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.

NEXT: Trump Praises America's Oil and Natural Gas Production in State of the Union Address

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  1. Is there a summary of Trump’s and the opposition statements? I don’t particularly care what the jacket has to say.

    1. nor should you

    2. Disagree, I would love to hear what the JACKET has to say, but Gillespie can fuck off and die in a hole.

    3. I doubt such a comparison actually exists, because it would be useful to show where each side stands, and provide an interesting memory a few years down the line. Neither the media nor either party wants that.

      As a wild guess, the LP might have an interest in such a thing. Otherwise wait a couple of days and try google.

  2. All politicians face the existential problem of how to deal with the future of technology and automation and how to assuage the concerns of workers and the ensuing chaos as they are phased out by robots. This is why socialism has broad appeal – it seems like a fair way to divide the work and wealth. However in fact the solution is capitalism: amass wealth and then retire and let others do the work. Eventually every one will retire, or at least not have kids and die off. Thus I was very happy and relieved to hear that Trump will defend capitalism and denounce socialism. Because this was not at all clear during his election. I’d definitely vote for him again.

    1. A society where 90% of the population is in premature retirement or on the dole ought to work out real well.

      1. At some point we will have to stop working. Because there will be no work left for humans to do. Like it or not.

        1. Arthur C Clarke fan? I am. Childhoods End was about that.

          There is more than enough to do for now.

          Somebody said it “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” Rabbi Tarfon his name was. Radical dude in his time.

        2. People have been fretting over the end of work for hundreds of years. Somehow it never seems to happen. Somehow people always find things to do that machines can’t do. Then they make machines which can do those, and find new things that machines can’t do.

    2. Not really. Your idea would work if we were operating in a “level playing field.” But instead, we have had the last 30 years with a small banker oligarchy running the government and directing most wealth into the hands of a relative few of us. First the large outsourcing and insourcing led to an entire generation missing out on the traditional “peak earning years.”

      Second, the banks were allowed to raid the retirement funds of major corps like GM through merger and acquisition wall street sleight of hand moves. Glass-Steagall was repealed, giving the banks free reign.

      The US government STOPPED enforcing anti-trust laws, again to the benefit of huge international corps and the detriment of small businesses and the Consumer. Witness most recently the merger of Monsanto into Bayer as the way to run away from Monsanto’s damaging roundup and secret GMO programs.That merger should not have been allowed to happen, as with many that came before during other presidencies and congresses.

      Thousands of laws and regulations were passed over the last 30 years that only large corps could meet and that drove small business into failure. Wall Street, with the help of their bought-and-paid-0for politicians like Clinton and Bush, killed main street.

      These are the facts. And because of it, the traditional free market solution that should have worked just fine can no longer work for large segments of our population.

  3. Like Reagan, I’ll choose an American cheerleader over people who despise the founding ideals of the greatest country for freedom and prosperity in the history of the earth.

    Just kept thinking about my lunatic prog friend during all the WWII parts in the speech, because he literally thinks we only fought World War II to “establish our dominance”

    1. No kidding about your friend?

      That guy needs to travel to Europe and visit all the German fortifications in occupied countries, like France and Norway.

      Then he needs to go to Pearl Harbor and visit the Arizona memorial. If fighting WWII was not moral, then nothing is and we should simply drop the charade.

      1. I am completely serious, and he would probably take all the wrong lessons from it. HE would go to Germany and somehow reinforce his idea that Trump is Hitler and the Far Right is bad, and so is America.

  4. Oh my God, Gillespie had to admit Trump gave a good speech it must have been the greatest speech by a President since Lincoln’s Second Innaugural. Yes. Stop looking to the past of good paying jobs making things. Look to Nick ‘s bright future of hispster freelancing, Uber, pot and of course endless cheap Immigrant labor for food trucks.

    And Nick has been praying to the trade monster to come and punish the economy for Trump’s disobedience for two years now. And his prayers still go unanswered

    1. Yet you cannot seem to ever remember any past instances of Reason staff saying Trump had done good things.

      And you cannot bring yourself to ever admit Trump has done bad things.

      Interesting spit take.

      1. Yes, true, Trump has not gone far enough on many things. But he is up against an intractible deep state and big government apparatus, and MSM, who fight him every step of the way.

        But I would say that Trump should be talking about eVerify and holding employers who knowingly employ illegal aliens accountable with fines and penalties. Remove the draw, and they will stop coming. Trump should be talking about passing laws that prevent illegal aliens from getting on the dole. Remove the draw, and they will stop coming. Trump should be talking about ending anchor baby migration. Remove the draw, and they will stop coming.

        But you and I both know that the traitorous establishment GOP and the panoply of libtard Democrats will never submit to any of it. Heck…they are the people who think it is okay to kill a viable baby while it is sitting on the table after birth. How can you reason with people like that?

        1. The pressure point for illegal immigration has to be: Significant penalties for employers of illegals. There seem to be none at present.

    2. +100

      Reason staffers are just getting picked apart by Trump’s achievements.

      Reason could focus on what Trump is doing badly, like not forcing a massive cut to social programs. The few topics would not get the web traffic that Shikha open border articles and Boehm’s nonsense articles about how he is wrong about nearly every part of the current trade issue.

  5. 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.

    You’re setting that bar high, Nick.I’ll settle for “best president of our young boomer lifetimes”.Ya got another contender?

  6. Shorter Nick:

    “Trump is right on the First Step Act, deregulation, tax reform and waging endless wars. Indeed, his presidency has not been the horror that many predicted. But on everything else, he is bad. Specifically, the federal deficit, the wall and trade protectionism are bad. And I like what he said about legal immigration, but that is out of step with other GOP members’ views, so I am going to hold that against him too!”

    So at worst, Trump was 50/50 on things the Jacket likes/dislikes.

    I really get tired of the Trump boosters in the comments. But I can completely understand why they are driven to such rage. Did Obama ever give a speech where 4/7 of proposals were libertarian adjacent? Not to my reckoning. This snark from Nick is just further evidence that he (and other Reason contributors) don’t like Trump viscerally and will NEVER give him credit for the good things he is pushing.

    I would implore Reason contributors to compare the tone of this article with the article written about Booker’s “Affordable Housing” bill from last week, which was 90% anti market crap with a few nods to increasing supply. The latter article was all praiseworthy when in reality, the bill was terrible for housing. It is time for contributors to put away the edgy snark and get serious about applying some Reason to their articles.

    1. talk about setting a high bar

    2. Dude, most of these guys are con artists. They’re left-liberal democrats making a living pretending to be libertarian!

    3. They’re paid haters.

      1. Yep. We are not their clients.

      2. Paid to only hate on one side though.

        Contrast the weeks-on-end brutal treatment poor Ron Paul got around here in ’08 for some of the content in his old newsletters with the one day “won’t this story just please die quickly” handwave that Governor Coonman of Virginia and his yearbook photos got around here on Monday.

        It would almost be comical if it wasn’t so revolting and shameless.

    4. Isn’t being forever cranky, unsatisfied, and disliked by all what being a libertarian is all about?

      This article is the equivalent of a pat on the head

    5. “This snark from Nick is just further evidence that he (and other Reason contributors) don’t like Trump viscerally and will NEVER give him credit for the good things he is pushing.”

      In other words, Nick The Prick is no different than CNN & MSNBC, et al.!

  7. I’m surprised to find NG dissing the America Firsters (non-interventionists) of 1940.

    1. Me too.

  8. Start working at home with Google. It’s the most-financially rewarding I’ve ever done. On tuesday I got a gorgeous BMW after having earned $8699 this last month. I actually started five months/ago and practically straight away was bringin in at least $96, per-hour. visit this site right here…..

  9. Trump isn’t perfect, what President was? Who are the better alternatives? Congress is a bigger part of the mess we are in, and I don’t see any of them trying to work to make things better, it is all about political wins.

  10. Trump isn’t perfect, what President was? Who are the better alternatives? Congress is a bigger part of the mess we are in, and I don’t see any of them trying to work to make things better, it is all about political wins.

  11. Why do we need Reason to cover the SOTU?

    CNN giant headline for their site: President Trump’s Off-Key Call For Unity

    NBC News main headline: On Trump’s big State of the Union applause line, the sound of silence was stunning

    ABC News had a generic header:5 key takeaways from President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address

    Folliwed up with not so neutral subs:
    –Trump called for unity despite past weeks of gridlock.
    –State of the Union fact check: What President Donald Trump claimed
    –Abrams calls out Trump, racism in historic response to the State of the

    The NYT went with a more staid and less partisan headline: Trump Presses Hard Line on Immigration in State of the Union Speech

    1. Note how little overlap there is with Reason’s mix of attempted neutral statements of fact and descriptions of policy disagreements and disappointments.

      Reason’s coverage was primarily editorial, yet was far more objective and neutral than the mainstream and theoretically non-partisan press.

      In a long list of coverage that is historically skewed by partisan bias, probably the most ludicrous is calling the DNC response “Historic”. Good grief.

      1. Even Reason’s propaganda cannot catch up to how Lefty the MSM’s propaganda gets.

  12. “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.”

    Oh, come on. Satisfaction with the direction of the country crashed when the economy crashed in 2008, and didn’t recover, even as the economy didn’t recover, for the next 8 years.

    But the economy is doing pretty well right now, and you’d have expected satisfaction with the direction of the country to have rebounded, and it hasn’t. Is this because of Trump’s presidency?

    Only indirectly, in that the media aren’t willing to admit things are going well as long as Trump is President.

  13. Indeed, among his biggest impacts has been to increase spending and explode an already historically high debt.

    Absolutely true, but your hero Block Insane Yomomma played a major role in exploding the debt by more than $9 trillion in eight years, and you never once held him accountable the way you are Trump.

    In fact, to this day you fugazi jerkoffs like to laughably claim that he bears no responsibility for that at all.

    1. US Debt by President by Dollar and Percent

      To be fair, Under President Obama, the national debt grew the most dollar-wise. He added $8.588 trillion.

  14. FFS, Gillespie. You say we don’t need a border wall, but we do need NAFTA. Yet you assert that Trump is stuck in the past.

    Let me ask you, do you use even an iota of critical thought when you write this stuff, or do you simply fling shit against the wall?

  15. That should be David Perdue, not Sonny Perdue.

  16. Nick is just astoundingly delusional. He seems like a smart guy, too.

    Walls work. Please do your research. Pretend you’re in high school again, doing a research paper. You’ll see that you’re dead wrong.

    As for trade? Try rereading Adam Smith.

    1. Thanks, I am glad I am not the only one who noticed the severe flaws and inaccuracies in this article.

  17. Author, you can’t claim there is no border problem if in fact there are large crossings between the entry points – and there clearly are large crossings. And you can’t claim there is no crisis when the damage to our culture, safety, and budgets for social safety nets are hit this hard by illegal immigration. For that matter, Trump is coming up short on proposals. End chain migration. End anchor baby migration. End non-merit migration. Lower the number of immigrants.

    And, NAFTA *was* a bad deal for American workers. That much is clear. I opposed it in 1993 when Clinton signed it, and I still oppose it. The problem is that, the new replacement for NAFTA is not doing any better job of protecting Americans.

    Call it “protectionism” if you want, but we live in a new era where people immigrate not to become Americans, but to suck America dry from living off the public dole. And we previously did not have the large number of H1B visas coming in to steal American jobs, up until 1997 it was not a problem. In 1997, congress and Clinton passed new allowances for large numbers of H1B visas in deference to the large corps like IBM, and the rest is the history of declining wages and benefits for tech talent and engineers.

  18. When exactly the era of American hegemonical greatness comes to an end will kinda depend on what and whom is left after the coming catastrophic nuclear free-for-all that surviving historians (if any) will label World War Three.

    It isn’t even questionable that it will happen. Human nature hasn’t changed, only our available weaponry has gotten worse. Add to that, it is an undeniable feature of high tech nuclear war scenarios that they are extremely hair-trigger in nature. Throw in a bunch of new nations with nukes or even just organized stateless bands of terrorists who might get their hands on enough fissile material to make a dirty bomb or an EMP weapon and it is akin to a fireworks factory who lets all of their employees smoke at their work stations.

    Betcha this for sure–the anthropogenic global warming/climate change world-ender that so many millennials obsess about is the greatest phony boo in mankind’s long history of silly conjectures. Likewise all global or national economic doldrums. The real problem has been staring us square in the face since August of 1945.

  19. This country has no future. At least not one we will want to be part of. It is going to get uglier and uglier over the next decade. The Dem party and its socialist/Marxist underpinnings will be the beginning of the end when its achieves full power. And the RINOs will be useless as they always are.

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