“Americans love their country,” Donald Trump said during his first State of the Union address, “and they deserve a Government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return.” The government, Trump suggested, has abandoned the American people with years of anti-American policies, leaving us desperate and endangered by a government that has usurped the stability of both a nation and its people. Throughout the address, Trump painted a dystopic picture of an America scarred by violence—both real and fictional—and of Americans armed only with grit in the face of such relentless violence. On Tuesday night, the President insisted on unity in an otherwise grim landscape, dotted with death, addiction, dismemberment, and torture. Americans are in pain, Trump suggested, and its only salve is Trump himself.
“We are rediscovering the American way,” Trump said, celebrating the achievements of his first year in office. Those achievements, according to his estimation, include reforming a “cruel” tax system and taking an ax to “disastrous Obamacare.” It also meant overcoming a year of violence, both natural and man-made; a year of mass shootings, hurricanes, and flooding. But if Americans faced disasters last year, then Trump promised that they could be overcome with the rare unity that defines American citizenship. Taken together, Trump implied that shootings and hurricanes were of a similar nature, uncontrollable and unexpected. But if, in this construction, the pain and trauma of disaster were unwieldy, pro-American policy was not.
To sell this pro-American position, Trump had to double down on images of pain. Before Trump, he implied, Americans were economically depressed, our futures cast into doubt by everything from Obamacare to immigration, foreign trade to terrorists, addiction to the looming threat of erratic enemies. “The era of economic surrender is over,” he proclaimed, in preemptive celebration of the return of the auto industry and of “beautiful” clean coal. He took credit for historically low unemployment among Latinx and Black Americans with seemingly no regard for how disproportionally those groups are affected by unemployment generally, compared to their white peers—an oversight that did not go unnoticed. While jobs brought prosperity, and tax rate reductions made the struggle of working life perhaps easier, Americans still have reason to be afraid.
Not only had America’s “building heritage” and the “dignity of a hard day’s work” been ravaged under Obama, the country is still threatened by “rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.” Strength—or at least Trump’s version of strength—is, he insisted, the only solution. In order to demonstrate strength, Guantanamo must remain open, nuclear arsenals must expand, and torture must remain a solution. “Unmatched power is the surest means of our defense,” Trump said. But if strength could simply be built, constructed with an expanded military budget, then other weaknesses were less materially real, more abstract but no less dangerous.
If America was alone in their world, then, for Trump, safety also requires addressing the lurking, shadowy threat at our border: undocumented immigrants. Trump, no doubt influenced here by Stephen Miller, revisited his familiar language of criminality, linking it clearly to immigration. He warned of the economic hardship visited on “vulnerable” communities by undocumented workers. He warned, yet again, of Americans—of girls, he prefers dead young women and their mourning parents—“brutally murdered” by “savage gang members.” He spoke of American streets rendered unsafe by “dangerous criminals” and linked immigration with terrorism. Illegal immigrants, Trump insisted, “have caused the loss of many innocent lives.” (A statement that was, unsurprisingly, inaccurate.) He was shades away from his “American carnage” speech but the worldview remained clear: American are under the constant threat of physical and emotional harm.
Trump’s solution came in the form of four-pillar immigration control. He spoke of the need to end a random lottery system and the need for immigrants to demonstrate “good moral” character. He spoke too of ending “catch and release” and “chain migration,” a term with an ugly history that near-perfectly conjures up Trump’s mythical world, one in which good Americans (read: white) are threatened by hordes of the unwanted. But this fictional reconstitution of the ideal body—both the body of the state and its citizens—has been forefront on Trump’s mind.
In a bid to reconstitute that body, Trump painted a picture of total devastation—to posit that the American body, both literally and metaphorically, is maimed, addicted, murdered, and tortured. He spoke in lingering detail of the injuries of an American soldier, the torture of both Otto Warmbier and Ji Seong-ho under the North Korean dictatorship, of pregnant heroin addicts, and brutal murders. Pain became a prop, a bodily proof that suffering was the state of the union, rendered this way by years of policies that precariously positioned America and its citizens too close to the edge, too near to vulnerability.
If America is, in Trump’s estimation, a land of suffering citizens, then he offered relief through, one of his favorite words, “beauty.” In his address, beautiful things was material and its relationship to people was, as it always is for Trump, an abstract concept. Coal is beautiful, as are business and autoworkers (a stand-in for the industry that he erroneously claimed to revive). The aesthetic contrast was clear enough: the past had made Americans weak and threatened by numerous enemies. The past was filled with pain, death, suffering, and addiction but Trump is the solution. “As long as we have confidence in our values, faith in our citizens, and trust in our God, we will not fail. Our families will thrive. Our people will prosper,” Trump said in conclusion.
The implications were transparent: only Trump can guide America away from this bleak path back to strength and “values,” and away from the suffering of the past. Trump alone, he insisted, could make America great again.