After US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arm-twisted US President Donald Trump into ending – at least temporarily – the shutdown of the US government, Trump finally got to give his State of the Union (SOTU) address to both Houses of Congress. The almost two-hour address touched on a ton of the issues that have been animating US politics.
But his challengers – Democrat and ex-gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, Stacey Abrams, and independent Senator Bernie Sanders – offered two very different responses to the wide-ranging address.
Here’s how the debate via monologues went down (and all the fun side-stories in between).
(For example, here we see Speaker Nancy Pelosi going viral with the most sarcastic standing ovation ever seen, at the end of Trump’s speech.)
‘The State of the Union is Strong’
One would be forgiven for thinking the over 50 standing ovations Trump got during his speech signified a huge success – but it’s fairly standard. SOTU speeches have for decades been plagued by partisan applause, to the point where they mean almost nothing anymore. Slightly more surprising though were the moments that saw Congress leaders break out into frathouse-like chants of ‘USA, USA!’
Once when Trump said “The state of the Union is strong”, once when he went on an anti-socialist diatribe (“Tonight we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country”) and once, most surprisingly, when he remarked that there were more Congresswomen in government than ever before, which saw the Democrat women – dressed in white to honour suffragettes – break into whoops and applause, leading the chants.
Anyway, after watching two hours worth of monologue, here are the most noteworthy utterances:
- It started off with a call for cooperation, compromise and greater good – and a plea to leave behind the “politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution”.
- Then came a declaration that America has witnessed an unprecedented “economic boom”, an “economic miracle” under the Trump administration, that can only be stopped by – wait for it – “foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous, partisan investigations.” Is it just me, or was that almost Nixonian?
“I believe the time has come to bring this investigation [...] to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.” – Yeah, it wasn’t just me. But I guess even Nixon didn’t tie a continuing investigation into himself to the fate of the American economy.
- Oh, there was even a little haiku about the investigation, in case everybody wasn’t having fun: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation – it just doesn't work that way.”
- He talked about the danger of having “open borders”, and the “large, organised caravans” making their way to the US. He spoke about crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, and the extra burden these “illegal aliens” put on local schools and hospitals. He accused the “political elite” of living safely behind their own personal walls and gates, while the working classes had to deal with the reality of crime brought by undocumented immigrants. He also said that one in three women would be assaulted on their journey to America... which, given the multiple allegations of sexual assault against him, seems a fairly brazen point to make.
"“I want the largest number of immigrants in our country ever, but they have to come legally [...] Tolerance for illegal immigration isn’t compassionate, it is actually very cruel.”" - Donald Trump, President, United States
- He slammed previous administrations for their “soft” approach to China, towards whom there was in place “calamitous trade policy” before he took office. Now, he said, the theft of US jobs and intellectual property by the Chinese had come to an end.
- He also slammed the “disastrous” North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and implored Congress to pass his alternative Bill, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
- He addressed drug prices and pharmaceuticals, saying prices had witnessed their largest decline in 46 years under his government, and touting his success in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
- Trump said his was the first government to institute paid parental leave to enable parents to bond with their newborns.
- And he quickly followed up that point with an emotive attack on women’s reproductive rights, accusing Democrat lawmakers of “cheering with joy when passing legislation allowing babies to be ripped from their mothers’ wombs moments before birth – an extreme exaggeration of what late-term abortions mean.
- Russia got one mention, in context of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and the US’ decision to pull out of it following “repeated Russian violations” – no mention of election interference, naturally.
- He then praised his government for having gotten NATO to “pay their fair share” for collective defence, and made the assertion that had it not been for his government, the US would probably have been at war with North Korea right now – yes, the ‘Little Rocket Man’ jibes are surely what prevented war.
"“We continue our historic push for peace on the Korean peninsula. Our hostages have come home, missile testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in more than 15 months. If I had not been elected president of the US, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”"
Trump did say a lot more, and to listen to the whole thing, you can watch here:
Stacey Abrams Delivers Warmth But No Rebuttal
After a SOTU address high on specifics and range, Democrat Stacey Abrams’ 11-minute speech lacked depth and force. It was heavy on personal anecdotes – about herself and her family – and laid the message of unity and love on thick, but didn’t do much else. After a SOTU address high on falsehood, Abrams’ address didn’t satisfy. Here are the points she touched on:
- Talking about the government shutdown, she mentioned the hardships she witnessed furloughed government workers going through, and made the case that America is a nation where people come together in tough times, but that this president was the one who had created these tough times.
- She went into some detail about illegal immigration, about the cruelty of taking children from their mothers at the border, and the cruelty of putting kids in cages – she said border control was important, but so was compassion.
- She also touched on voter suppression, particularly of people of colour, as a serious issue and threat to American democracy, alleging that she witnessed it herself in her gubernatorial race in Georgia during the mid-terms.
- At the end, she gave a scant mention of the danger to Roe vs Wade and the assault on women’s reproductive autonomy.
Her speech was delivered with a smile, and an air of warmth and unity showing through. It was high on emotion, feel-good statements, and a vision for a kinder society, but low on fact or substance.
Bernie Sanders on the Attack
Unlike Abrams, Sanders’ response was a direct attack, running for about 30 minutes. He rebutted specific statements with numbers and figures to make strong points. Unlike Abrams, who went for a uniting, warm tone, Sanders went cold and to-the-point. Here’s what he said:
- Heaping scorn on Trump, Sanders ridiculed the claim that the economy was “booming”. He said it may be booming for Trump’s billionaire friends, but it wasn’t for the “nearly 80% of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck”. The state of the economy was by far the most important issue for Sanders.
"“The economy is great for the top 1% who now earn 46% of all new income. The economy is great for the top 25 hedge fund managers on Wall Street, who made double the money last year than all 1,48,000 kindergarten teachers in our country. The economy is great for the 5 richest people in US who’ve seen their wealth go up by over $100 billion since Trump was elected.”"
- He agreed with Trump mentioning the state of America’s “crumbling infrastructure”, but slammed him for his proposed solution. He said Trump’s plan to privatise the nation’s infrastructure would never work. Quoting MLK, he said, “‘This country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor’. What he said then was true and it's true today and it remains absolutely unacceptable.”
- Outright calling Trump “nothing less than racist”, Sanders slammed him for his focus on crimes committed by Hispanics, saying that nowhere in his address did Trump mention the deadliest mass shooting in 2018, committed by a white man. Nor did he mention, despite his focus on crime, the growing incidence of gun-related deaths in the country.
- He slammed Trump’s position on abortion, calling it the most extreme and anti-woman attack on reproductive rights.
- He also went into a list of important issues that Trump refused to touch on; climate change, minimum wage, Russian cyberattacks on American elections, voter suppression, and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen in which America’s ally, the “despotic regime” or Saudi Arabia is involved – perhaps nitpicking, considering the wide breadth of topics Trump’s address did cover. Surely, he can’t be expected to cover everything.
- With statistics on hand, Sanders accused Trump of being bought by monied interests – big pharma, fossil fuel industry, wealthy campaign donors – rather than listening to the people.
"“Wall Street, drug companies, health insurance companies, fossil fuel industries, the billionaire class – they’re all spending hundreds and hundreds of millions to get Congress to do their bidding. We have something more powerful than money – the people.”"
So, that’s the state of the United States according to politicians... which version are you buying?
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