Trump's SOTU Presents A World Where Government Is Balm To All Ills

During Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, President Trump wrapped his administration’s accomplishments in a cozy mantle of nationalism.

“This nation is our canvas, and this country is our masterpiece.  We look at tomorrow and see unlimited frontiers just waiting to be explored.  Our brightest discoveries are not yet known.  Our most thrilling stories are not yet told.  Our grandest journeys are not yet made.” the president declared.

But the president consistently pursues policy that puts this Edenic vision of the country out of reach for many Americans. This occurs not as a result of any particular effect of a particular partisan policy (this is another issue entirely) but because he so frequently assumes the ability to speak for the American people.

The president is one man; his opinions reflect his singular vision. And this is fine. But, in his rhetoric and, sadly, in his actions, he subsumes the American polity. America, Trump bragged, was the place where anyone can rise. But the truth is sadly closer to the reality that anyone who happens to share the president’s opinions can rise.

Though he uses the seemingly inclusive language of “we,” which emphasizes the fallacious notion that the success of the nation hinges not on the efforts of individual who apply their talents to the efforts the president has decided are beneficial to the nation at large. An individual’s value—and ability to rise—becomes axiomatic of his or her ability to contribute to the goals Trump and his acolytes say are in the interest of all.

Stark examples of this include the president’s championing of economic success zones, or Opportunity Zones. These zones are places where government regulation is rolled back, thus eliminating barriers of entry into the market—which benefits entrepreneurs with limited resources—and giving a greater chance for more people to prosper. Opportunity Zones emphasize autonomy and the ability of talented Americans to succeed when government gets out of the way. Yet, Trump managed to make this seem like a project that occurred because of the wisdom and beneficence of government, not a project that was made necessary by government ineptitude. Bragged Trump: “wealthy people and companies are pouring money into poor neighborhoods or areas that haven’t seen investment in many decades, creating jobs, energy, and excitement.”

Conspicuously missing here is any sense of responsibility for government’s failed programs, which disencentivized investment in the first place.

Trump also called on Congress to pass legislation solving cancer and AIDS; he called on Congress to pass legislation fixing inequities in global drug prices; he called on Congress to pass mandated paid family leave. With the cooperation of politicians, he indicated, a wide range of social ills could be simply wiped away. The problem: he called for these exact same things last year.

Trump’s rhetoric frequently invokes freedom and independence, concepts at the heart of the American mythos. But his policies do not promote independence. He promotes government a as panopticon, which considers no problem beyond its problem-solving purview and casually disregards the limits of its Constitutional mandate. Trump is promulgating, not independence, but a centrally-controlled political order. It is a state of dependency, in which individuals are required to submit themselves to the benevolent paternal hand of a government wise and judicious in its judgments. This is the implication to Trump’s invocation of “we,” a pronoun that, though plural, functions in Trump’s rhetoric with a singular capacity.

In perhaps his boldest claim of the evening, Trump claimed that, thanks specifically to his administration’s policies, “ Our families are flourishing.  Our values are renewed.  Our pride is restored.” This was a phrase he also used in connection to immigration policy. We should not, he proclaimed, admit immigrants who do not contribute to “our” economy or promote “our” values.

But these should not be used as a benchmark for determining a citizen’s value. It is grotesque to think of politicians asserting this kind of ownership over anyone, whether they be a natural-born citizen or an immigrant. The point of the American system of government is to free those who live within its borders from these kinds of litmus tests. Yet, all of Trump’s rhetoric, though it pretends to advance the interests of the citizens, ultimately excludes them because it always falls back on this collectivized view of value. It sets up a nasty, pernicious dichotomy in which one is either with the president—and thus an asset to the work he supposedly does to advance the nation—or a dissident, who by implication is working against the interests of those who are happy to hand the reins of their wellbeing over to a removed political figure. Regardless of which category one finds oneself in, the right of conscience is abrogated. Because Trump asserts this moral dichotomy, citizens are not truly free to form their own ideas about what is in their interests and to act upon them.

In speaking of “our values” Trump promulgates the myth that there is one path to American success, attainable as long as everyone pitches in and does their part. Trust us, Trump says, and we will help you. But there is no singular, all-encompassing good in society. There are many co-existing goods, defined and pursued by individuals in relation to their lives. One policy cannot properly respect the nuances which the diverse lifestyles that exist in the policy create. Any united interest, to the extremely limited degree it can be said to exist, is to be found in the broadest outline of a concept: in the idea that government exists to safeguard the ability of individuals to exercise the rights they possess. It is this idea that is the cornerstone of government and this idea that has traditionally been cited as a reason to limit the ambitions of government’s passion projects.

But when Trump invokes “we”, he is endorsing the idea not only that government can take proactive steps to secure and bolster the material wellbeing of its people, but that its efforts are the only way in which individual prosperity can be assured. In calling for government solutions to problems of the private realm, he implies a polity that is impotent. He denigrates the mental and productive capacity of individuals and suggests that it is up to Congress to solve all the woes that befall the people, a solution
 supposedly made tolerable by the fact that he and members of the legislative
 branch are elected representatives championing the interests of their
 constituents.

But though he pays lip service to independence, the omniscience which he grafts onto government strips all substance of this term and turns it into the cheapest of political bromides. Individuals, his invocation of a government panopticon, suggests are incapable of navigating free markets and using discernment to craft the deals that are in their self-defined interests. Left to their own devices, the people are incapable of avoiding the schemes of evil corporations and malevolent foreign actors, who in every avenue ensnare unsuspecting consumers. And so, tariffs are a political necessity if prosperity is to be achieved. Left to their own devices, the people are incapable of negotiating favorable working conditions with their employers. And so, paid family leave is a political necessity if prosperity is to be achieved.

This, in his rhetoric and calls for government action, is the picture of America the president painted in his address. The independence he promotes is not an independence that belongs to the people. Rather, it is independence of government, which has carte blanche moral authority to act in the interests of bettering its people. The government, in this view, is boundless. It is the people who must submit to government control. In their own interest.