Even though it likely won’t have much of a lasting impact on any particular legislative issue or on the dynamics of American politics as a whole, Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech last night was certainly instructive as a look into how his mind works. This was true in particular of his rhetoric about immigrants and crime, but if you want to understand Trump’s political project even more broadly, you could do worse than one seemingly innocuous paragraph towards the end of the speech:
We are a people whose heroes live not only in the past, but all around us, defending hope, pride, and defending the American way. They work in every trade, they sacrifice to raise a family. They care for our children at home. They defend our flag abroad. They are strong moms and brave kids. They are firefighters and police officer’s and border agents, medics, and Marines. Above all else, they are Americans. This capital, the city, this nation, belongs entirely to them.
Trump, in this passage, enumerates the different types of American heroes. They are:
• Police officers
• Border agents
• Medics (a seeming reference to an earlier story about a member of the Army saving a fellow soldier)
Can all of those people be heroes? Of course—and the individuals from the listed vocations who Trump honored during his speech certainly seem to have performed laudable, courageous acts. What’s telling about the list isn’t who it considers a hero, but who it doesn’t: Preschool teachers. Visiting nurses. Hospice workers. People who run nonprofit community centers for low-income children, Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors, and pastors whose “vacations” involve building houses in Central America. You know—the softer hero categories, the ones that demand sacrifices of time, well-being, and personal ambition even if they aren’t associated with physical risk.
Making the passage even more striking is that the White House promised, pre-speech, that the State of the Union would develop unifying, bipartisan themes. Indeed, in its language and delivery, Trump’s list of heroes did not come across, like so many of his remarks do, as a coded insult. It read like a sincere tribute to the types of traits he considers worthy of the highest collective esteem. It’s not inherently disturbing that some of these involved strength and physical control, but what will no doubt please his core fans—and should concern everyone else—is that they involved almost nothing else.