What Donald Trump’s State of the Union address says about his autocratic tendencies

The January 30 address at the State of the Union reveals a lot about the American leader’s excessive character. Nicholas Kamm/AFP

“You’re up there, you’ve got half the room going totally crazy wild, they loved everything, they want to do something great for our country, and you have the other side even on positive news, really positive news like that, they were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said treasonous. I mean, yeah, I guess, why not. Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

This is what US President Donald Trump said on February 4 about the Democrats who, according to him, did not clap at his January 30 State of the Union address. The President criticized those who did not explicitly cheer his remarks, accusing them of “treasonous behaviour” which caused an outrage this week among various senators.

Such statement is significant of the 45th US President’s autocratic tendencies that are manifest in his discourse, his tone and his choice of words.

Indeed his State of the Union message stood out completely from the tradition of his predecessors.

TRump clapping at his own speech at his State of the Union address.

Pointing to the “danger” inside

Despite a call for bipartisan unity, and a “down the middle” compromise on immigration, its tone and motif were essentially nationalistic and authoritarian.

Authoritarianism, the subordination of individual freedom to the powers that be, can be triggered by an inflated perceived threat. Beyond the usual suspects (Iran and North Korea), the greatest threat evoked by president Trump in his address was about illegal immigration. Immigrants are here associated with drugs, crime, terrorism and wage suppression.

“For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They’ve allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans.

The attack on past administrations is more subtle: he accuses the open borders for "the loss of many innocent lives,” a serious charge that goes beyond the usual criticism against political opponents.

Trump amplifies the danger by locating it both outside and inside the nation. The MS-13 criminal gang represents the savage Other, foreign gangs at work in the US. And while “generously” offering “a path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants,” Donald Trump conditions this offer on certain requirements, including “good moral character,” without explaining what constitutes good moral character.

But his approach to immigration defies norms also for what it does not say. The entire address contains not one single positive reference to immigration. Even the positive attributes of the illegal DACA dreamers (the undocumented illegal migrant children who entered the country as minors) pursuing the American dream are turned against them. The only dreamers mentioned are the legal “Americans [who] are dreamers too.”

Breaking away with a strong American legacy

Every president in the last 30 years has promised increased border protection against drugs and terrorists, but their view of immigration was never entirely negative. Immigration has been presented as beneficial to the economy and situated at the core of American identity, be it George Bush senior in 1990:

“Our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores, and the millions still struggling to be free.”

George Bush speech in 1990.

Bill Clinton in 1995):

“We are a nation of immigrants.”

George Bush junior in 2006:

“[T]this economy could not function without [immigrants].”

or Barack Obama, 2010

“Fixing our broken immigration system, to secure our borders and enforce our laws and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our Nation.”

Past presidents have distinguished between “good” and “bad” immigration by focusing essentially on the law. By contrast, Donald Trump promises to create a “lawful immigration system,” without acknowledging any of the benefits of immigration.

He speaks instead of restriction, focusing especially on so-called “chain migration,” claiming falsely that “a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” and on unsubstantiated allegations that the current system has already allowed in terrorists.

In addition to his emotionally charged rhetoric, Trump defied norms by inviting two guests of honor who had lost their daughter to MS-13 gang members. Ever since Ronald Reagan started the practice, Presidents have frequently recognized special guests who illustrate a policy proposal of theirs. But inviting applause to recognize the horror of losing their daughter to gang was a marked departure from the generally uplifting tone of this practice.

Branding war through words

Authoritarians often distract by claiming that the social order is fragile and under attack and that social norms should be protected. Donald Trump repeatedly alludes to this fear when he celebrates heroes who are “defending hope, pride, and defending the American way.” This same war metaphor is at play when he talks about the highly partisan issues of gun control and religious liberty.

“We are totally defending our Second Amendment, and have taken historic actions to protect religious liberty.”

The president also uses a more direct war metaphor to talk about environmental regulations that he ended. He describes “the war on American energy,” and “the war on beautiful clean coal.” Similarly, he qualifies the past as an “era of economic surrender” where “wealth was lost” and “prosperity sacrificed.” Now, through his presidency, companies can “win again.”

The attack on past administrations is more subtle: he accuses an unidentified “they,” for “the loss of many innocent lives,” a serious charge that goes beyond the usual criticism against political opponents.

“They’ve allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”

This rhetoric is indicative not only of partisanship but of what American journalist Carl Berstein has called a “Cold Civil War.” This political and cultural war between progressives and conservatives has been exacerbated by the media, especially Fox News, for years.

Yet Donald Trump does not seem to mind the inconsistency between his aggressive rhetoric and his definition of the national community as “one American family,” a metaphor also used by Barack Obama in 2011.

Praising patriarchy

Family is another of Trump’s favourite card but, contrary to the traditional discourse of unity, it is used to encourage feuds within the nation by opposing kinship and church with public service and state:

“In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the centre of American life.”

Donald Trump’s ideal family: a model from the 1950s?

Donald Trump’s national family has many patriarchal features. It is a place of domesticity (“the same home”) and feelings (“the same heart”), and it is united around a sacred totem (“the same flag”) to celebrate the manly virtue of strength, represented in law and order and military heroes:

“And we celebrate our police, our military, and our amazing veterans as heroes who deserve our total and unwavering support.”

Complete obedience and subjugation to the nation have replaced individual freedom, including free speech:

“Those who have served our nation remind us of why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the National Anthem.”

This jab at the National Football League players is a reminder that in this national family, dissent and disagreement will not be tolerated. On the contrary, this authoritarianism demands discipline through a combination of rewards and punishment:

“The authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”

In his concluding remarks, president Trump reaffirms American exceptionalism (“there is nothing we cannot achieve”) based on a heroic narrative where ordinary Americans are heroes because of their work, sacrifice, strength and courage.

He finishes by emphasizing clear goals and values for the nation: security, strength, pride, power and freedom. Essentially, Donald Trump’s vision for the nation is centred on power and strength rather than values and virtues. He vows to rebuild American strength, and, as is often the case with populists, he claims to empower the people as partners. If the “state of our Union is strong,” he says, it is because the “people are strong,” but a close look at his rhetoric indicates that “the people” in this case are essentially “his” people.