It was a weakened president who stood for the second time before the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 5, in that ritual that is rather boring but oh-so-sacred in American democracy: the State of the Union address.
A president weakened by the shutdown that he had futilely declared, betting that the power struggle would force the Democrats to fund his wall on the border with Mexico. Weakened by intelligence officials who publicly contradicted his stance on the Islamic State’s resilience – a group over which Trump is claiming victory far too soon. Elsewhere, he was embarrassed by the rebuff served to him on Monday, Feb. 4, by the Republican majority in the Senate, which found the withdrawal of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan hasty. He was further embarrassed by a new indictment from the Robert Mueller investigation, that of his cynical brother-in-arms, Roger Stone.
And, of course, he was, and is, a president diminished in his monarchical exercise of power by the salutary majority won by the Democrats in the House of Representatives.
Walls were put up to restrain him. In the political environment of the past few weeks, his position has become so precarious that the door is open, or at least ajar, to the idea of a Republican primary challenge, which would mean he would not automatically be nominated for a second term. That is unlikely, but in the history of American elections, parties in power that have taken this step have almost always shot themselves in the foot.
Despite all that, the state that Trump currently finds himself in is far from a political deathbed, notwithstanding the troubles that the investigation of Russian interference hold in store for him.
Despite the Senate’s disapproval of his plans to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, its disapproval does not change the fact that the idea of bringing the troops home is popular with the American public, as is his trade war with China.
Furthermore, it is not surprising that Trump devoted most of his nearly hourlong speech to the economy and the protection of “our very dangerous southern border.” It also would not be surprising if economic growth – for which Trump stupidly claims all the credit – continues into 2020. That would surely help him get re-elected and maybe even silence the majority of Republicans who grind their teeth at his presidency. Then, as he will likely be unable to build his wall in its entirety – something he has already in part given up on – he will have an easy time blaming his failure on all those horrible “socialists” who are the Democrats.
We rarely see this simplistic populist trying to elevate himself. When he tries to, it makes him almost unrecognizable. He tried it on Tuesday night by making a totally surreal – and unbelievable – call for national unity and dialogue; he whose only way of governing is dividing.
A notorious chauvinist, he later had, against all expectations, the basic clear-headedness to applaud the election of a record number of women to Congress, a gesture that the newly elected Democratic women, all dressed in white, acknowledged – not without irony – as they stood and clapped. The image was worth a thousand words.
In fact, it was the most inspiring thing to come from this cumbersome ritual that is the State of the Union address. In the face of Trump and the intolerant conservatism of his supporters stands this new feminist generation, a tangible sign of progressive reform, of the Democratic Party, and of American political life.