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Foreign Policy

Trump’s Speech and the State of US Politics

Feb 18, 2020
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

The day before the formal Senate vote on the impeachment of Donald Trump, the U.S. president delivered his third State of the Union address to Congress and the nation.

There was nothing new in this year’s address, but it was another campaign season opportunity for Trump to brag about his achievements and win supporters after the Iowa caucuses of the Democratic Party.

Unsurprisingly, one of the highlights of the address was the economy and trade, which could be the president’s best sell as he solicits support and attempts to persuade wavering voters. For instance, he stressed that the unemployment rate is the lowest in a half century and touted his success in reaching trade deals with other countries. However, some data he stressed in the speech was either false or exaggerated.

Trump argued that since his election U.S. stock markets have soared 70 percent, adding more than $12 trillion to the nation’s wealth. The truth is that since 2016, the S&P 500 stock index and the Dow Jones industrial average are each up about 60 percent.

On the North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump said that, unlike many other politicians, he kept his promise to replace NAFTA and sign the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement into law. This is not entirely true. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had tried to update NAFTA by passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was thrown away by Trump.

Another highlight was that healthcare would be pushed forward. In the coming months, legislation related to healthcare will be a key target for Trump, including “surprise bills” and prescription drug issues. But advancing legislation is not easy. Although the two political parties have little disagreement over “surprise bills,” resolving disputes between insurers and service providers is the key to solving the problem.

Trump mentioned China twice in his speech, in ways in line with his previous thoughts. He said the U.S. had arguably the best relationship ever with China and that the U.S. was coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together to fight the coronavirus. The absence of any mention of the great power competition with China shows that since the two countries signed a phase one economic and trade agreement, the bilateral relationship has entered a relatively smooth period.

Most important, the address reflected the fragmentation of politics in the U.S. and the worsening polarization of voters. Trump refused to shake the hand of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi hand, and she melodramatically ripped up Trump’s speech on national television. Several Democrats walked out of the address, saying “it’s all fake” — which is telling, as the traditional speech is just the starter of the U.S. political drama in 2020.

In his previous State of the Union addresses, Trump at least emphasized the importance of bipartisan unity, but this time he didn’t bother. A mere handful of Democrats stood to applaud on several occasions. In last year’s State of the Union speech, Trump once chanted that the two parties should bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions and forge new solutions. In 2020, the sentiment was nowhere to be found.

This year’s address was a component of Trump’s bid for re-election. He who once called for national unity and bipartisan consensus has returned to the simple and old-fashioned campaign strategy of 2016, seeking to win the presidential election by creating partisan division and even confrontation. In his speech, Trump called some Democrats “radical left,” which only intensifies the political split and polarization.

Through the State of the Union address, people can easily smell the smoke of the presidential election battle to come. It will inevitably intensify a new round of partisan fights. Trump and the Republican Party will turn from passive defense to active attack in the next stage, and the State of the Union address is just the beginning.

More important, Trump’s prestige in the Republican Party has stabilized after his Senate acquittal. The vote on impeachment articles showed that — except for Utah Senator Mitt Romney principled stand on the first impeachment charge, on which he found Trump guilty, other Republican members who had previously expressed concerns chose to firmly support the president. The result means that standing by Trump during the election season remains the top priority of voters in Trump’s base. The impeachment process has shown, if anything, that Trump is still capable of uniting his party.

Democrats will not easily give up opportunities to bash Trump. Some have attributed the results of the Senate vote to institutional factors that intentionally avoided the question of Trump’s guilt or innocence. One can expect Democratic lawmakers to continue to plan more subpoenas on topics such as the “Ukraine scandal” in an effort to dig up more information that could undermine Trump and his team.

It is hard to believe in the great American comeback that Trump spoke of in the address. But a fierce partisan war during the presidential elections will undoubtedly drag the country into profound division once again.

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