By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – “Tonight I ask you to choose greatness,” said President Trump in his second State of the Union address. “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution, and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.”

Noble goals, no doubt.

But with a few exceptions – including what were surely widely-popular references to fair trade, fighting AIDS/HIV, and the war on terror – most of the rest of his speech was a clinic in the politics of “resistance and retribution.”

Mr. Trump has made occasional references in the past to the notion that his impeachment would tank the stock markets, but in this speech he doubled down on that conceit, claiming that “the only thing that can stop [our economic miracle] are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Notably, the GOP members who repeatedly showered the president with standing ovations stayed seated for that one.

Could it be they are wary of the potential backwash from a future hose-out of the Trump campaign’s Augean stables?

And the retribution impulse that Mr. Trump so expertly exploited in his 2016 victory was front and center in the speech’s lengthiest and most passionately-delivered segment, his familiar diatribe about the “urgent national crisis” on our “very dangerous Southern border” which is supposedly ground zero for a “tremendous onslaught” of savage, brown-skinned gang members and human traffickers.

President Donald Trump, delivers the State of the Union address on February 5, 2019. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and political class” than the political divide over immigration, he argued, drawing on one of his favorite images, that of “wealthy politicians and donors push[ing] for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”

Having failed to excite support beyond his loyal minority for his border wall, the president reached for one of the oldest, lamest political bromides available – class warfare.

Less than six years removed from a bipartisan immigration reform compromise passing the Senate (before dying in the House), playing the class card now is a concession of failure at best, of a lack of interest in succeeding at worst.

What it does not do is “embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.”

If any of this comes as a surprise, you haven’t been paying attention.

Beyond the legislative success and failures, the most striking aspect of the first two years of the Trump administration has been the abject refusal to seriously try to expand his support beyond that faithful forty-percent.

The glib refusal to “act presidential,” the juvenile Twitter taunts, the conspiracy theorizing and embrace of the far-right fringe have led to the loss of the House, the casual alienation of huge numbers of female and independent voters, and an unnecessary government shutdown.

Considering the health of the economy and a stretch of relative military calm, this amounts to an eye-popping act of political malpractice. And recent polling suggests it’s starting to wear on even the loyalists.

The 2019 State of the Union address won’t change any of that. It will, like almost all of its predecessors, be quickly forgotten.

And the president’s call on Congress to “choose greatness” (translation: embrace his agenda) brings to mind one of history’s least-popular political demands: do as I say, not as I do.

Jon Keller


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