When President Donald Trump began the 2020 State of the Union, a chant broke out among the assembled Republican members of Congress: “Four more years! Four more years!” The chant turned the subtext of the speech into the text: This is the formal launch of Trump’s reelection campaign.
Not that it wasn’t obvious from the speech itself. Trump spent a good chunk of the speech reciting impressive-sounding economic statistics, and other parts handing out money and awards to individuals and causes that make him look good to various parts of the electorate. He took a number of swipes at socialism in various forms, an unsubtle signal as to how he plans to attack Sen. Bernie Sanders in the quite plausible event he’ll be the Democratic presidential nominee.
In some ways, it was surprising in its restraint — there was not one mention of the Iowa caucus debacle or his imminent acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial. In other ways, it was an unrestrained expression of Trump’s game-show presidency (more on that below). It was low-key by Trump standards for the most part but also contained some truly ugly moments.
What follows is our sense of the highs and the lows, who (and what) came out looking better by the end of the night — and who (or what) did not.
Winner: Trump’s reelection campaign
If there is one theme that President Trump hammered hardest on Tuesday night, it is that the economy is great. That also happens to be true, which makes Trump’s address — the official kickoff to his reelection campaign — a success.
In typical Trump faction, he sometimes overreached in the specifics. “In eight years under the last administration, over 300,000 working-age people dropped out of the workforce,” he told the assembled members of Congress. “In just three years of my administration, 3.5 million working-age people have joined the workforce.” The numbers here aren’t precisely apples to apples, but more to the point, what Trump is observing is that Barack Obama took office as the worst recession in a generation was worsening, whereas Trump took office as the economy is booming. That’s not solely Obama’s fault nor to Trump’s credit.
But the state of the economy now is somewhat to Trump’s credit, and some of his more ambitious brags fit the data. He really does have the lowest average unemployment of any president since official record-keeping began under Eisenhower (though he did lie and say “in the history of our country”):
Trump is correct that he has the lowest average monthly unemployment rate on record, through this point in a presidential term, but the record goes back to the Eisenhower administration, not the history of the country. pic.twitter.com/Z3NWT1WzEs— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) February 5, 2020
Nor is this merely dumb luck. Trump, despite tremendous criticism for violating norms around Fed independence, has consistently pressured his Fed chair, Jay Powell, to lower rates and keep them low to enable the unemployment rate to stay low and the workforce to grow.
That, plus the fiscal stimulus of Trump’s tax cuts, has combined to juice the economy considerably. It’s not an accident: It’s deliberate policy, and, at least in the case of the Fed, it’s good policy.
This success means very good things for his reelection odds. Decades of political science work on election forecasting implies that presidents running for reelection enjoy an incumbency advantage, that a strong economy helps the incumbent’s party, and that high levels of US military fatalities hurt the incumbent’s party.
Trump is the incumbent, the economy is growing while unemployment stays very low, and despite some close calls, he hasn’t started new wars or expanded existing ones in ways that kill a lot of US service members.
So his State of the Union was a reminder that he has engineered fundamentals that mark him as the clear favorite as we head to November.
Loser (sort of): Socialism
This one is a bit complicated. On the one hand, socialism really did come in for a lambasting in Trump’s address — a theme personified by the appearance of special guest Juan Guaidó, the young Venezuelan opposition leader/president-in-exile who challenged Nicolás Maduro, the country’s socialist dictator. There are few ways to discredit socialism more effectively than by connecting it to Venezuela’s humanitarian catastrophe.
On the other hand, there’s a case to be made that socialism came out ahead on this night. It is perhaps the greatest sign of the American socialist movement’s recent success that the incumbent president felt it necessary to spend much of his annual address to the nation condemning the ideology.
Socialism has become increasingly popular with younger Americans, as seen in the rise of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You could argue that the socialists are not on the fringes anymore, they are winning converts, and you can see the results in Trump’s anti-socialist rhetoric.
Indeed, much of the rhetoric wouldn’t feel out of place in a speech by Ohio Republican Sen. Robert Taft from 1950. “One hundred thirty-two lawmakers in this room have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our health care system, wiping out the private health insurance plans of 180 million Americans,” Trump declared, wielding the s-word in an effort to discredit Medicare-for-all. “To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know: We will never let socialism destroy American health care!”
That said, connecting Venezuelan socialism to American socialism was a more effective rhetorical device than the old-and-busted “socialized medicine” routine. Who knows if it will actually prove effective with voters, but it’s an anti-socialist barrage that stood out.
Winner: Trump, the greatest showman
If in 2014, I told you that the host of Celebrity Apprentice, also known for a key guest appearance in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, was running for president, and I asked you to imagine what an out-of-control game show host would do once in power, you would probably say something like “use the State of the Union for weird stunt surprises that shock and thrill the audience.”
And, my god, did that manic game show host deliver.
Tuesday night did not only feature the surprise awarding of a Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh (Rush Limbaugh!), right in the middle of the speech, by the first lady, but it involved the most Oprah-esque segment of any presidential speech in memory: After praising North Carolina mother Amy Williams, who “works full time, and volunteers countless hours helping other military families … while her husband, Sgt. First Class Townsend Williams, is in Afghanistan on his fourth deployment to the Middle East,” Trump … revealed Sgt. First Class Townsend Williams.
That’s right. In the middle of the speech, he surprised a military spouse by bringing back her husband from a tour of duty, and had the whole nation watch their emotional reunion.
This, as much as anything, is why Donald Trump is president. He may not be a great real estate investor or casino owner, but he is an incredible showman who knows how to pull off an emotionally powerful reality show segment. He also knows how to use those skills to whip up brutal prejudices and fear of outsiders, and he did that in spades on Tuesday night as well.
But you cannot deny this skill of Trump’s, and the State of the Union provided one of the most vivid reminders to date of that skill’s power.
It’s a Trump speech, so you have to expect some anti-immigrant demagoguery. But the depths and ugliness of this speech’s treatment, and what it augured for Trump’s reelection campaign, bears special mention.
The speech contained graphic descriptions of crimes allegedly committed by unauthorized immigrants, including one lengthy discussion of a “gruesome spree of deadly violence” committed by a “criminal alien” in California that Trump blamed on “an outrageous law declaring their whole State to be a sanctuary for criminal illegal immigrants.”
Not content to paint undocumented immigrants as murderers, the president also blamed them for human trafficking, drug smuggling, and sexual assault. To hear Trump tell it, America’s crime problem is really an immigration problem — which, to be clear, is not true.
But perhaps the most interesting part of Trump’s anti-immigrant tirade came during his discussion of health care — specifically, his attack on Medicare-for-all. Part of his argument against the bill was the classic “socialism is bad” stuff Dylan mentioned above. But the lengthier section attacked Sanders’s signature policy primarily as a giveaway to undocumented immigrants.
“Over 130 legislators in this chamber have endorsed legislation that would bankrupt our nation by providing free taxpayer-funded health care to millions of illegal aliens, forcing taxpayers to subsidize free care for anyone in the world who unlawfully crosses our borders,” Trump said. “These proposals would raid the Medicare benefits our seniors depend on, while acting as a powerful lure for illegal immigration.”
Trump’s argument reminds me of what scholars of European far-right parties call “welfare chauvinism”: the idea that the government ought to provide benefits to native-born citizens, but cannot and should not provide the same to foreigners within its borders because it’s too expensive and they simply don’t deserve it. Trump made this line of thinking fairly explicit in the speech.
“If forcing American taxpayers to provide unlimited free health care to illegal aliens sounds fair to you, then stand with the radical left,” he said. “But if you believe that we should defend American patients and American seniors, then stand with me and pass legislation to prohibit free government health care for illegal aliens!”
This version of the argument could prove quite effective. Historically, anti-minority sentiment has been a powerful reason white voters opposed redistributive policy like welfare and food stamp expansion. This is how Trump thinks he can beat back a populist appeal from Democrats in November: by turning the battle over the welfare state into a part of the culture war.
Back in fall 2018, conservative activist Candace Owens founded “Blexit” (black exit, like Brexit — get it?), a campaign to persuade African Americans to abandon the Democratic Party. Nobody took it very seriously at the time. And, indeed, many Trump-era efforts to court black voters have been so crass and inept as to seem more like trolling than electioneering.
But the 2020 State of the Union address featured a fairly sustained and disciplined effort to pitch Trump to African American voters. He talked about the criminal justice reform bill he signed, highlighted a student who could benefit from a school voucher program he supports, recognized a veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen, and dwelled at length on positive labor market news for black workers.
Trump is obviously going to lose the black vote in November, and lose it badly. But there is some method to the madness.
As I’ve written before, black voters were a relative bright spot for the GOP amid the disastrous 2018 midterms. Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African American gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, did 4 percentage points better with white voters in Georgia than Hillary Clinton did two years earlier, but 4 percentage points worse with black ones. Head-to-head polling matchups also generally show Trump doing slightly better with African Americans than he did in 2016. This still involves losing black voters by lopsided margins, but every vote counts, and it makes sense for Trump to do what he can to exploit that opening.
Winner: The right-wing media
Look, I get that Rush Limbaugh has a pretty advanced case of cancer. We’re not supposed to be mean to people under circumstances like those. But this is a man who has had a deeply pernicious influence on American discourse.
Limbaugh once suggested that unauthorized immigrants were spreading sexually transmitted diseases. He claimed that “feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” He renamed the NBA the “Thug Basketball Association” and asserted that “in Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering.”
This kind of ugliness — the race-baiting, the sexism, the xenophobia — is a mainstay of Limbaugh’s show. You’d think that such a record would disqualify him from any kind of celebration during a State of the Union, let alone receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The fact that Limbaugh got it anyway is not just a personal victory for him — it’s a victory for the entire alternative right-wing media ecosystem he helped pioneer. It shows the degree to which talk-radio firebrands and Fox News hosts have become integrated into the Republican establishment, unofficial branches of the party that wield tremendous influence over its operations.
It also shows the degree to which its moral counter-revolution — its constant pushback against the norms of tolerance and anti-discrimination that supposedly won out in the 1960s — has been successful. Limbaugh’s legacy will be not his own show, but a constellation of conservative pundits and personalities who have taken up similar messages and spread them in different ways. They are the people who helped lay the groundwork for Trump, priming the conservative base for the backlash politics that propelled him to the White House.
So Limbaugh’s award, while on a certain level grotesque, is on another level deeply fitting — a capstone for the movement that made Trump possible.