(President Trump delivers the 2020 State of the Union Address)
On February 4 I had the distinct honor of attending the annual State of the Union address, thanks to an invitation from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Trinity’ 62). I’ve been to several of these occasions previously, and as someone who feels deeply devoted to the rituals and symbols of our Democracy, I feel honor-bound to attend whenever I get such a rare invitation regardless of the party in power. We citizens need to uphold our precious traditions of freedom and self-governance — and perhaps even more so in troubled times such as those we are living through right now.
While I attended with a sense of honor as well as duty, I did not find this occasion to be uplifting — indeed, I found it deeply troubling. While I know that every president throughout history has relished the opportunity to rabble-rouse his political supporters at the expense of the opposition party, the display this year seemed far more than the typical stand-up-and-cheer that is customary at these affairs. Perhaps it was because I was seated in the gallery directly above the Republican side of the chamber, but there were moments when the raucous cheering and chanting from that side of the house seemed more like a high school boys’ locker room than simply partisan displays among members of Congress. The president clearly egged-on the cheering and chanting, delivering a series of one-liners of dubious factual basis, and after each one he stepped back from the podium, turned to that side of the house and waved his arms as a coach encouraging his team to demonstrate in his favor. One or two such displays, fine, but this went on and on. The other side of the chamber, dominated by nearly 100 Democratic women wearing white symbolic of the women’s suffrage movement that is 100 years old this year, mostly sat in stony silence, rising only occasionally to clap for some unassailably good moment such as saluting the widow of an Afghanistan veteran who gave his life for our country.
President Trump’s speech lacked any real content, and instead, was largely devoted to disparaging achievements of his predecessors while claiming achievements for himself that were largely unfounded. There is something so depressing about a leader who finds it necessary to trash his predecessors all the time; that’s not strength, that’s pettiness.
I kept listening for some new policy proposals, and particularly for something new for education. Instead, I was alarmed to hear the president refer to “failing government schools” to state his support for legislation on school choice, known as opportunity scholarships. The young woman he singled-out as the example of someone attending a “failing government school” in fact attends a highly sought-after charter school in Philadelphia, so his example was all wrong. But more seriously, while opportunity scholarships may be a valid way to expand school choice, it’s incomprehensible for the President of the United States to attack all public schools as “failing government schools” — a statement that is not truthful nor constructive in the policy discussion about improving public education. Cheap shots are no way to make education policy.
In the only other education reference in his entire speech, the president also claimed credit for funding Historically Black Colleges and Universities — yes, that’s right, I had to read the transcript to be sure I heard him correctly. He did sign the FUTURE act which funds STEM programs at HBCUs, but his claims seem to sweep well beyond that single item. More disappointing, the President did not mention any other policy priorities for higher education in his entire speech — nothing about Pell grants, student loans, research funding, or other initiatives that are important not only for colleges and universities but for the citizens of this nation to continue academic and intellectual advancement.
It was depressing to hear the President of the United States use the phrase “illegal aliens” several times in the speech as a derogatory epithet against people who make perilous journeys in search of a better life in a nation that once was a beacon of hope for them. Calling for an end to healthcare for undocumented persons while touting the benefits of spending money on building the wall is deeply perverse, a morally vacuous pandering for votes among people whose deep hatred of others gets reinforced every time this president speaks.
But the most depressing, surreal moment of the night by far was the president’s decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, a radio personality whose entire claim to fame is spreading hatred and fear in some of America’s darkest, most ignorant corners. Over the years, true American heroes have received this award — Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Helen Keller, Edward R. Murrow, Marian Anderson, Toni Morrison, so many other distinguished citizens of great accomplishment for our nation and world. Using the State of the Union address as a platform to give this award to someone who traffics constantly in racist, misogynist, homophobic commentary misused the stage of the assembled Congress and debased the award itself.
I think future presidents should end the practice of using people as props at the State of the Union. The theatrics distract from the main point of the address, which should be for the president to present his policy agenda for Congressional consideration. In fact, it’s not really necessary for the address to occur in-person at all, and given this year’s lack of substance and use of the moment as a political show, perhaps the event no longer has a purpose beyond partisanship.
Partisanship certainly has its place in American politics, but the State of the Union address is not the place. Using a stage as important as the assembled House and Senate to drive wedges even deeper only serves to continue the fragmentation of our fragile national union. If dis-union was the president’s purpose, he succeeded. Sadly, he made no effort at unity, offered no outreach to those who might disagree, provided no common ground for Americans to set aside differences to work together for improvements on the many issues that need our collective effort. President Trump’s speech of February 4 was all about the State of our Dis-Union — we are waiting for a president who can restore the true purpose of speaking about the state of the union.
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