Max Blumenthal, Phyllis Bennis, and Norman Solomon discuss President Trump’s State of the Union. Rather than deliver a serious address, they say Trump offered a simplistic narrative designed to galvanize extremism
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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. In Washington DC, President Trump delivered the State of the Union on Tuesday night to discuss foreign policy angles of his speech. I’m being joined by a very esteemed panel of guests. Phyllis Bennis, she is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Max Blumenthal, he’s the senior editor of the Gray Zone Project, now housed here at the Real News Network. And, Norman Solomon, a journalist with exposefacts.org, and he’s also the co-founder of rootsaction.org. I thank you all for joining me today.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Glad to be here.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let me go to Phyllis first, but I just want to say that I will give each of you about a minute and a half at the beginning of this conversation to lay out your key strokes in terms of the speech delivered by Trump. So, Phyllis, let me start with you.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well I would say that the position of Trump’s nation is extreme. This was a speech designed to placate his base. The beginnings of it, the first 45 minutes or more, was really very much a campaign-style speech. He bragged, taking responsibility for everything that he believes to be good that’s happened in this country, and I think that it was interesting that he spent very little time on the international issues. That was very much at the end of his speech, and with really no new changes in foreign policy. He repeated positions, extremist positions, that are guaranteed to be popular with his base, including keeping Guantanamo Prison open and sending more terrorists there, including generalized threats, but again, nothing new and different against North Korea.
With Iran, calling the Iran nuclear deal terrible, the worst deal ever and calling on Congress to deal with it, without any specifics. So no new announcements of actual policy shifts. Bragging about planning to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and identifying Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and I think in that context, again, he’s playing to his base bragging about what he’s already done, but with very little intentionality of what comes next. This was very much an announcement that the extremism of his policies are going to continue, that the positions that he has staked out so far are not going to change. There was a rather extraordinary moment when he talked about the need for militarism, really, without using the term.
He said that complacency and concessions only invite aggression, and that weakness is a straight path to conflict, and that only unmatched power is the surest means of our defense. So, it was essentially another assertion of raw power as the basis of his foreign policy, while bragging in only slightly coded terms about the racism that undergirds his actual policies, whether it be on the questions of immigration, the questions of the response towards terrorist attacks anywhere in the world. Racism at the core of his policies, that is to remain unchanged.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Norman, your take on the speech?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well it was really a reaffirmation of a kind of extreme, “Let’s brag about what an empire we are,” but coated in just the most glorious light. Really, what we’re seeing is a normalization of what Phyllis I think quite properly referred to as extremism, and to some extent, that’s inevitable. You make somebody president, you put him in that kind of environment with the Congress around him, and despite the opposition from many in the mass media, still, the sort of reflexive deference to him that we saw on cable TV tonight … the reality is that Trump has normalized what are extremely militaristic positions, and he’s been able to drag the so-called “center” more in his direction.
So the terms that the debate takes place upon, and of course, he talked about at the beginning wanting common ground, but what he really wants and is largely achieving, or rather the people who are hitched to his wagon are achieving, is a way to drag the entire debate such it has been on foreign policy in the U.S. more and more to a flagrant and increasingly simplistic narrative. And of course that speech was basically about narrative. It was somewhere in the realm of, “See Dick, see Jane, see Spot, see them run.” It would be hard to conceive of a more simplistic worldview. But of course, it’s in the service of neoliberal economic agendas and extreme ramped-up militarism.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Max. Let’s get your take on this.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, yeah. I agree with all of the comments by Phyllis and Norman. I sort of regret agreeing to this because I had to watch that, and I now feel like I’m 20 years older. I mean, I’m very glad to be here, but that was one of the most atrocious State of the Unions I’ve seen. Trump’s delivery was lethargic and lugubrious. It was basically a reality show with Trump narrating the heroic stories of various American archetypes held together with a Kulturkampf, with a culture-war demagoguery on nativism like we’ve seen from no other president, and Norman’s right. It’s been normalized under Trump. I’ve heard a lot of pundits say that Trump’s speech was surprisingly normal.
He’s using not racist dog-whistle terms but racist bullhorn terms like “chain migration” and fabricating points about the immigration system. The visa lottery for example does contain security vetting, and he said that there was none. It’s very difficult for new citizens of the U.S. or immigrants to bring distant family members. Chain migration is essentially a myth. He dressed that up in scare mongering about MS-13 and Latino gang members. Beyond that, he offered a very bellicose foreign policy vision, but at the same time, I had actually expected him to take credit for the bilateral talks and the planned display of unity at the Olympics between North and South Korea, and he didn’t even take that opportunity.
He had very little to say about Iran or the Iran Deal. There was a little sop to the pro-Israel community, which got Chuck Schumer on his feet, but that was really one of the only times we saw any cheering from the Democratic side of the aisle. George W. Bush was able to get much more displays of bipartisanship. So, imagine looking abroad, looking at this speech from abroad, from Beijing, from Moscow, from Seoul, Pyongyang, Tokyo, Brussels, wherever, any of the foreign capitals, and you’re basically seeing a very sadistic spectacle of American carnage with promises of torture of detainees, withdrawal from international law, a Bruegel-like imagery of wildfires and mass shootings and pregnant opioid addicts. A president who’s widely hated, half of the chamber refuses to stand for him.
This is a display of a declining empire, and Trump really serves as its embodiment, and he, as Phyllis and Norman said, is catering to essentially less than 30% of the country. So it was significant in that regard, and it was absolutely not a normal State of the Union address.
SHARMINI PERIES: And Phyllis, just before we went on, you and I were talking about what Trump had said in relation to the countries that didn’t vote for moving the capital, moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and that this means punitive action to those countries that didn’t support the move. Can you elaborate on that point he made and whether this is par for the course for this administration?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well this is not only par for the course for this administration. An aspect of this is certainly par for the course for U.S. policy for a very long time. It was Madeleine Albright in the supposedly multilateralist Clinton Administration when she was the ambassador to the United Nations who first said the words, “The United Nations is a tool of American foreign policy,” which she asserted as a great thing, not as a critique, and I think that that is something that has characterized the U.S. role at the UN for many, many years. The difference here is the disdain. For the opinions of the rest of the world and saying such things with this kind of language, “Those countries that don’t support us and ask us for money, how dare they? We will give our money to our friends.”
It’s taking away any notion of international responsibility for poverty, for global issues whether it be climate change, whether it be HIV/AIDS, all of the myriad of challenges that are recognized virtually unanimously around the world as necessitating a global response. The position of the Obama administration was, we need to try to participate in this as best we can, maybe not as much as everybody wants us to. It was always very cautious. But now, we have the Trump administration saying, directly, “No. We have no responsibility towards this.” It was similar in a certain way that the kind of racism and disdain that it reflects, we didn’t hear much about that conversation, where he spoke of African nations, Haiti and others as “shithole” countries.
We didn’t hear that word, but we did hear that kind of absolute scorn. We heard it about people of color in the United States. The statement he made when he was talking about the creation of the country and American exceptionalism, and he used this language saying that these early heroic settlers were caught between an ocean, on one hand, and the vast wilderness on the other side as if this was an empty continent without people. It was very much like Golda Meir once said, “There were no Palestinian people there; they did not exist.” He was saying, “There were no Native Americans. There were no thousands of tribes and millions of people here. They did not exist.” All that existed was an ocean on one side and an implacable wilderness that they conquered.
How brave, how heroic, and how racist to simply eliminate from any historical reference this entire population that was wiped out by those settlers. So it’s that kind of overt racism, overt disdain for the rest of the world that was so different with this speech. As Max said, this was not like any other State of the Union speech that I think has ever existed.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well you’ve got to take the planning and the actual policy seriously. The speech itself, the strokes were so broad that you could barely see them. They were just sort of touch-tone references hitting some old notes, ringing some old bells. A lot of this speech reminded me of some of the worst of Ronald Reagan’s orations. It’s sort of that Jerzy Kosinski novel, being there where somebody is playing, people who have been on TV that he’s learned to emulate to a great degree of skills. But what Trump has done in substance is to provide a whole set of layers of cabinet members and subcabinet people who are in many ways, while carrying out the usual economic and military imperial agenda, there’s a level of lunacy and recklessness that is hard to match.
I just think of, again, going back to Reagan, the guy who told the reporter Robert Scheer that with “enough shovels,” people could pull doors over a hole that they dug in their backyard and perhaps survive a nuclear war. There’s a kind of a casualness about policies that could end life on this planet that were only implicit in this speech. But when you look at the damage that’s been done, I got to say that at least until recently, a lot of progressives were rather self-congratulatory when it seemed that Obamacare was preserved and there were these sort of premature victory laps being done. But beneath the rhetoric, there’s tremendous damage being done in all levels whether the Supreme Court, whether it’s the gear-up of militarism, even beyond what Obama had dreamed up, which is really saying something.
I think the gravity of the situation is such that we should recognize the distraction quality of so much of the mass media and some of the progressive media fixation with style in the tweets and all the rest of it, because what Trump is doing, among many other things and being used to do, is to drag the baseline further and further downward, and then he does these high jumps over the low standards and expectations that he and his handlers have created, so that when he can read a teleprompter without overtly insulting people, like tonight, he forgot to mention Norwegians as the archetypal best immigrants, then you can bet that for the next day, we’ll be subjected to enormous media praise for his restraint. Well there’s no restraint to be found in what this administration is doing.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Max. We have about five minutes. Let me get your response to what both Phyllis and Norman had said.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, I mean, Norman’s right. I mean, what Trump is actually doing, and I think where the heart of his speech was, was advancing the Republican agenda as it is stood since at least the Reagan Era. We heard a lot of cheering for Trump’s successful tax bill, which has consolidated supply-side economics and transferred trillions of dollars of wealth into the hands of the ultra-wealthy, you know, the NDAA, the defense bill, will also put hundreds of millions into the hands of private Pentagon contractors. So you’re just looking at a massive giveaway, corporate welfare, and really, this is Paul Ryan’s agenda as advanced by Trump the salesman.
This is a remarkable achievement for the Republican Party. And too many liberal pundits and the members of the so-called resistance look at Trump as kind of anomalous, as a figure who stands apart from his party. While this wasn’t a normal State of the Union address, we really do have to look at Trump’s agenda as the agenda of the Republican Party, from Reagan all the way through Clinton. I mean, there was a line that reminded me of Clinton when Trump said that we are going to bring people out of welfare and into the workforce. So, more promises of gutting welfare. He’s going to move onto Medicare next, I’m sure. There’s nothing for Democrats to really be self-congratulatory about. He’s also placed Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.
I think that the Republican Party is very emboldened in Washington right now. Another thing they’re emboldened about is the Mueller investigation. They managed to turn the tables on Mueller, put the FBI on the defensive, and this largely has to do, I think, the Nunes memo, with Trump going along with Paul Ryan’s agenda, getting rid of Steve Bannon. As the reporter Jane Mayer, who’s focused on the Koch brothers for several years, reported, the Mercer family actually wanted Bannon fired months ago, because he was supporting raising taxes on the wealthy. So getting rid of Bannon and then signing on to Paul Ryan’s agenda on the tax plan has gotten the consent of the Republicans in Congress to punch back against the Democrats, get this Nunes memo out that could come out by the end of the week.
The Democratic memo by the way on the FISA cables is not coming out. So the party is emboldened, and Trump is walking out of this speech being praised by mainstream pundits as kind of a normal president. So I think as much as I was disgusted by the whole display, you’re looking at a Republican Party that is still somehow incipient.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Phyllis. Let me give you the last word. He did mention that a year ago, he had come forth promising to eliminate ISIS, and today, he took credit for that and for having liberated 100% of the territory that was held by what he called “these killers.” I want your response to that, and we’ll have to end with that. Thank you.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think this goes directly to the question of consequences. It is true that, militarily, the ability of ISIS to control territory and control populations in whole cities has been largely defeated by primarily, not only, but primarily, U.S.-led forces. However, the cost of that, the cost in lives, thousands of people, thousands of civilians were killed by U.S. bombing and other bombing. The Syrian and Russian attacks on Aleppo killed numerous people as well. But if we’re looking at U.S. policy, thousands of civilians were killed. Entire cities were destroyed. This was not Vietnam where the famous line was, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” This was, we had to destroy a giant modern city of over a million people in order to “save it or liberate it.”
So, this notion of ignoring consequences on real people in the real world, in the interest of claiming the great accomplishment of some political claim, in this case we’ve gotten rid of ISIS control of territory, is very much indicative of this kind of ability of Trump and his administration to absolutely dismiss the lives of other people, people in other countries, people of color in this country, immigrants and refugees from all countries, Muslims from all countries. All of these people can be dismissed as if they have no consequence. I think that’s what we were seeing in a very raw form tonight.
SHARMINI PERIES: And that was Phyllis Bennis with the Institute for Policy Studies. We’ve had Max Blumenthal who’s a senior editor of the Gray Zone Project, and of course, Norman Solomon, journalist with exposefacts.org. Thank you all for joining us this evening.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Thank you.