has operated in arcane ways Americans find difficult to understand and navigate.
The sustainability and advisability of the pivot toward more government is an open question, but if he can offer a more attractive vision of big government (not the anti-patriotic, anti-religious version), then he may entice Americans to pay for it over time. The new ingredient here is that the bigger government will be one that embraces American ideals, American history, and American religion rather than tearing it down in pursuit of some post-religious techno-secular utopia.
There is a sense here in which Trump’s vision (try not to choke on this) is similar to that set forth by Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his Four Freedoms and his New Deal. The idea, then, is that, as a good and blessed country, America can provide for the safety and well-being of its citizens. It doesn’t have to be steeped in critical theory to do it.
There was a time when a great many religious Americans bought into energetic government. They may do so again if they don’t see that government as an enemy seeking to rout them from the field.
A couple of big questions remain. At the moment the prospect of building out a new direction in American politics may be brightest, one wonders whether Trump will be able to tolerate political prosperity. Any other candidate with his economic record would be sailing to re-election. He has put off many Americans, especially women, so badly with his rhetoric and aggressiveness that he isn’t the lock to win that others would be.
Just as he is beginning to crest the wave after impeachment, a successful SOTU, and Iowa’s disarray, one can’t help but wonder whether he’ll be able to maintain a more statesmanlike pose. Not addressing impeachment in the SOTU was a start. We’ll see if it lasts.
The other big question has to do with whether Republicans will sustain movement in the same direction after a possible Trump second term. It may take a sui generis figure to bring about a sui generis politics. Sen. Josh Hawley looks like a potential successor. Sen. Marco Rubio may be making some of that noise, as well. The Reaganesque rugged individualism ideal will likely contend with Trumpian American solidarity for leadership in a post-Trump political landscape on the Republican side.