WASHINGTON: Once a year, Donald Trump gives an uncharacteristically bipartisan speech to Congress. It is customarily sandwiched — often within hours — by venomous expressions of partisanship. Mr Trump’s 2019 State of the Union was no exception.
Earlier in the day, the president described Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, as a “nasty son of a bitch”, and Joe Biden, the former vice-president, as “dumb”. A few hours later he called on Americans to “rekindle the bonds of love and loyalty and memory that link us together”.
The puzzle is why he bothers to go through the motions. Perhaps even Mr Trump — the noisiest iconoclast ever to occupy the White House — feels bound by the weight of tradition.
CONJURING NATIONAL UNITY
The difference is that his third attempt at conjuring national unity deceived no one.
His first address to Congress, which took place shortly after his infamous “American carnage” inaugural address in 2017, won rapturous reviews. Otherwise implacable critics said he had finally taken on a presidential mantle. Such praise was quick to curdle.
Two years later, no one believes Mr Trump is about to pivot to the political centre. In spite of obligatory references to American greatness, moon landings, Normandy beach invasions, and Cold War valour, Mr Trump’s only real goal was the highly divisive — and familiar — one of building a wall with Mexico. He offered no plan on how to do it.
It was the speech of a president whose power is rapidly draining. It came barely a week after Mr Trump caved into Democratic pressure to reopen the US government following a record 35-day shutdown without having secured a dime of funding for the wall.
It came just eight days before the US government is set to close again unless Mr Trump agrees to whatever budget deal a bipartisan committee sends to his desk. It will not include any funding for the wall. At which point, Mr Trump will sign because he cannot afford to be blamed for another shutdown.
He is then likely to declare a national emergency — one that his most loyal enforcers, most importantly Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, have declared in advance to be constitutionally unwise.
In spite of this, Mr Trump insisted on Tuesday night that “I’ll get it [the wall] built”. He has backed himself into a corner from which there is no escape. Without a wall, Mr Trump’s base will drift away. Yet he can only fund one by manufacturing a crisis he would be almost certain to lose.
2020 ELECTION ALREADY UNDERWAY
As for the traditional laundry list of presidential to-do items, most Americans will struggle to name a single one 48 hours from now. The speech was remarkably light on specifics, even by Mr Trump’s standards.
There was a content-free reference to infrastructure — no mention of cost, mechanism or rationale. He talked a little about lowering prescription drug prices and funding a cure for childhood cancer.
These were the most tired passages in the speech. It was clear Mr Trump neither expected, nor particularly wanted, to make bipartisan hay with the Democrats. The feeling was clearly mutual. The 2020 election is already under way.
Two things are clear. The first is that Mr Trump will bill the election as a battle between him and a socialist. “We were born free and we will stay free,” he said on Tuesday. The second is that it will take place against the backdrop of a missing wall.