State of Disunion: Wall-fixated Trump roars like a paper tiger

President Donald Trump gestures as a conductor as people in the chamber sing

President Donald Trump gestures as a conductor as people in the chamber sing "Happy Birthday" to Judah Samet as he delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. Same turned 81 on Tuesday. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

Deep into Trump’s State of Union speech, when it appeared he would go longer than Putin and Castro, he bellowed anew about a big beautiful border barrier: “The proper wall was never built! I will get it built!”

Oh really? Having been thoroughly thrashed by Nancy Pelosi, how does he now propose to do it?

He never said how. Which should not have surprised us, because this manifestly weak president — with his 37 percent approval rating, with his increasingly restive Republican Senate — is just a font of empty talk. The biggest takeaway, from last night’s turgid marathon, was what he did not say. He never threatened to declare a national emergency in order to finance a wall without congressional approval, a move that would split his GOP allies and get him sued in federal court. At this point, he basically has two choices: declare an emergency (when, in truth, there’s no border emergency); or simply surrender his fantasy (as he already did, to end the shutdown), because he certainly won’t get the wall with divided rule. Heck, he didn’t get it with all-Republican rule.

So mostly what we heard last night — assuming you weren’t watching Netflix or washing your hair — was the protracted roar of a paper tiger. I don’t have the time or energy to parse all his baldfaced lies and 1/8th-truths, but, thankfully, there were a few bemusing moments, particularly when he read the few lofty words that his speechwriters had loaded onto the Teleprompter. Such as: “We must reject the politics of revenge … We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds,” and reject “pointless destruction.” All that, from a guy whose record-long shutdown, an act of pointless destruction, triggered needless pain and suffering and took $11 billion out of the economy.

This guy pitching bipartisan comity is the quintessence of black comedy. Lest we forget — and, most assuredly, we have — he said this during the ’18 State of the Union: “I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek common ground and to summon the unity we need.” Then he went back to the White House and resumed his favorite pastime, tweeting vile bile. In other words, Trump’s sporadic high-road riffs have a shorter life span than the mayfly. As Orwell taught us long ago, debased political rhetoric “is designed … to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Last night, within minutes of calling for bipartisan unity, he assailed the “ridiculous partisan investigations” — referencing the rule-of-law federal probes of his foundation, his company, his campaign, his transition, his Inauguration, and his administration — and he said that, for the sake of the economy, they all must end. Which prompted me to ask myself: Where have I heard that kind of talk before? Oh, I remember. It was Richard Nixon, during his final SOTU in 1974: “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough!”

Anyway, about the wall: It takes a lot of gall to call for unity, then proceed to lie with impunity in the service of disunity. Americans keep telling Trump that they oppose a wall — according to Gallup’s latest poll, 61 percent support buttressed border security without a dime for a wall — but Trump’s only goal is to talk a good game for his fan base. Accordingly, he poured salt in recent wounds by talking up a border crisis that does not exist. As sane Republican strategist Rick Wilson put it, the SOTU speech was “Soviet in its affront to reality.”

Trump can’t actually get his wall, so he’s relegated to stamping his feet.

Trump said that people are pouring across the southern border, but, in truth, federal authorities say that apprehensions of illegal crossings during fiscal 2017 (with a slight uptick in 2018) were at a 46-year low. Trump also said last night that “countless” Americans are being murdered by undocumented immigrants (not even bothering to fake a statistic), but, just for the sake of perspective, studies consistently show that immigrants — legal and undocumented — are less likely to commit violent crimes than native-born Americans. Indeed, the libertarian Cato Institute concluded last year that undocumented immigrants are half as likely as the native-born to be jailed.

Trump also lied with impunity about El Paso, where a limited border barrier has been built. Here’s what he said: “The border city of El Paso used to have extremely high rates of violent crime – one of the highest in the entire country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, immediately upon the building (my emphasis) with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country.” It’s amazing how many lies he can pack into two sentences. In truth, violent crimes in El Paso peaked in 1993, and dropped by 34 percent between that year and 2006. Barrier construction in El Paso didn’t begin until 2008.

Richard Neustadt, the renowned political scholar, famously observed that “presidential power is the power to persuade.” By that measure, Trump at the midpoint of his term, is basically powerless. Nothing he said last night — about the fantasy wall, or anything else — is likely to sway a single skeptic. He noted that, under the provisions that ended his recent shutdown, “Congress has 10 days left to pass a bill that will fund our government, protect our homeland, and secure our very dangerous southern border” with wall money. But what will he do when Congress stiffs him on wall money?

Mitch McConnell has already warned him that the declaration of a national emergency would be politically “contentious,” that it would split Trump’s Senate allies; many of them realize that if Trump were to set that kind of precedent, a future Democratic president could similarly try to spend billions on a plan that Congress refuses to fund. And the public has no appetite for that authoritarian impulse. Gallup reports that 66 percent of Americans oppose emergency powers for a wall.

What a weakened Trump does next is anyone’s guess; rest assured, he doesn’t know either. And we still ask ourselves: “Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?”

So said President Obama, during his final State of the Union speech. The question he posed is more urgent than ever.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal