Trump’s State of Union Stokes Fear With Nationalist Rhetoric
The President’s State of the Union speech demanded an end to investigations, while demonizing immigrants and Venezuela, and attacking abortion rights. Our panelists Jacqueline Luqman, Eugene Puryear, and Helena Olea discuss the speech
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us. We’re having an incredible panel with us here this morning–not to sound like Donald Trump. But we’re talking about last night’s State of the Union address, and what he really said, and what this portends for all of us. When you heard Donald Trump last night, we heard a lot of very strong nationalist rhetoric. What would that mean? We talked about–we heard him talk about drugs from across the border, and the untruths he told about how they get here. We heard him talk about Venezuela. We heard him trying to act bipartisan, but in the most part having mostly fiery nationalist rhetoric, and then kind of smoothing it out. What does it all mean for us?
We are joined here today by Helena Olea, who is an international human rights lawyer serving as Alianza Americas’s human rights adviser. She’s also a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the departments of Criminology, Law, Justice, and Latin America and Latino Studies. And we also are joined by Eugene Puryear once again who is a journalist, author, and activist. He’s co-founder of Stop Police Terror Project DC, and a member of DC’s Movement for Black Lives steering committee. Black Lives Matter steering committee, I suppose. We’ll get back to that. And Jacqueline Luqman is with us. She’s editor in chief of Luqman Nation, a social media outlet that connects history, politics, and involving social issues. So good to have you all with us, and glad you are back to do this two days in a row, Jacqueline. Good to have you here as well, all three of you.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Thanks a lot. Thanks so much.
MARC STEINER: So let’s just begin with your overall thoughts about what this speech did last night, and where this might be taking us. Eugene, why don’t you lead off?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Yeah. Well, I think that really, from my perspective, the speech didn’t move the needle. I mean, I think that Trump was really trying to hype up all throughout the day that it would be a big pitch towards unity. And there was a lot of sort of rhetorical unity in his speech. But on the areas that even the White House itself had actually outlined, prescription drugs and infrastructure, there is no major proposal, no major olive branch that sort of could have been responded to by Democrats; just sort of vague phraseology, which means to me that many of the same problems that exist between the two parties on those issues now will continue to exist, and we won’t see that much major legislation prior to the presidential election.
So I think ultimately my view of Trump’s State of the Union is that, you know, how you felt about Trump before is how you feel about him now. I thought it was disingenuous in many different ways. I mean, especially the job statistics. I mean, the overall thing with unemployment rates–go look at the labor force participation rate, the labor to population ratio. You see employment is really just getting back to where it was before the great crash. The greatest number of people working–I mean, the population grows every single year, so of course there’s a greater number of people working overall over time. So there a lot of, I think, also manipulation of statistics around the economy to make it appear as if Trump has been better for workers, when he hasn’t.
So I think more or less it was a deepening of the trenches, perhaps, on both sides. Maybe a couple of moments of comedy in there when he mentioned the women legislators. But by and large, I think it’s, if I can use a casino term, astand pat kind of moment here.
MARC STEINER: And Helena?
HELENA OLEA: I could not agree more with Eugene. I don’t think that there’s anything significant from what was said last night. It was just a repetition of the same rhetoric and the same arguments that we have heard over and over again. So I don’t think it really makes any significant change in any of the aspects covered on the speech. So it was another disappointment; but honestly, what were we expecting, correct?
MARC STEINER: Jacqueline?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Aside from being a little bit emotionally scarred having had to watch that, most of it, I could not watch the whole thing, because at some point I just, I just couldn’t take any more disingenuousness.
MARC STEINER: Jacqueline, that’s not fair, because I had to watch the whole thing, because I had to do this. That’s not fair.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: OK. I read the rest of it this morning. But really what this what this whole speech was was not a State of the Union address. It was a campaign address. And really, what it really was was a case for a national emergency to be declared to build this wall. That’s the bulk–that, for me, that was what I took from the bulk of the speech. He spent an inordinate amount of time demonizing the immigrant community with all kinds of just hateful and divisive and racist rhetoric. He trotted out a family that had suffered from the loss of their family members through a violent crime that was attributed to “illegal aliens,” that the grieving family was there for optics to back up how horrible this violence that the border is, when there really is no violence at the border. Mayors along border towns attest to that fact. Customs and Border Patrol will actually attest to that fact. So for me all of this most of the speech was just him laying the groundwork for declaring a national emergency in a few weeks.
MARC STEINER: So let’s–let me play this piece from last night’s State of the Union. And this is the first–the piece we have up on the economy, and the lines on peace and legislation he was pushing. But he put these things, conflated these things that I think in some ways makes it difficult for some people to respond to. Let’s listen to this first.
DONALD TRUMP: An economic miracle is taking place in the United States. And the only thing that can stop it 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. We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad.
MARC STEINER: So let’s talk about this for a minute. I mean, so there are several things here. And so, clearly he’s–if you take the investigation piece he is very nervous about where these investigations are going and what they might do. So he threw this out, which is just almost unseemly the way he did that. But then when he talked about the wars, it’s also a situation where–so how do people respond to it? How do people who think that we shouldn’t be in these 17-year wars, that they’ve been so destructive, that George Bush and others have started, and he’s calling for an end to them. So the contradictions here are interesting. I’m wondering how you kind of parse that out for the American people when you’re looking at this. Let me start again with Helena, and just go around the room, and just please jump in.
HELENA OLEA: Well, I think that this was a very interesting way of including both domestic and foreign aspects all together in a sentence that really did not make sense. And you could really observe that the senators and the representatives sitting in the room–like, some of them started to clap; when they really realized the whole content of the sentence, and then they refrained from clapping. So I do think that this is particularly worrisome. And I think he’s trying to play into a combination of aspects that he think will gain some support, such as those that want the troops to come back, particularly from Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think that there is–he’s playing to that base with that particular element very well. But I also think he’s trying to include the investigations against him and his team as part of what he believes is an obstruction for his government progress. So I think it’s an interesting combination of facts. And I think that this was probably the sentence that created the greatest reaction immediately after the State of the Union speech everyone was outraged that he was combining war and investigation in the same sentence. As you pointed out, it makes no sense.
MARC STEINER: Jacqueline?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I think the way I approached this was to take each section–take his statement in sections.
There is no economic miracle. And let’s just start with that. That’s a lot.
MARC STEINER: What do you mean? [Laughing]
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: There is no economic miracle. The economic miracle exists for the bankers, the billionaires, the millionaires, Wall Street businesses and CEOs. That’s where the economic miracle is happening. But it’s not happening for the American workers. When we–under his administration, Harley Davidson laid off thousands of workers. The Carrier plant that he campaigned on saving laid off workers. And now General Motors is about to lay off 4,200 workers. People are heavily invested in this gig economy, where they have to have two and three jobs, two or three low-paying jobs to make ends meet.
So people are working themselves to death, and losing good-paying, solid manufacturing jobs, in particular with decent benefits. So there’s no miracle. People are living paycheck to paycheck. Living expenses are growing. They’re getting higher. People’s pay is not rising with the cost of–the cost of living. There’s no economic miracle for the working class in this country. There is no middle class. And there’s certainly no economic miracle for the poor. That’s the first part of his statement.
MARC STEINER: So let me–I’m going to play this clip in a moment, because this also comes back to what Abrams and Sanders said in response to this, I think it’s important to talk about. But let me ask a very quick question to Eugene, to just– I’ve seen some consternation with people who have been opposed to these wars in Afghanistan opposed the wars in Iraq and clearly opposed to what’s happening in Yemen at the moment and more, and the potential of a war in Venezuela, which we can talk about in a minute, if we have time. His antiwar rhetoric–how how do you respond to the antiwar rhetoric, Eugene?
EUGENE PURYEAR: I mean, I respond to the antiwar rhetoric as viewing it as primarily fraudulent at this point. I mean, he’s been rhetorically very much saying, well, I want to get out of these wars. But he announces he’s leaving Syria, and then here we are weeks later, and there’s really no resolution on that. You know, he was really equivocal about Afghanistan. And what he said last night rang so hollow, saying, well, these stupid wars. And here we are starting a new cycle of intervention in Venezuela and in Latin America. And so the rhetoric doesn’t seem to actually match the policies, and I’m unclear if it’s just, like, outright lying on the part of Trump and disingenuousness, whether there is some sort of back and forth inside the bureaucracy, some combination between the two. But at the end of the day, I think, honestly, similar to Barack Obama, we see in the past two presidents have been able to talk more about reducing the military presence and role of the United States abroad than they actually were able to do.
So I mean, I think that the rhetoric is very popular because many people want to see an end to these wars. I mean, according to Brown University we spend trillions of dollars at this point, I think, actually pushing close to $7 trillion–that might be around $3 trillion, but $7 [trillion] when it’s all said and done–by their Study of War project that’s been going on for several years, here. So it makes sense that you would use it as a political prop, but I think it’s ultimately disingenuous.
MARC STEINER: So let me get to the heart of something here that I think was–what a lot of his speeches, his speech last night was built around, and the kind of dangers that that may mean for all of us. And this is Trump talking about immigration, nationalism, class warfare. Let’s hear this, and then I want to hear Abrams’s response to immigration behind that. And let let’s kind of wrestle with what this means.
DONALD TRUMP: As we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States. I have ordered another 3,750 troops to our southern border to prepare for this tremendous onslaught. This is a moral issue. The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well-being of all America. Tonight I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens, and to our country. No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration. Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards. Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate. It is actually very cruel.
MARC STEINER: So let’s hear very quickly what Ms. Abrams had to say from Georgia, where I think–I’m not sure where she was, she may have been in Georgia–in her response on immigration.
STACEY ABRAMS: We know bipartisanship can craft a 21st century immigration plan. But this administration chooses to cage children and tear families apart. Compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders. President Reagan understood this. President Obama understood this. Americans understand this. And Democrats stand ready to effectively secure our ports and borders. But we must all embrace that from agriculture, to health care, to entrepreneurship, America has made stronger by the presence of immigrants, not walls.
MARC STEINER: And on top of that he talked about the border, drugs streaming across the border, when actually they are streaming into our ports and not across the southern border, and then talked about the murders that take place–we have that piece, I’m going to play it–he talked about the murders that are taking place that are being done by people coming across the border. So this, this to me was the beginning of this kind of–and maybe I’m making too much of this, and Helena, I’ll let you start off, and you can you can respond to it, but is that this is a very nationalistic, right-wing–I’m going to use the word here some people might find wrong–almost Hitlerian, populist, working-class message. And I found it pretty frightening. Helena?
HELENA OLEA: I I agree with you absolutely. I think that this was a particularly concerning aspect of his speech, trying to portray this as a conflict between the working class that is with him, that has an anti-immigrant attitude and the political class, it’s particularly worrisome. I don’t think that–I think he’s misunderstanding and he’s portraying working class as what it is not. He’s failing to understand that migrants are part of the working class, that the working class includes U.S. citizens who are relatives of migrants, who understand absolutely well that this is not the conflict that is being portrayed.
And I think that the most concerning aspect, as well, is portraying that what is cruel is to claim that there should be some tolerance and some humanitarian treatment to migrants coming through the southern border of the U.S. I think that that’s a–what is really cruel is how he’s trying to claim that what is cruel is trying to land a humanitarian hand to those who need it. And he’s also failing to understand that this is a crisis that he created. It has been precisely the policies of this administration which has created and incentivized the organization of large flows of immigrants trying to come to the U.S. in a way that was not done before. And I think that this is a very important element, and of course, understanding that this is not a group of individuals that is threatening. We’re talking about young adults, families, women with children. This is not a threat to the U.S. It’s really a calling for its more compassionate hand to be there to welcome those asylum seekers.
MARC STEINER: Jacqueline, go ahead.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah, I have to agree. Trump’s comments about immigration are really like the poor man’s and the unintellectual man’s riff on actual Hitleresque ideology. There was nothing factually true about the things he said, about drugs coming through the border, and the countless murders. I actually, like, spat out my soda when he said the countless murders that are commit–no, it’s not-
MARC STEINER: None of it’s true. Right. Right.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: It is not countless murders. But if murders are such a concern, then what is–what is this administration going to do about the the murders that are committed by young white men? Three that happened, mass murders that happened just last week. What is this administration going to do about the continued murders of unarmed black and brown people at the hands of police? So this is, this is not a real moral issue. He’s framing this–it’s not a crisis. The border isn’t lawless. But he’s using all of this terminology because he knows that it will keep its base engaged in demonizing immigrants so they can continue to support him for this this hellbent fight that he has to to build this wall. And it’s going to be–this is what he’s going to use to get people to support him, at least his base, as he declares this national emergency, which I really do believe he’s going to do.
MARC STEINER: You think he’s going todo the national emergency. Eugene?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I really do think he is. I don’t think he is going to be able to shut the government down again, because that was so incredibly unpopular, and I don’t think he was expecting his popularity to plummet the way it did. Because people didn’t get paid. And people don’t like to not get paid, not even Trump supporters. I don’t think he’s–I’m not saying that he’s not going to try. I think he’ll probably try. But I don’t think he’s going to shut the government down again. But I do believe that he will try to declare a national emergency to build this wall.
MARC STEINER: Eugene?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Yeah, I mean, I thought the biggest irony was that he tried to, you know, paint this horrible picture of human trafficking across the border, and counterposed that to the issue of the caravan. But this is exactly why people are organizing caravans to travel as a community, and to travel safely on the route. So I mean, a little factual inaccuracy yet again in the piece. But I think that, as has already been said, I mean, obviously a significant percentage of the hundreds of millions of workers in America are people of color. Many of them are immigrants.
But I think this is deliberately trying to obfuscate the issue, because obviously the biggest issue between the political class and the elite class and the working class is income inequality, wage inequality, the access to resources and capital. I mean, it’s not immigrants’s fault that there’s been $1 trillion in share buybacks since the tax bill, the Republican tax bill. So, $1 trillion. Didn’t go to invest in creating jobs and building factories and reopening things; it just went to line the pockets of wealthy shareholders and investors. You know, there was a recent article that came out that said Apple was unable to effectively really build the MacBook Pro in the United States because there was no factory in the country that could build custom screws at scale. I mean, this kind of hollowing out of America’s infrastructure and manufacturing infrastructure that Trump often talks about is certainly not the fault of immigrants. It really is the fault of the elite class, the political class; the people who decided to globalize the labor chain and to force tens of millions of workers to move across borders and within countries in order to compete over a smaller number of lower-wage jobs.
And so I think that really at the heart of this rhetoric is absolutely crucial. Trump is on a smash and grab raid for the ultra rich. They’re repealing every single regulation. They’re pumping trillions of dollars into their pockets. And the only way they can get away with that is to throw up a massive smokescreen that no one can see through, and that’s what this immigration rhetoric is to me. It’s a smokescreen and it’s designed to have as flailing around, stabbing each other in the dark, not knowing what’s going on while they laugh all the way to the bank.
MARC STEINER: So, I’m going to close with two things One is this–is a tweet here by Bernie Sanders I’ll read to you all; it’ll be up on the screen. And the other is your just your quick closing thoughts on where this may take the political debate in our country. So, Bernie Sanders tweeted out last night right after this speech: “If we are serious about transforming our country, rebuilding the middle class, and reinvigorating our democracy, let us bring our people together to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation.” Now, that, to me, also takes on his antisocialist rhetoric last night, as well. So what do you, what do you think–what is the dynamic, you think, that’s being set up here on all these issues because of the State of the Union speech you gave last night? What do you think the next stages will be? And let me start with you, Eugene–we’ll just get Eugene, Helena, and we’ll end up with Jacqueline.
EUGENE PURYEAR: Yeah, no, of course. Well, I mean, I think Trump maybe laid it out there with his comments on socialism. I mean, as has been said before, socialism or barbarism. I mean, I think the question in front of us, looking at the 12 years before complete environmental catastrophe, tens of millions of people on the move. People are hungry, they’re poor, they don’t have jobs. Either we’re going to find a way to live in harmony and sustainability, sharing the wealth and the resources equitably on this–on this earth, or we’re all going to perish. And I think it’s that simply put in front of us. But I think that’s exactly why Donald Trump decided to take a shot at socialism, because the ultra wealthy know that they have, they have sold this country a bill of goods. They’ve bled it completely dry. They’ve done pretty much the exact same thing to the world. And now people are getting hip to it and I think are not willing to take it. And they have to, they have to go frontally against ideologies like socialism that are pushing back against this rampant profiteering.
And so I think that’s–ultimately we’re going into a period of greater conflict, Marc. And I know that a lot of people don’t want to hear that. But the problems that we have are truly catastrophic from the point of view of even our existence as a species on the planet. And I don’t see how we get out of any of these serious problems without some real serious conflict and some real serious struggle here over what the future of the country in the world is going to be.
MARC STEINER: And he took his antisocialist rhetoric and also as part of his attack on Venezuela. Helena?
HELENA OLEA: I I could not agree more. I think that what we have is an ongoing latent conflict that is increasing by the minute. And he just caught on to socialism–it was, you know, like, just a stick he wanted to throw both to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and to Bernie Sanders, who were sitting in particular places in that room. And it was also very interesting to see that the cameras were ready to focus on Bernie Sanders at that specific moment of the speech. And I think that he responded with a lot of class in the way that this issue needs to be addressed, and it will be an issue of the future.
However, I want to point out there was an interesting element of the speech, which was health care, and what he mentioned about health care. And when the cameras showed the Republican side of the room, you could just read their faces of concern. What is he talking about here? Because we know that the health care sector is behind supporting many Republican candidates, and this is an interesting element that I see where we are again going to see that clash, and the fact that very pressing issues are not being addressed in the U.S., including health care.
MARC STEINER: And that was interesting–I thought it was an interesting aspect, as well. Jacqueline?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This whole speech–because I just, I just don’t see it as a State of the Union address–was like having, having this man hold a gun to the head of America and then saying “Let’s be friends.” It’s really divisive. It was so transparent in his attempt to deceive people into believing that something is going on in this country that really isn’t; that there’s all this prosperity that people really are not feeling, and trying to connect issues that aren’t connected, and not make the connections for issues that everyone–well, not everyone, but a lot of people are waking up to seeing. Because you can’t say that, you know, a great president doesn’t continue to have endless wars, on the one hand, but then on the other hand say that you’re going to outspend Russia in nuclear weapons advancement after you’ve taken this country out of the INF treaty that there is no evidence that Russia violated.
So people are becoming aware of of the obfuscations, the lies, the half truths, and the BS that this administration is putting forward. And people are understanding, I think, exactly like everyone else said, that our enemy really is the corporate class, the oligarchs, the billionaires, the defense contractors, the prison-industrial complex, the climate deniers; all of the people who would deny the American people a safe and decent and just way of life. And they’re doing it for politics, they’re doing it for profit. And there really is–I think this, this speech, is the beginning of drawing that dividing line between people in this country between those who want to continue to believe the kind of rhetoric, and the nationalistic chest thumping, and the USA chants that went on in that chamber last night that was so ridiculous, and the kinds of people who see beyond all that and are really going to get to work to try to change this, to try to right the ship.
MARC STEINER: Well, I’m going to thank the three of you. Jacqueline Luqman, great to–always good to have you here. Helena Olea, good to have you with us as well, and having talked to you, for me, for the first time. And Eugene Puryear, I’m glad you could join us this morning, as well. Thank you so much for being with us.
EUGENE PURYEAR: Thanks so much for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Thank you so much.
MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. We’re covering a lot more of this, of course. Take care.