Woven through recollections of the past year’s achievements, and discussions of domestic and foreign policy initiatives, President Donald Trump gave in his State of the Union Address a sustained reflection on what it means to be a citizen of a free country and what the conditions are for national unity and greatness, on Jan. 30 in the Capitol.
As has become the practice with State of the Union addresses, Trump used examples of individuals in the chamber to communicate his key points. He introduced the theme of national unity by recalling the shooting of “the legend from Louisiana,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.).
His mention of Scalise provoked a very warm and clearly bipartisan response from the chamber, which gave evidence for Trump’s remark that “In the aftermath of that terrible shooting, we came together, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as representatives of the people.”
Trump then expanded on this recollected unity by calling on “all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”
What is remarkable about this is what Trump did not say. He did not cast blame for the shooting of the congressman.
Scalise was gunned down by a twisted soul who had gone looking for Republicans to kill. Some members of Congress seated before Trump had with their intemperate remarks helped create an atmosphere of extreme partisanship that may very well have egged on the assailant. Moreover, Democrats had from day one of his administration declared a “resistance” aimed at delegitimizing Trump’s administration, which could have stimulated fantasies of violent resistance.
On this night, a president whose tweets have sometimes revealed a thin skin chose not to remember past grievances but demonstrated for all to see a magnanimous attitude guided by the nation’s interest. “The unity we need” cannot be attained by holding onto recrimination or grudges.
Instead, that unity requires good character.
A Strong American People
Trump said, “the state of our Union is strong because our people are strong.” It is the character of Americans that is the key to the nation’s health.
Recalling the disasters of 2017—the hurricanes, the wildfires, and the mass murders—Trump pointed to individuals seated in the gallery whose heroism had saved lives.
“Each test,” Trump said, “has forged new American heroes to remind us who we are, and show us what we can be.”
In explaining the effect of his tax cuts, Trump pointed to Steve Staub and Sandy Keplinger, the owners of a small business in Ohio, and one of their welders, Corey Adams. In response to the opportunity provided by the tax cuts, Staub and Keplinger are expanding their business and giving their employees a raise. Adams is investing the raise in a new home and his daughters’ education.
Reflecting on the nation’s new prosperity, Trump said, “This is our new American moment.”
To seize that moment requires certain traits. “If you work hard,” Trump said, “if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve absolutely anything.”
The American citizen needs certain virtues—working hard, taking responsibility for him or herself, showing initiative, and being able to dream of a better life.
‘In God We Trust’
Those virtues are grounded in an understanding of what is most important in life.
“In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of the American life,” Trump said. “Our motto is ‘in God we trust.’”
Trump pointed to the example of Albuquerque policeman Ryan Holets, whose compassion was informed by his belief in God. Coming upon a homeless, pregnant woman who was about to inject herself with heroin, he warned her she would harm her baby. Crying, she told him how badly she wanted a safe home for her baby.
Holets, feeling that God was speaking to him, decided on the spot he would offer to adopt the woman’s baby. When his shift ended, he asked his wife, and she agreed. They adopted the child, naming her Hope.
Trump addressed Ryan and his wife, saying, “You embody the goodness of our Nation.”
The example of North Korean dissident Mr. Ji Seong-ho was used by Trump to illustrate the connection between belief in God and freedom.
On a brief trip to China, Ji encountered Christians, and, Trump said, “he resolved to be free.” Crippled by a childhood accident, Ji traveled thousands of miles on crutches to freedom. He now lives in Seoul where he works to help other defectors and broadcasts true, uncensored news into North Korea.
Trump described Ji’s story as “a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.” Ji stood on the balcony and waved over his head the handmade crutches on which he had made his escape, as the chamber applauded.
Reverence for Country
For Americans, patriotism is bound up with the love of freedom, along with an instinctive love of our own land and fellow citizens.
Trump spoke of how the 12-year-old Preston Sharp from Redding, California, started a movement that has put flags and flowers on the graves of 40,000 veterans on Veterans Day.
Sharp’s reverence for these veterans “reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the pledge of allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”
These individuals had sacrificed everything for something all Americans have in common: “We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same great American flag.”
At the end of his address, Trump speaks about what is special about America. “It was home to an incredible people with a revolutionary idea: that they could rule themselves. That they could chart their own destiny. And that, together, they could light up the world.”
American’s patriotism is justified by the natural goodness of freedom and the bounty it produces. The Capitol has a monument to freedom that “stands tall and dignified among the monuments to our ancestors who fought and lived and died to protect her.”
As chants of “USA, USA” broke out in the chamber, Trump said the Capitol itself is a monument to the American people, a people who understand the importance of freedom.
“The people dreamed this country,” Trump said. “The people built this country. And it is the people who are making America great again.”
Based on the reactions in the hall, Trump’s speech devoted to bipartisanship did little to create bipartisanship. Republicans cheered enthusiastically throughout, Democrats, for the most part, sat stony-faced and often even looked a little sour. They groaned or booed twice during Trump’s remarks on immigration.
However, Trump may be looking to reach legislators by reaching their constituents. This address, aired during prime time, will almost certainly have the largest audience of any Trump speech this year. If the public comes away with a positive view of the State of the Union, that may eventually register in Congress’s attitude.
In a snap poll immediately after the address, CBS found that 75 percent of those who watched the address reacted favorably. A CNN poll found that 48 percent had a “very positive” reaction and 22 percent “somewhat positive.