Donald Trump’s State of the Union address pulled off the unusual feat of being both boring and frightening. With a style that screamed “written by committee,” the speech lacked Trump’s improvisations and inventions that have so enlivened our political scene over the last few years. Instead, it contained an unrelenting stream of policy horror stories. Throughout the speech, Trump made promise after promise that portend truly frightening developments in American politics.
The most dystopian of these proposals centered on the “four pillars” of Trump’s immigration plan. These are, roughly, a path to citizenship for undocumented young people, a border wall, new restrictions on green cards, and much harsher rules for family reunification. Besides these pillars, Trump also promised to hire more federal immigration agents, elsewhere putting the number to be brought on at ten thousand, a 50 percent increase in the agency’s personnel.
While the first pillar sounds like a compromise proposal to protect the “Dreamers,” who enjoy wide support in public opinion polls, the rest of the plan would rely on the first pillar’s implicit “good immigrant/bad immigrant” premise to impose even harsher conditions on immigrants trying to reach or already living in the US. The border wall would simply push migration to the most desolate and dangerous areas of the border, expanding the unofficial graveyard that the border has become since Bill Clinton’s first shot of border militarization in the 1990s. The restricted family unification rules would help ensure immigrants who come to the US remain more socially isolated, while ICE expansion would grow the ranks of the body snatchers already devastating communities across the country.
Trump promised to supplement terror at home with terror abroad. He called for pouring even more money into the military’s coffers, and specifically pledged to “rebuild” the country’s nuclear arsenal. The current arsenal of nearly seven thousand nuclear weapons (enough to destroy every city on the planet larger than Edison, New Jesey) is, apparently, insufficient, while some unspecified larger amount would finally constitute an effective deterrent.
Trump also left no doubts as to who these new nukes would be pointed at, spending several minutes denouncing North Korea. Though recent developments on the peninsula have tended to underline decreasing US influence, Trump seems determined to put the US back in the driver’s seat through constantly increasing bellicosity, a plan that appears likely to succeed only in making both the Koreas and the world more broadly more dangerous.
As terrifying as the vision Trump laid out for the country last night, what was most telling in his speech was what was absent from it. The anti-establishment broadsides that were such a defining feature of Trump’s campaign, as well as much of his presidency, were nowhere to be found. Far from pursuing the right-wing populist agenda that allowed him to destroy his Republican primary opponents, Trump has embraced policies that might have come from any of them. Entering office with calls to “drain the swamp,” Trump now wallows in the muck.
Elites have not left Trump’s newfound appreciation for their agenda unrewarded. Won over by massive tax cuts and deregulation, the business community is more than willing to overlook the gaucherie of Trump’s war on immigrants or flirtation with the far right.
What this suggests is that, barring always-possible deviations from this course by Trump himself, it is likely that the intensity of elite opposition to his presidency will wane, and attempts to portray him as out of the mainstream of American politics will find less and less purchase. There is still a massive constituency for opposing Trump’s policies, from immigrant bashing to giveaways to the rich to his quiet resuscitation of anti-LGBT measures, but attempts to mobilize that constituency on the basis of Trump’s violation of a supposed national consensus will continue to fall flat.