A photo of a panel at MSNBC

The Well Actually

When Trump Says “Unity,” He Means Submit

While most media outlets cast last night's State of the Union Address as a bipartisan pivot, his message was clear: Comply, or It's Bye-Bye!

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Will they call him “presidential” tomorrow, I wondered, watching as Donald Trump’s dentures appeared to slip during an interminable, monotonous jumble of nuclear taunts sandwiched into a xenophobic State of the Union address littered with racist dogwhistles?

Blessedly, they did not. (Mostly. Frank Luntz is still making moony eyes at the president.) But the cable news pundits and newspaper politicos still seem determined to treat Trump like a regular commander-in-chief even as the man continues to defy basic norms of human social decency, struggles under the weight of an investigation into his team’s alleged collusion with Russia to steal the election, and contradicts himself constantly on practically everything, including his own banner issue: immigration.

Across the networks and cable channels, panels credulously took up the Trump administration’s “unity” talking point, exploring whether an hour or so with a teleprompter could turn Trump, Mr. “I Alone Can Fix It,” into the great healer and consummate dealmaker he always claims to be. This line of inquiry is, of course, patently asinine. From his comments about Mexican immigrants being rapists to “grab ’em by the pussy” to, more recently, that whole “shithole” thing, no speech, however well delivered (and last night’s was not), is going to solve Donald Trump’s unity problem, which stems from the fact that he is a loathsome and crass man who makes no effort whatsoever to hide his contempt for women, immigrants, Black folks, political rivals, the people of Puerto Rico—the list goes on. He is entirely unsuited for the job of president of the United States, and the vast majority of Americans know it.

But the Trump administration said “unity” and the press ran with it. The Washington Post explored Trump’s tonal shifts, as if it is somehow remarkable that he’s capable of speaking to different people differently, as if it’s the harshness of his language, rather than the things of which he speaks, that might most offend the American people. The ABC News coverage situated Trump’s speech (sit down for this one!) as avoiding controversy—maybe the entire newsroom took a potty break when Trump took a few moments to deride Black athletes who’ve knelt during the national anthem. Politico called the speech “same policies in new bipartisan packaging,” as if wishing for Trump’s interminable right-wing pandering to be “bipartisan” could make it so.

It is always dangerous for the press to take the Trump administration at its word, but especially around marquee events like the State of the Union, when politically unplugged Americans are more likely to be paying attention. Nothing about the way Trump has operated in the last year suggests that he is interested in bipartisan compromises, from his party’s failed attempt to repeal Obamacare to ending DACA to the president’s insincere grandstanding on abortion, Trump is as red as any Republican, and redder than many.

The American people understand that Trump is an incompetent extremist; it shows in his historically low approval ratings. As individuals, members of the mainstream press understand this, too. But as a group, many professionals tasked with framing history as it happens seem unable to break out of the established mold, continuing to allow Washington to shape their coverage. With a president as hooked on television as Trump is, this does little more than create a feedback loop wherein outrageous talk—Trump’s only skill—makes news and actions mean nothing.

There is a gaping hole in mainstream State of the Union coverage—even in otherwise pretty good State of the Union coverage—that exposes the media’s blinders when it comes to framing the Trump administration. It concerns immigration, something that most coverage of Trump’s speech touched on but whiffed in the biggest possible way.

Trump used the subject of immigration to foment fear, as he usually does, hitting on the typical talking points about immigrants taking work and food out of the hands of Real Americans™. But he also interlaced his remarks about immigration with fear-mongering about violent drug gangs. He returned to the subject of MS-13 again and again, touching on immigration, then touching on gangs, touching on immigration, then touching on terrorist violence, weaving the concepts together in a bald bid to marry the concepts into a miasma of xenophobic terror. It is not a coincidence that the man who wrote Trump’s speech, Stephen Miller, is a racist who believes that diversity will destroy America. So yes, the State of the Union was about immigration, but only on the surface. On a deeper level, the State of the Union was about making some basic tenets of white nationalism palatable to the American people, couching abhorrent, ahistoric nonsense in the language of domestic security and safety.

Mainstream coverage of the State of the Union has almost entirely missed the single, glaring fact that exposes this speech for the racist fear-mongering it was, and the call for “unity” that it most certainly was not: Acts of mass violence on American soil are more likely to be committed by white American male citizens than by anyone else. Trump’s team cherry-picked the average Americans highlighted during his speech in order to paint a picture of a dire exterior threat to American safety, as if hordes of nefarious immigrants are at this very moment bearing down on our borders with murder on their minds.

But the call, as we know, is coming from inside the house. Conspicuously absent from Trump’s speech last night were moments of recognition for the survivors and families of those killed last year in two of the most horrific mass shootings in recent history: 58 killed by Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas, and 26 killed by Devin Patrick Kelley at a church in South Central Texas. But these families’ pain is not useful to Trump; there’s no need to put these people’s tears on parade for political gain. The reality is that the people most Americans need the most protection from are guys who look a lot like the president himself.

Somehow, reporters can fact-check Trump’s claims about energy, jobs and manufacturing, but the predominant undercurrent of his speech—linking immigration to violence—has gone unexamined.

That this omission has not been given even passing coverage thus far is, simply, outrageous. Just because Trump says he’s calling for “unity” in a speech does not mean that he actually is; the content itself belies this claim, and there’s no need to take up this talking point just because Trump wants us to. This was a speech that didn’t just happen to stoke disagreements among reasonable people with different political views. It was a speech intended to sow division, on immigration, but also, in Trump’s references to standing for the national anthem, on the subject of domestic racial oppression.

Any attempt at creating true “unity” will not include an hour of speechifying that links DREAMers with cartel violence, berates Black athletes for their political expression, and entirely ignores America’s gunsickness. But Trump is a bully leading a gang of bullies; to him, unity means submission and compliance. He expects that because he opened one night of reading a teleprompter with a few platitudes about bipartisanship, the American people won’t be able to see his fundamentally, expressly, and intentionally divisive policies for what they are. I think the American people can and do see the truth. I hope the press catches up soon.

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