State of the Union

The Rhetorical and Substantive Limits of Trump's American Greatness

The president talks a good game about driving into the future, but his eyes are glued to the rear-view mirror.


Give President Donald Trump his due. His State of the Union Address employed a positive rhetoric almost always lacking from his major addresses and he rightly touted some of his administration's accomplishments, including the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, cutting regulations, and improving many aspects of the tax code. Halfway through his first term, only his most deranged critics can continue to claim that his election still represents an "extinction-level threat" to the American experiment.

Yet simply because he's not the unmitigated disaster his worst detractors fear and has delivered an uplifting speech doesn't mean his policy agenda is perfect. Far from it. The vast majority of us—72 percent, according to Gallup—are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, and Trump's presidency is both an effect and cause of this long-term trend.


To his credit, Trump recognizes that the 21st century demands new approaches to policy challenges. We must, he said,

step boldly and bravely into the next chapter of this great American adventure. We must create a new standard of living for the 21st century. An amazing quality of life for all of our citizens is within reach. We can make our communities safer, our families stronger, our culture richer, our faith deeper, and our middle class bigger and more prosperous than ever before.

Toward the end of his speech, he again returned to the need to look forward:

What will we do with this moment? How will we be remembered? This is the time to reignite the American imagination.

It's disappointing, then, that Trump offered virtually no new solutions to major problems. Yes, he is easily the best president to date on the issue of school choice, but it's also true that the federal government cannot the major driver on that issue. And it is nothing less than thrilling to hear any president, but especially one in 2019, after 18 years of failure, say bluntly, "Great nations do not fight endless wars."

But on virtually every other issue, Trump is pushing old-school, 20th-century-or-older policies that have little to do with shrinking the size, scope, and spending of the federal government. Indeed, among his biggest impacts has been to increase spending and explode an already historically high debt. He is every bit as locked into a model that would centralize and aggregate power in the hands of the few.

Unsuprisingly, he pushed for his border wall, which addresses the nonexistent problem of crossings in the middle of nowhere (apprehensions on the border with Mexico started dropping in 2000). The fixation on illegal immigration comes at a time when the number of illegals is at its lowest total in a decade. Illegals and asylum seekers have not proven to be any sort of terrorist threat. The one comforting element of Trump's discussion of immigration is that he said, "I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally." That's a major change in rhetoric, one at odds with the predilection of leading GOP senators such as Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) and Sonny Perdue (R–Ga.) and his own adviser Stephen Miller, all of whom are pushing to cut legal immigration by 50 percent.

The president's defense of trade protectionism and his attack on NAFTA is similarly old-fashioned. He can claim that NAFTA is the worst trade deal ever, but there is zero evidence for such a charge. Most analyses of the deal found it to have a modest and positive impact on the U.S. economy, increasing GDP by 0.2 to 0.3 percent, or $50 billion, annually. No one except the president is under the misimpression that the deal he negotiated to replace NAFTA, the USMCA, is anything but a mostly cosmetic update. While Trump can talk tough about China, there's little doubt that his trade war has, to date, hurt Americans. The Tax Foundation found that, by the end of 2018, "we had already paid $42 billion in higher taxes due to tariffs."

It wasn't so long ago—not more than two or three years, really—that it was unthinkable that a Republican president would be pushing for paid family leave. Yet there was Trump, arguing for such a mandate. We can assume that Republicans were against the policy because they recognize it is a great example of unintended consequences, that it is both unnecessary and harmful to the women it is supposed to help. As Veronique de Rugy wrote for Reason last year, the private sector has already been expanding paid leave for first-time mothers. In the 1960s, she wrote, only about 16 percent of women had access to it; now, it's over 50 percent. "As much as we would love for everyone to get paid leave," de Rugy concludes, "a government-provided solution to the issue won't result in the proverbial free lunch that supporters hope for. It's likely to have minimal effect, as the new benefit will be offset over time by lower wages. It could also give an incentive to employers to discriminate against childbearing-age workers for the benefits of older workers."

"We have not yet begun to dream," the president intoned in the final section of his speech, reaching for a lofty, future-oriented rhetoric that's a welcome change from his routinely dystopian invocations of "American carnage." But most of his policy solutions are relics of the past that have been tried and failed (such as protectionism) and even his choices of topics seem stuck in the 20th century. Deaths from AIDS, for instance, peaked in the 1990s and the disease is now seen more as a manageable, chronic condition that a public-health emergency. His emphasis on World War II—among other flourishes, he acknowledged three soldiers who participated in D-Day—was as emotionally manipulative as it was intellectually lazy. There is no question that World War II marked a turning point in the nation's history, but it also marked the end of the "America First" movement and mentality that Trump is trying to revive.

You can't drive boldly into the future with your eyes glued to the rear-view mirror. But in all too many ways, that's exactly what President Trump seems to be doing.