Opinion: Trump’s dark speech contained a ray of light
Washington — My professional opinion? It was a below-average State of the Union address in a long, distinguished tradition of below-average State of the Union addresses. The speech was prosaic, disjointed and mediocre in theory and execution. But adjectives fail me. It is like a restaurant critic trying to analyze green Jell-O with carrot shavings in it. I realize that some people like it, but it is still green Jell-O with carrot shavings in it.
Let’s imagine you are a graduate student in the future who can only get a Ph.D. by reading Tuesday night’s remarks. (This is the only reason I can imagine that anyone in the future would read it.) What principles and ideas would it convey?
The packaging — the call for healing and unity — is a very typical Trumpian ploy. His outreach will last only until there is some black athlete to bully, some woman to demean, some tragedy useful to feed ethnic prejudice. Anyone who entertains the notion that President Trump might be sincere should have the word “sucker” tattooed on his or her forehead for cable news purposes.
The largest chunk of the speech was devoted to his immigrant obsession. With Trump, when you strip away all the hatred and fearmongering, there is always another layer of hatred and fearmongering beneath. But why give the wall and immigration such prominence? It is hard to picture a political consultant saying to Trump: “Your majesty, I think we should try the same message that was repudiated decisively in the 2018 midterm election and is ruining the Republican brand for a generation. The 79th time always does the trick.”
No, Trump is actually pushing against the views of a majority of the American people. Does this indicate that it is a matter of principle? This is hard to imagine, since Trump once attacked presidential candidate Mitt Romney for being too tough on immigrants shortly after the 2012 election. Trump has no ideology that would reliably predict any view on this matter.
With Trump, all politics is personal. So he likely presses on with his anti-immigrant campaign for two personal reasons:
First, he probably thinks he will be judged as a loser if he leaves office without substantial progress on the wall. And he would be judged a loser. Democrats know this, and have the upper hand.
Second, the enthusiasm of his political base may be the only thing that stands between him and impeachment. Some elected Republicans would happily turn against Trump if they were not in abject fear of angering the GOP base. So Trump must keep the base happy at all costs.
Other parts of Trump’s speech were incoherent — or at least dependent on Google being broken down. He claims he wants high levels of legal immigration, even though he has proposed to slash legal immigration. He called for action on AIDS and childhood cancer, though he once proposed an 18 percent cut for the National Institutes of Health. He attacked partial-birth abortion, even though he once supported the procedure. And when Trump issues a call to bipartisanship, it is like a murderer speaking at the funeral of his victim.
Yet — and actually a pretty big yet — there were rays of light, made even brighter by the utter darkness surrounding them. Trump’s calls to defeat AIDS and fight childhood cancer are truly admirable. On AIDS in particular, the combination of early treatment (which reduces infection) and PrEP (which protects from infection) are making the end of AIDS a realistic goal. Cities such as Washington and San Francisco have shown that, by focusing interventions in the “hot spots” of new infection, rapid progress is possible. Trying to do the same on a national level is a very good idea.
Implementing this approach is the hard part. But there are very serious people involved. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and NIH’s Tony Fauci deserve particular credit for getting this issue before the president. And it speaks well of Trump that he included it the speech.
These health proposals show the power of the presidency at its best — the power to set shared, unexpected moral goals. And that is one power Trump should wield more often.
• Michael Gerson is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.