President Trump used the words “America” or “American” 79 times, and the words “United States” five times, during his first State of the Union address on January 30th. I sat down to watch it, but there was a lot of hanging around, periodically interrupted by the announcement of the arrival of various VIPs such as the Diplomatic Corps and the Supreme Court. Then the gentleman from Nebraska, and the gentlewoman from Illinois, et al, went off to provide a Presidential escort while Congress continued to glad-hand and network, and the Speaker of the House and the Vice-President chatted as they stood by their chairs. It was all designed to create an air of excitement and expectancy for an annual event of national importance. It was the New World equivalent of Black Rod summoning the Commons to the Lords for the Queen’s Speech. At length came the grand announcement.
“The President of the United States!”
To sustained applause, President Trump with entourage slowly progressed down the grand hall shaking hands, clapping backs, and pointing laconically at those supporters out of his reach, before reaching his position at the podium immediately below Mr Pence and Mr Ryan. More hand-shakes. Finally it was Mr Ryan’s high and signal honour to introduce the President, and the speech got under way.
I only gave it ten minutes. Not that the President gave anything less than a sterling – perhaps I should say a silver dollar – performance. It was the audience choreography that got on my nerves. Literally after every sentence, the Republicans rose to their feet and gave the President a standing ovation, while the Democrats sat on their hands, dour, stone-faced, and immobile. In the West we used to smile condescendingly at footage of the Soviet Union Politburo endlessly applauding their chairman, and we still scoff at the North Korean generals similarly adulating Mr Kim. But is this much different? Well, different in one respect. At least Congress had a binary choice. But even some Democrats occasionally felt compelled to join in. It must be hard to cavil at “God bless America.”
I switched off, but I didn’t give up. I printed the speech out and read it, just as I’d previously done with Mr Trump’s acceptance of the Republican nomination, and his inauguration speech. That’s how I know he said “America(n)” 79 times; I counted. To the extent that this was an intensely patriotic speech, it could hardly be said to be controversial, and in matters of policy, in that it reflected much of what was said at the Inaugural, it was predictable. Much of the speech was given over to acknowledging the work of unsung American heroes invited to be present for the occasion. This was intended to offer bipartisan appeal and therefore to contribute to the idea of the House and the Senate putting aside differences and working for the common (American) good. As well, as much of the speech was retrospective as it was prospective. The President trumpeted (sic) the achievements, mostly economic, of 2017. Apparently America is booming. Real or fake news? There’s a lovely quote in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury in which the President says “My exaggerations are exaggerated.”
So, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, that is, policies for the year ahead, you could summarise them on the back of a postcard:
Give Cabinet Secretaries power to remove under-performing Federal employees.
Reduce pharmaceutical prices and allow terminally ill patients to undergo experimental treatments.
Fix trade deals and enforce trade rules.
Generate $1.5 trillion to invest in infrastructure.
Introduce a “four pillar” immigration plan.
Intensify the war on drugs.
Modernise and rebuild the nuclear arsenal.
Extinguish ISIS and keep Guantánamo open.
Give foreign assistance only to America’s friends.
Restore “clarity” about adversaries – Iran, North Korea etc.
So, no surprises there. But why be so interested, from this side of the Pond, in the State of the Union? It is because, remember, we have a “Special Relationship”. We are “shoulder to shoulder”, “joined at the hip”. You could hardly be more Siamese than that. Whither thou goest, I will go…
It occurs to me that Mr Trump has developed a presidential expression, one intended to convey iron will and determination, characterised by clenched teeth and a pugnacious jowl. I venture to say he has modelled this look on Winston Churchill, whose bust has returned to the oval office. Churchill himself enjoyed the honour of addressing a combined sitting of Congress, at this same venue, during the war. He made a quip that had always struck me as being rather heavy-handed; I couldn’t understand why Congress found it so amusing. He pointed out that, had his father been American and his mother British, rather than the other way around, “I might have got here on my own.” It was only 76 years later, while listening to Trump, that I finally got this joke. I’d just assumed Churchill imagined he would have entered US politics and come to Capitol Hill. But he was implying much more; he was suggesting that he would have been the President.
Had the technology been available, I doubt if Churchill would have tweeted. His speeches were drafted and redrafted through blood, toil, tears, and sweat. President Trump gives the impression of being a President-on-the-hoof, making it up as he goes along. No doubt what he says is sincere when he says it. “We’re going to have a great relationship, great relationship, we’ll make billions, believe me.” But it’s a mistake to underestimate him. In his unique way, he is Presidential.
Yet it seems to me that, on the world’s stage, he has not been tested. What his Presidency stands for is yet to be characterised. We may be apprehensive about his plans to step up military actions (“Our warriors in Afghanistan also have new rules of engagement”), apprehensive about his adversarial attitudes and, and most of all about the nuclear arsenal. But what will define the Trump Presidency remains unknown. All we can say with certainty is that something will happen.
Somebody once asked Harold Macmillan what defined a premiership, and his reply – perhaps apocryphal, perhaps fake news – was said to be, “Events, dear boy, events.”