On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump may have given his most right wing State of the Union speech yet. He even stopped the speech two thirds of the way through to do an unannounced tribute to far-right talk show host Rush Limbaugh, known for his unabashed racism and misogyny.
The Republicans were jubilant. The impeachment process ends on Wednesday, with the Republican Party closing ranks with their party leader. Trump is raking in donations and the impeachment debacle hasn’t hurt him in the polls. And the economy looks good — or at least it looks good on paper. The Democrats, on the other hand, are in chaos and can’t find a candidate to appease their base and the establishment. However, it isn’t smooth sailing for Republicans, as the Sanders phenomenon poses a challenge to Trump, as well as the Democratic Party establishment.
Some members of Congress including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Maxine Waters, refused to attend. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “I have decided that I will not use my presence at a state ceremony to normalize Trump’s lawless conduct & subversion of the constitution. None of this is normal, and I will not legitimize it.” Other Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, wore white in honor of the suffragettes and to denounce Trump’s misogyny. At the start of the State of the Union, Pelosi extended a hand to Trump, which he promptly ignored. At the end of the ceremony, she symbolically tore up the speech.
But the right wing rhetoric went beyond the symbolic: the plan Trump laid out for the United States is a litany of right wing talking points. Here are some of the most important.
“Dangerous criminal aliens to prey upon the public”
Trump has regularly used the SOTU to promote a rabid and often racist anti-immigration program and last night’s speech was no exception. Just as he did in 2016, it’s clear that Trump plans to win in 2020 by appealing to a white base of downwardly mobile middle-class people and frustrated white working-class people by blaming their struggles on undocumented immigrants.
In his speech,Trump perpetuated the myth that undocumented immigrants — whom he called “aliens” — are violent criminals living off of the American taxpayer. He said, “If forcing American taxpayers to provide unlimited free healthcare to illegal aliens sounds fair to you, then stand with the radical left. But if you believe that we should defend American patients and American seniors, then stand with me and pass legislation to prohibit free government healthcare for illegal aliens!” What is misleading about this is that, unlike most countries around the world, the United States doesn’t have “unlimited free healthcare” — not for US citizens; far less for undocumented immigrants. In fact, Trump’s made it quite clear that, under his administration, there will not even be Medicare for All.
Trump also boasted about the deportation of “violent criminals” by ICE.” What he didn’t mention were the 8 children who died in ICE custody, or the 5,500 children he separated from their parents and kept in cages. He didn’t mention the raids on immigrant workers, like the detention of 680 people in Mississippi where children came home from their first day of school to find their parents gone.
Trump pointed to the deals he made with leaders in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to contain undocumented immigrants before they reach the southern border. He doesn’t mention the economic and political duress these deals were made under. The result is that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s “progressive President”, does the work of Trump’s border wall by tear gassing and beating Central American migrant families.
Trump also boasted about his infamous border wall, which is costing taxpayers around $24.4 million per mile— money that could be spent on providing public healthcare or education. Trump shut down the government to build his wall of hate, putting government employees into financial jeopardy, and then hypocritically acts concerned for the American working class in his attempt to pit them against undocumented immigrants.
“Socialism destroys nations. But always remember, freedom unifies the soul.”
With Bernie Sanders rising in the polls, it was obvious that Donald Trump was going to speak out against “socialism.” What was not expected was for the failed coup “president” of Venezuela, Juan Guaido to receive a Standing ovation from members of both parties. . Just last year, the Trump administration attempted a right wing coup against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro by hand-picking Guaido to replace him. It’s no surprise that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, who practically.leaped out of her seat, stood up to applaud Guaido: they too supported the coup and Trump’s attempt to impose it via “humanitarian aid.”
In the speech, Trump issued a warning to Latin American leaders: open your markets, allow in hyper-exploitative multinational corporations, or suffer a coup. With the presence of Juan Guaido acting as a concrete example, Donald Trump said as much: “We are supporting the hopes of Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans to restore democracy.” And by democracy, Trump means a market subservient to U.S. multinationals.
Trump is attempting to make the case that capitalism means prosperity, and “socialism” means economic misery. But Venezuela is not socialist. The real economic struggles of the Venezuelan people have to do with the massive sanctions imposed by the United States, as well as the austerity measures imposed by the (capitalist) President, Nicolas Maduro. Unlike Venezuela, Cuba did have a revolution that expropriated the capitalist class, but like Venezuela, the economic struggles of the Cuban people are a result of a crippling embargo by the United States. Yet, despite all of this, Cuba does show the advantages of a planned economy, like its spectacular healthcare — a free and public healthcare system that is far better than the one in the United States. But, Cuba is also not socialist due to the lack of workers’ democracy — a workers’ democracy that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. A socialist workers’ democracy would control production and policies, with revocable delegates following the example of the Paris Commune.
And certainly, the United States is not a vehicle for democracy in any sense of the word, as the attempt to hand-pick Venezuela’s leader and institute a coup demonstrates.
“We will never let socialism destroy American healthcare!”
After Trump’s not-so-veiled threats against other countries, he turned his attention to domestic issues, specifically Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All. in a stereotypical example of red baiting Trump said:
“One hundred thirty-two lawmakers in this room have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our healthcare system, wiping out the private health insurance plans of 180 million Americans. To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know: We will never let socialism destroy American healthcare!”
First of all, Medicare for All is hardly “socialist medicine.” It’s not even public healthcare, which all advanced capitalist countries around the world have. This is just an attempt to take a jab at Bernie Sanders and the increasingly popular proposal of Medicare for All by smearing it with the label of socialist. While this might work for his base, such red scare tactics have lost much of their edge, seeing that vast portions of the electorate now have a positive or neutral opinion of socialism.
And the truth is, working class people should want the destruction of American healthcare: a system where 530,000 go bankrupt every year and people die due to putting off going to the doctor for fear of costs. We should want the destruction of American healthcare, which only works for the massive profits of hospitals and health insurance companies. Socialized medicine, democratically run by patients, nurses and doctors and funded by the state would provide unparalleled care.
“Unfair trade is perhaps the single biggest reason that I decided to run for President”
Trump played the victim in his speech, decrying NAFTA and other trade deals and saying that it has been “many, many years since we [the U.S.] were treated fairly on trade.” As the strongest imperialist power in the world, the U.S. is certainly no victim when it comes to trade. In fact, NAFTA has been devastating to small farmers in Mexico, but immensely profitable for US corporations. He then boasted about his new trade deal — the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement — as being a return to trade deals that are built on “fairness and reciprocity.” The issue with the trade deals of the past — and the new USMCA — is that they are deals for the bosses, not the workers. The goal of trade deals is to ensure the expansion of capital, not protect workers’ rights. Trump crowed about the “100,000 new high-paying American auto jobs’ ‘ that the USMCA would create and talked about how he had finally put a stop to the Chinese “taking advantage” of the U.S. Trump also proclaimed that manufacturing had come back to the U.S. under his tenure. However, this isn’t really the case. In 2019, manufacturing in the U.S. actually fell for the first time since 2009, raising concerns among the business press of a potential recession. The deal is also opposed by many environmental activists because it not only lacks meaningful environmental protections to regulate businesses, but it also makes it harder for regulations to be passed in the future.
What Trump neglected to mention, however, is how the USMCA trade deal continues to open the door to Latin America for imperialist domination. U.S. capital has been taking advantage of Latin America and Asia for decades. For Trump to claim on national television that the USMCA and China Trade deals are the first time in many years that the U.S. has ever been treated fairly, is almost as laughable as his insistence that they will protect workers.
“No parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school”
Donald Trump took up, for the first time in a while, the issue of education, saying that no family should be forced to put their child in a “failing government school.” Of course, he forgot to add that he is the government and, if schools are failing, the government has a responsibility to fix it. Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, leapt to her feet in agreement with this proclamation. Trump, DeVos, and other advocates of school choice want to present vouchers as an act of empowerment for parents but, really, it is just another way to continue screwing over the working class. Vouchers funnel public money to private and charter schools that are not accountable to education standards set by the state, including not being forced to abide by accessibility requirements for disabled students and English Language Learners. Funneling money away from public schools to private and charter schools creates a system of under-funding public schools, as well as school segregation. School vouchers are also an attempt at union-busting against the teachers unions, as most charter and private schools do not have a unionized workforce. In addition, they help religious schools benefit from public funding without having to teach evolution, sex education, or other curriculum elements that they object to. Such talk about “school choice” is what it’s always been: a right-wing plot to privatize public programs.
That Trump has taken up school choice in his last State of the Union before the general election should worry defenders of public education everywhere. He may trot out a photogenic Black family to show the need for school vouchers but, the fact of the matter is, that there always seems to be money for the military (including a space force!) but none for education. Vouchers will only make the matter worse.
“We lift our voices in prayer, and we raise our sights to the Glory of God!”
God also figured prominently in the State of the Union speech, once again demonstrating that the idea of the separation of Church and State is a fallacy. Trump perpetuated the myth of the persecuted Christian, ignoring the way that Christian beliefs and practices are, in fact forced on people of other faiths and atheists. Trump referenced the need to defend prayer in school. He said, “In America, we do not punish prayer. We do not tear down crosses. We do not ban symbols of faith. We do not muzzle preachers and pastors. In America, we celebrate faith. We cherish religion. We lift our voices in prayer, and we raise our sights to the Glory of God!” Given Trump’s Muslim ban, it’s clear he isn’t talking about defending the right of Muslims to pray, to migrate or to display religious symbols.The focus on Christianity seems to be a very clear attempt to keep his electoral coalition together as he prepares to fight for reelection.
Another overture that Trump made to the religious right was his theatrical condemnation of late-term abortions. He began by pointing out a two-year old child in the audience who had been born prematurely, saying that “every child is a miracle of life”, and speaking about the need for neonatal research, before quickly pivoting to a call for “legislation finally banning the late-term abortion of babies.” This is of a piece with his very ominous proclamation that he has “many” more Supreme Court nominees in “the pipeline.” The strategy is to remind religious conservatives who may feel uncomfortable with some of Trump’s actions and comments that he is an ally to the so-called pro-life movement. He will go and speak at the March for Life, he will call to ban late-term abortions, and he will make sure that pro-life justices take the bench in the Supreme Court. The Religious Right are a key part of the Republican Party base and Trump used several sections of the State of the Union to reach out to them specifically.
“You will never escape American justice. If you attack our citizens, you forfeit your life!”
Unsurprisingly, Trump used the State of the Union to brag about his recent assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the second most important goverment official in Iran. Echoing the mainstream rhetoric of the rest of the regime, he called Soleimani a terrorist and even went as far as bringing the family of an alleged victim of Soleimani to demonstrate the violence that he was responsible for. Trump also attacked Iran for their “pursuit of weapons of mass destruction” and bragged that “because of our powerful sanctions, the Iranian economy is doing very poorly.” While Trump claims to want Iran to “work for the good of its own people,” he also bragged about the Iranian economy being in shambles, which is certainly not good for Iranian people. While he says that “Soleimani orchestrated the deaths of countless men, women, and children,” he ignores the record number of bombs dropped in Afghanistan, or the death of children in concentration camps in the United States.
While tensions between the U.S. and Iran are not quite as high as they were directly following the murder of Soleimani, it does seem clear that Trump will use the assassination — which is very popular among Republican voters — as a way of shoring up support in the upcoming election. At the same time, despite almost starting another war in the Middle East, Trump claims to want to bring the troops home from Afghanistan… although he dropped a record number of bombs on Afghanistan in 2019 . He didn’t give a timeline for exiting Afghanistan, just a vague promise to get out soon, which means that it is unlikely to happen, as all of the war hawks in both parties are sure to intuit. Trump also highlighted his increased military spending, talking about how “our military is completely rebuilt, with its power being unmatched anywhere in the world — and it is not even close.” Trump’s narrative that he is the one to ‘rebuild’ the military is completely ridiculous. Every U.S. president has invested billions and billions of dollars into the military and the U.S.’s military might has been unmatched since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is important, however, that Trump is banging the military drum because increasing military spending is fairly popular within the Republican party.
“One Trillion Trees Initiative”
The impending climate crisis was largely missing from the State of the Union. This should be no surprise, given that Trump doesn’t believe in it. Indeed, the only mention of the environment in the speech was when Trump proposed the “One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world.” That is Donald Trump’s response to the climate crisis: planting more trees for the profit of the private sector. He also, at other points in the speech, credited his rollback of environmental protections with improving the economy.
That Donald Trump — and all other capitalist politicians — represent an existential threat to human existence cannot be denied. In a year that has already included mass environmental devastation in Australia and elsewhere, to have the leader of the most powerful imperialist country in the world ignore the climate crisis and instead talk about planting more trees and rolling back protections is the perfect encapsulation of why the climate crisis cannot be resolved within capitalism: because the need to protect business will always come before the environment, and business is what is destroying the environment.
Empty Symbols of Resistance
The 2020 Presidential election is fully underway with both parties trying to maintain their key base of support. For the Republicans this is an appeal to the Religious Right, economic conservatives, and white nationalists who make up the Trump coalition. Trump used the final State of the Union of his first term to reach out to both groups. For the religious right, he talked about abortion, prayer in schools, and supreme court justices. For the economic conservatives, he deployed his typical “America First” rhetoric around trade, spoke at length about rolling back regulations to make sure that the private sector could grow, and advocated for privatizing education and defending private health care. For the white nationalists, he blew dog whistles — that were, at times, more whistle than dog — around immigration and celebrated Rush Limbaugh. The State of the Union gave us an early insight into the way that Trump is going to position himself for the general election in the fall: as right-wing defender of ‘traditional’ values who will put American (and American Business) first.
In the face of this right wing agenda, all the Democrats have to offer are empty symbols: some members of Congress who wore white, a few who didn’t show up because Trump doesn’t respect the Constitution (as if it wasn’t a racist document meant to maintain power and privilege in the hands of a few capitalists) and one who walked out because Trump is a liar (as if that wasn’t abundantly clear before the SOTU). Nancy Pelosi is indicative: she tried to shake Trump’s hand, clapped for some of the most horrible parts of the State of the Union speech and in the end, symbolically and dramatically tore up the speech. But to fight Trump’s ultra-right wing agenda, we’ll need more than empty symbols. We’ll need an organized and militant working class and a party organized in the streets and in our workplaces against the right, as well as against the Democrats for interests of the working class and oppressed.