Donald Trump’s first State of the Union was sold as an exercise in “unity,” one in which the president would attempt to bring Americans together under shared ideals and common goals. “Tonight, I call upon on all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people,” Trump said at the start of his address. His conclusion, too, hit this note: “We are a people whose heroes live not only in the past, but all around us, defending hope, pride, and the American way.”
But this rhetoric was ultimately superficial. For all of his gestures toward unity, the substance of Trump’s speech rested on the same racism and demagoguery that has marked his entire career in political life.
He rekindled his feud with professional football players—most of them black—who have kneeled during the national anthem to protest police violence in black communities. Praising a young man who helped place flags at veterans’ graves, President Trump said he “reminds 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,” emphasizing that last word in his delivery. The intent was impossible to miss.
Having taken his jab at affluent black celebrities—a frequent target of his ire—President Trump went on to blast Hispanic immigrants for crime and disorder during an extended section that focused on the MS-13 gang as a profound and national threat to public safety. “For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities,” said Trump, a statement which ignores the drastic decline in unauthorized entry that brought illegal crossings from Mexico to their lowest level since 1971. “Most tragically,” Trump continued, “they have caused the loss of many lives.”
There is little evidence connecting immigrants—legal and otherwise—to higher crime. In fact, the reverse is true: immigrant groups show lower rates of violent crime when compared to native-born Americans. Still, President Trump insists on painting the undocumented as vectors for violence and mayhem, with MS-13 as his preferred example. In a note that should sound ominous to anyone hoping to secure a deal for young unauthorized immigrants, Trump specifically blamed “glaring loopholes in our laws” that allow gang members “to enter the country as illegal, unaccompanied, alien minors.” In reality, those minors frequently say they are fleeing violent gangs, not infiltrating the United States in hopes of joining them.
This part of the speech was punctuated by nods to the families of victims—the mothers and fathers who had lost loved ones to criminals who were also unauthorized immigrants. And those families were black and brown, a fact in keeping with the intraracial nature of most crime: Black or Hispanic victims of violent crime are often victimized by other black or Hispanic people. The president’s guests to the State of the Union are always carefully chosen, and it’s hard to escape the sense that these families were picked because they offer plausible deniability to the president with regard to his most racially charged rhetoric. Can his broadside against immigrants be racist if he brought a black family in support of those policies?
The answer is yes. That Trump is using a black family as an example doesn’t erase the fundamental errors and prejudices behind the president’s assertion of immigrant crime. Nor does it blunt the president’s other racist rhetoric, such as when Trump blamed both the diversity lottery and family reunification in our immigration system for two recent terrorist attacks in New York City, despite the fact that both culprits had been radicalized long after entering the United States.
None of this is a surprise. Both Donald Trump and the White House believe that they are served politically by the cultivation of white racial resentment. There was no question that these lines and leaps of logic would make it into the State of the Union. They are part of who Trump is. To think that he wouldn’t include racial demagoguery is to fundamentally misunderstand his impulses.
Far from signaling some pivot toward respectability, Trump’s first State of the Union is a useful reminder that, even in the controlled setting of Congress, the president sees attacking people of color as a top priority.