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Trump's Surprisingly Reflective and Disciplined State of the Union

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Friday, February 08, 2019

"This year," President Trump stated in his widely viewed and positively rated State of the Union address, "America will recognize two important anniversaries that show us the majesty of America's mission and the power of American pride."    

"On D-Day, June 6, 1944, 15,000 young American men jumped from the sky, and 60,000 more stormed in from the sea," he said. And in July 1969, "brave young pilots flew a quarter of a million miles through space to plant the American flag on the face of the moon."   

None of the commentators I've seen have questioned why Trump chose to spotlight these events. He is not usually given to historical references; his trademark slogan is vague about just when American was great. Celebrating others' past achievements has not been his thing. But beginning the speech by celebrating these two American triumphs provided a shrewd framing with the potential to elevate his image.  

Trump has obviously paid heed to the political numbers that show him likely to lose the next election. He got 46 percent of the popular vote in 2016 and won because he threaded several needles to win enough electoral votes.   

His job approval is now down to 41 percent, and in November, his party lost 40 House seats, almost all in affluent, high-education districts. Losses were especially great among upscale women, hence his generous salute to the increasing number of (mostly Democratic) women in Congress.    

But that came later in the speech. The larger point made at the beginning, underlined by the appearance of three D-Day veterans and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, was a refutation, without specific mention, of an argument that underlies so much of the upscale loathing of Trump and his politics.  

That is the idea -- call it the cosmopolitan argument -- that nationalism is always bad, a primitive and unsophisticated bias in favor of the home team, a short step (if that) from Nazism. The argument is attractive to many because it makes them feel more sophisticated than the rubes who always praise America.    

But the argument is weak, if you know more history. "I ask you to join with me in prayer," then-President Franklin Roosevelt said in his fireside radio chat on the evening of D-Day. "Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity."   

Yes, it's nationalism and a prayer; Roosevelt mentioned allies only in passing. Trump underscored Roosevelt's assertion that American nationalism is for the good by introducing (and leading the singing of "Happy Birthday" for) 81-year-old Holocaust survivor Judah Samet. As Trump explained: "Judah says he can still remember the exact moment ... when he and his family were put on a train and told they were going to another camp. Suddenly the train screeched to a halt. A soldier appeared. Judah's family braced for the worst. Then, his father cried out with joy, 'It's the Americans!'"   

Today, Trump argued, American nationalism continues to be benign, whether it's trying to stop Iran's nuclear and genocidal ambitions by withdrawing from the Obama nuclear deal, or seeking, while deftly following up on Latin nations' initiatives, to oust the disastrous Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela.    

This State of the Union can also be seen as a refutation of the identity politics conceit that white cisgender males are inevitably the villains of history, ever ready to oppress women and people of color, and that virtue inheres only in their intended victims.    

That just doesn't compute when you watch Trump's salute of SWAT Officer Timothy Matson, who "raced into the gunfire and was shot seven times" at the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and brought down the hateful murderer.    

There was less emphasis on divisive issues -- the border "barrier," as Trump has taken to calling it, and abortion -- than many predicted. On these, Democrats are at risk of getting out on flimsy limbs.    

The state legislation that abortion-rights groups passed in New York and pushed in Virginia legalizes and would legalize abortions up to, and apparently after, birth -- not a majority view, to say the least. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's argument that border walls are "immoral" may not be sustainable if it segues into a case for open borders.    

Absent from Trump's speech was the note of contempt for those with different views that is typical of many of his tweets. Instead, he moved from his opening positive framework to celebrate his accomplishments and assert his views without disparaging others.    

That suggests he approached this speech with deeper reflection and more self-discipline than usual. Will that continue?    

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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