President Donald J. Trump’s address to the joint session of Congress reeked of demagoguery and deceit, the two defining characteristics of his rise to power. Through the speech, Trump appealed to base, bestial emotions, preying on tribal instincts to pit his base – the white working class – against those with different backgrounds and skin colors. His emphasis on “radical Islamic terrorism,” perhaps the most emphatic phrase he uttered, broke with Barack Obama and George Bush’s administration as well as the wishes of his national security adviser, Lt. General H.R. McMaster. Steve Bannon’s rhetorical triumph centers the terrorism debate on Islam rather than other issues surrounding individual decisions to renounce humanity and risks alienating valuable Muslim allies. There’s a reason Obama, Bush, and countless national security officials eschew the label. (Such phrasing also runs into immediate conflict with Trump’s denunciation of antisemitism that headed the speech – antisemitism, when acted upon, is terrorism and yet its perpetrators are not labelled “radical Christian terrorists”).
Furthermore, Trump, who began his campaign by labelling a large percentage of a subset of immigrants “rapists,” devoted a portion of his address to vilifying illegal immigrants by spotlighting some of their crimes. Such blatant race-based demagoguery — Trump clearly sought to increase favor for his ineffectual border wall and ramped-up deportations by strengthening the implicit connection between illegal immigration and deadly crime – is the 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad in speech form. It also renounced statistics. Immigrants, legal and illegal, tend to have lower rates of crime than the native-born population. That is lost on Trump (or, he doesn’t care).
Deceit, too, defined the speech. Misleading the public on the economic and criminal consequences of (illegal) immigration fell far short of Trump’s biggest moment of deceit: His portrayal of the botched Navy Seal raid in Yemen. Trump, who earlier in that day blamed his generals for the failed raid, told Congress that the raid yielded crucial information about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He then spoke directly to the widow of Ryan Owens, a Seal killed in the raid, and complemented her and Owens’ valor and bravery; after a long and deserved applause for the widow, Trump remarked how Owens smiled down from heaven because he “broke a record” for sustained applause. Such disrespect for the hero – most, Navy Seals especially, have not even a fraction of Trump’s astounding vanity – becomes more abhorrent as one reads about the raid. Administration officials admit that information seized is not “actionable” or “vital”; Trump reportedly authorized the raid without having read intelligence reports. He chose not to remain in the Situation Room during its occurrence. And yet Trump, who so clearly botched his first counterterrorism effort, stood at the dais and lied to Congress and the American people about the raid. He lied to a widow and then used her as a prop in his speech.
Demagoguery and deceit should have no role in American politics, especially not in the White House. And yet those two words so perfectly describe Trump and his admittedly authoritarian appeal. America deserves a better leader – Trump, lest he want to further erode the presidency and our standing in the world, should change his behavior, immediately.