Donald Trump’s speech: a state of disunity and polarisation

Uneven and divisive picture should not disguise the President’s strengths

US president Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union address. Photograph: Reuters/Win McNamee/Pool

US president Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union address. Photograph: Reuters/Win McNamee/Pool

 

President Donald Trump appealed for national unity in his first State of the Union speech but its substance and reception reflect the stark polarisation he has brought to the office. Americans are more deeply divided between their major political parties, on immigration, race and gender issues, on trade and foreign policy than before. As a result his call for unity appeals mainly to his own base, while his approval ratings remain comparatively low. His strong messages on tax reform, jobs and investment tell a similar story of economic growth combined with more social inequality.

Trump’s success in polarising American politics has dragged its centre of gravity substantially to the right, coarsened its political discourse and increased tensions between ethnic and racial groups. Nativism and economic protectionism are now much more part of the Republican Party’s repertoire, giving it a distinctive appeal beyond its traditional bases among the more prosperous suburban Americans. The commercial and financial elites used to running the party in their own image struggle to regain control and assert their vision of a US that remains the dominant global power – a reputation and role that has suffered a lot during the Trump presidency.

This speech sought to reverse some of these trends and perceptions. Trump proclaimed “a new American moment” as the country becomes great again. He held out some hope of help for the “Dreamer” immigrant children stranded without citizenship but only on condition that his divisive wall with Mexico is built. A recurrent theme was murder, crime and drugs associated with immigration – the darker themes of his dystopian view. Compared to that the economy is stronger, jobs are up and the stock market has gained $8 trillion in value after his recent tax cuts and deregulation, with trickle-down effects on pensions and savings. That brighter narrative is marred by greater gulfs between the rich and disadvantaged.

Trump faces major challenges in his second year. Congressional elections could deprive his Republican Party of their majorities and facilitate a Democrat-led impeachment over the Russian probe now troubling the administration. His warnings on North Korea and Iran signal difficulties with his foreign policy. At home he has yet to give convincing detail about the $1.5 trillion investment programme he promises to renew the country’s poor infrastructure.

This uneven and divisive picture should not disguise the president’s strengths. He maintains his political base and can expect consolidated support from a Republican Party committed to his leadership despite misgivings. At the same time, the Democrats remain divided on how best to respond to Trump’s toxic brand of identity politics in this election year.

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