During the campaign, I noted that the GOP was having a difficult time repudiating Trump because he in fact was saying nothing that had not been a mainline Republican position for decades. The question was one of style, not substance—although we’re getting a lesson now in how they really aren’t that different. Last night’s unofficial state of the union address represents all the evidence needed to make that claim. It should be noted that he said nothing he had not said before. The only difference was in his tone and the manner of phrasing.
Now, if you agree with the programmatic direction of the GOP, then you may find yourself quite pleased with the president’s performance last night. But then you will have to eventually come to terms with the harm that direction is likely to produce within the country and among our allies, not to mention the world in general.
He doubled down on his “Radical Islamic Terrorist” rhetoric, despite having been counciled by his new national security advisor to stop using that term, as it serves only to alienate allies and potential allies. That, therefore, had to be intentional, because clearly he didn’t write that speech. Nothing new with that, few presidents do write their own, but they all have final say in what is in them.
His use of the widow of the SEAL killed in Yemen is one of the more cynical moves I’ve seen from a public official. That she should receive sympathy is beyond question. That her husband did his duty is clear. That he used her tears in public to justify a boneheaded action, asserting that we got important and substantial intelligence as a result despite initial reports that we got nothing from it other than a lot of bodies on the ground, is pretty low. Yemen is going to be Trump’s Fast and Furious (which, despite being a mess, nevertheless produced 34 indictments of drug dealers and gun runners) and he’s trying his best right now to draw the venom and rewrite the reality.
On its face, this speech resembles what we might have expected from Rubio or Cruz, a reasonable-sounding assemblage of soundbites to float in coming weeks as talking points for policy wonks that seem mainstream Republican.
Fine. Let’s look at that.
His cabinet appointees draw a different picture than what people may be expecting. Betsy De Vos is there to destroy the Department of Education. She’s all about vouchers and so-called “school choice.” What could be wrong with that? Nothing, if that’s what it really is. But advancing private companies to manage what should be a public trust at the expense of the public institutions already in place is in the long run a reduction of choice, because eventually they will all fall into similar business models designed to turn out “product” rather than educated citizens. This is a viable system only if you have a healthy public education system to set standards and hold the private institutions accountable to those standards. If you eliminate the source of the standard then you initiate a rush to the bottom and the gradual homogenization of education into two camps—the one for the Haves and the one for the Have Nots, with predictable results.
Scott Pruitt is there to disassemble the EPA. The horror stories about the mismanagement in the EPA and its subsequent impact are the stuff of legend. Of course, with something this large and complex, people will run afoul of the rules, but to assert that the mission of the EPA is in any way unnecessary is a thread that has run through the GOP for decades. The utterly pointless and cynical removal by executive order over coal waste dumping in streams is representative. Coal as an industry is dying, at least as it has been practiced till now. The jobs lost have not disappeared because of environmental regulations—that’s just distracting rhetoric— but because we’re in a market that has seen natural gas shove coal aside massively. With the increase in sustainable and renewable energy technologies, coal is about to be marginalized even more. Basically, the coal industry that remains is in charge of a growing share of a shrinking market. But like parasites, they will suck the last juices of the decaying corpse of the industry if given a chance, and removing such regulations has the single effect of adding a few paltry dollars to the dividends they pay themselves. In the meantime, we dump on people who have to live in the resultant mess and will, once the EPA is gone, have almost no recourse to protect themselves.
Rex Tillerson is there to reverse the sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Lest anyone think this is sort of okay, let’s review. Putin oversaw a massive development of oil. The payoff could be huge, both for himself and his country. However, the pipelines run mostly through Ukraine, and Ukraine was levying a rather substantial use fee on the oil passing through. Putin wanted them to stop doing that. Things were getting tense. Money was at stake. Putin had no moral or legal grounds on which to stand, though. Then Ukraine made noises about joining NATO. That would have made anything Putin did even riskier and constrain his ability to act further. So he invaded. All the excuses were made about traditional rights of access to Sebastopol and the rights of Russian citizens living in Ukraine, etc etc, and it is true, historically Russia will do just about anything to maintain open access to the Crimea and the warm water port there, but this also removed both the NATO threat and the tax on his pipelines, at Ukraine’s expense. And lest the point is still lost, Exxon and Trump both have a financial stake in those Russian oil fields and the potential pay-out will be enormous. That’s why Tillerson is there, to line pockets.
We could go down the list. This is all good, solid Republican programming. If it hurts a corporation it is bad. If some actual people get hurt, well, collateral damage, we didn’t really mean for them to get hurt. Doing something for anyone making less than mid six-figures? Not on the table.
This is nothing new. The argument has been made that restricting corporations with regulations, taxes, and requirements to abide by some standard of fiscal ethics has cost us jobs and that removing all those things will benefit everyone. Why this is still believed I do not know, because we have now had thirty years of proof that this is not what happens. Ever.
It may well be that the counterarguments and alternative programs offered by the Democrats will not remedy the problems we face, but we should all by now realize that we are being conned by the Republicans.
The people invested in believing otherwise have given us a con artist for a president. If on occasion he manages to sound “presidential” it will serve to validate their belief that they voted for the right guy. When things still don’t improve for them, what will they say? Who will they blame?
But the con is party-wide. That’s my point—he was not expunged during the campaign because he did not run on anything that wasn’t good, solid GOP dogma. He just phrased it with less glitter and less rhetorical obfuscation. The Republicans have been practicing for decades how to “reframe” their message so it doesn’t sound so bad and so they could appeal to people who are not racists or nationalists or who might actually believe in some kind of a safety net (but only for people who “deserve” it, however you define that), but really does have the net effect if not intent of being fundamentally inegalitarian, divisive, and culturally if not biologically racist.
The con is widespread. The Democratic Party has more than a bit of this in it as well, though shifted to class distinctions rather than cultural. It makes it difficult to see an effective difference from issue to issue, but only if you don’t pay attention.
Anyway, as polished and “moderate” as last night’s speech may have been, it’s basically the same old shabby, off-the-rack suit. Putting a rose in the lapel doesn’t make it a tux.