After a year in the White House during which he has repeatedly used racially divisive rhetoric to appeal to his far-right adorers, President Donald Trump wanted Americans to believe his first State of the Union address was an effort to unite the nation.
“So tonight I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color, religion, and creed,” Trump said Tuesday.
Nothing in the speech truly helped to heal the deepening rift between Trump and the many communities of color that have already been harmed by his words, actions, and behavior in office. In fact, he might have made matters worse by trotting out people of color throughout the speech to serve as props for his racist immigration policies.
Indeed, as evidenced by their stone-faced reactions, members of the Congressional Black Caucus weren’t impressed with much of what Trump said during his nearly hour-and-half oration, and they quickly condemned the speech the next morning.
“President Trump is still who we thought he was and we won’t be fooled by this speech,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), chairman of the black caucus, told reporters Wednesday. “The Congressional Black Caucus can now answer the question he posed to the African American community in 2016 with 100 percent certainty: African Americans have a lot to lose under the Trump administration and we have lost a lot already, especially when it comes to his justice, voting rights, education, housing, and health care polices.”
Of course, Trump isn’t seeking approval from the black caucus or, by extension, African American voters. Instead, his talk of unity is aimed at shoring up uber-conservatives in Congress who are dependent on the slice of white, far-right Americans who remain supportive of Trump and his racist policies. The New York Times noted, “[a]s he took the dias at the Capitol, Mr. Trump had the weakest approval rating of any president of the modern era entering his second year in office, with 37 percent of Americans approving of his performance in the job.”
In an effort to shore up his standing with his base, Trump’s speech displayed his huckster roots, showcasing a cavalcade of individuals and families drawn from communities of color to hide the not-so-subtle racism embedded in his immigration policies. Most prominent among them were pairs of grieving parents, Elizabeth Alvarado and Robert Mickens, who are African American, and Evelyn Rodriguez and Freddy Cuevas, who are Latino; Trump said both couples’ daughters were killed by MS-13 gang members. Then there was Celestino “CJ” Martinez, a special agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit, who was cited by Trump for his skill at rooting out violent immigrant gangs.
These people were used by Trump to sell his noxious argument that immigrants cause violent crime in America. It’s a misleading message that has been central to his political rise and one that continues to resonate with his base supporter. Fact of the matter, study after study have shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes in the United States than native-born residents.
But facts only get in the way of what Trump is selling to his most-coveted supporters, who want to believe the president is keeping them safe from nonexistent dangers. In turn, Trump tells ardent and faithful white fans that they have reason to be afraid of immigrants and he is doing all he can to protect them from murder and mayhem. To close the deal, Trump calls upon sets of black and Latino families willing to stand up and receive applause for their personal tragedies. And, as a byproduct, Trump is shielded from charges of racism.
So protected, Trump felt liberated to implicitly link family reunification under current immigration policies with violent crime. “For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities,” Trump said. “They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”
Minutes later, in what was perhaps the most offensive and insensitive comment of all, Trump elevated white American fears of immigrants over the desire of Dreamers, or recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. “My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans—to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too,” Trump said with a churlish grin.
If there was any doubt for whom such fork-tongued language was intended, the celebratory tweet from white nationalist and former KKK leader David Duke makes clear the president hit the mark with the audience he wants most to satisfy.
And it makes it equally apparent that by stoking the fears and embracing the applause of his racist, white nationalist base, this president is unwilling and incapable of uniting a racially polarized nation.