Trump’s acoustic demagoguery stokes our state of disunion

President Donald Trump gestures as delivers his first State of the Union address in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol to a joint session of Congress Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018 in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan applaud.

President Donald Trump gestures as delivers his first State of the Union address in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol to a joint session of Congress Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018 in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan applaud. (Win McNamee/Pool via AP)

The biggest thigh-slapper of last night’s State of the Union was Trump’s apparent belief that unplugging his vocal amplifier would somehow soften his demagoguery. Nice try. Acoustic Trump is no different than his bellowing doppelganger.

And amidst all the usual lies – like how the Republican tax cut is “the biggest…in American history” (it’s actually the 8th biggest) and how the tax cut provides “tremendous relief to the middle class”(it’s heavily tilted toward the rich) – we got this masterpiece of hilarity: “I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need.”

Wow. After a year of kowtowing to his white base (roughly 35 percent of the country) and excoriating virtually everyone else, of hurling moronic insults at people across the aisle (“Pocahontas” and “Cryin’ Chuck” and “Crazy Bernie” and “Dicky Durbin” and “Sneaky Dianne”), of praising some neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” of trampling the independence of federal law enforcement, of spewing so much toxicity that he’s earned his rep as the most unpopular first-year president, he actually had the gall to hit the high road with a bipartisan pitch.

It died within a few paragraphs, of course. It was ancient history by the time he brought up immigration.

Lest we forget, Trump and Congress face a new impending deadline to do an immigration deal. Don’t bet on that happening. The partisan chasm on this issue is wide enough without Trump making it worse. Last night, sure enough, he made it worse.

He proposed a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came here as kids (the Dreamers), and that’s theoretically acceptable to the Democrats he needs for a deal. But in exchange, he insisted that the Democrats support $25 billion for a border wall (wasn’t Mexico supposed to pay for it?), and accept radical cuts in legal immigration. This was the part of the speech where his lies and demagoguery kicked into overdrive. Because you would think, listening to him talk (oh so gently), that all immigrants are unleashing carnage as members of the gang MS-13, that they’re all complicit in a national crime wave.

“Most tragically,” Trump said, immigrants “have caused the loss of many innocent lives.” Listening to Trump, you’d never know that, in truth, immigrants on average commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens, and immigrants have a lower incarceration rate than American-born citizens. The research has been consistent for decades, not that Trump would know that (or that Stephen Miller, who undoubtedly wrote the immigration passages, would care to share it). Indeed, center-right columnist David Brooks said this yesterday about immigrant-hostile Republicans: “The only people who have less actual data on their side are the people who deny climate change.”

Trump invited mourners to his gig – the parents of two daughters killed by MS-13 gang members – and he singled them out for sympathy: “I want you to know that 320 million hearts are right now breaking for you. We love you. Thank you. But we cannot imagine the depth of that kind of sorrow, but we can make sure that other families never have to endure this pain.” They do deserve our sympathy.

But since Trump was cherry-picking mourners, he just as easily could have invited the families of loved ones killed by the white extremist followers of a growing neo-Nazi group, the Atomwaffen Division. Its most recent murder victim, Blaze Bernstein, was a University of Pennsylvania student, a habitue of the Kelly Writers House, whom I hadn’t yet had the pleasure to meet. Alas, Trump is willfully deaf and dumb about white American extremists.

Meanwhile, he attacked the tradition of legal immigrants bringing family members to these shores. The line that really sparked hostility in the chamber, at least among Democrats, was his denunciation of “chain migration.” He stated: “Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” That is a bald-faced lie. Legal immigrants can sponsor their spouses, children, parents, and siblings – but that’s all. Distant relatives, such as cousins, can’t be sponsored. Moreover, the entire family reunification visa process takes years, and the government caps the number of visas.

He also attacked the visa lottery system, which was created in 1990, during the first Bush administration, to diversify our immigrant population. He demanded that it be abolished because, in his words, it “randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit, or the safety of American people.” Another bald-faced lie. The federal government has long required at least a high school education or its equivalent; or two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation requiring at least two years of training or experience. Plus, the federal government in its vetting process, examines medical and police records.

Serial lying is not a prescription for bipartisan governance, for seeking common ground and summoning unity. It’s amazing that he would actually declare out loud, as he did last night, that “we have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government” – but lest we forget, this guy is ruled by the virtual reality he concocts in his head. He fulfills George Orwell’s warning that debased political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful.”

Yes, he moderated his rhetoric for 80 minutes, and duly refrained from denouncing “shithole” countries. But acoustic demagoguery won’t make it any easier to do an immigration deal, or, more broadly, to repair the institutional damage he has done. His address merely underscored our ever more dangerous disunion.

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