The Alarming Message in Trump’s State of the Union

The president’s speech wasn’t dull. It was dangerous.

Trump looking angry during SOTU
President Donald Trump delivered the State of the Union address at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. Doug Mills/Pool via Reuters

Three years ago, when Donald Trump emerged as the Republican presidential front-runner, critics decried his ruthlessness. Since then, they’ve grown numb to it. They think his State of the Union address on Tuesday night was long, trite, and boring. In reality, the speech was laced with authoritarianism. Here’s what Trump said and why it’s dangerous.

1. I am the savior of the nation. Two and a half years ago, when he won the Republican nomination for president, Trump said of our political system, “I alone can fix it.” On Tuesday, he extended that conceit to foreign affairs. He cast himself as the man who single-handedly defeated ISIS and saved us from war with North Korea. “When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria,” Trump declared. “Today, we have liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty killers.” This is hype: 20,000 square miles is one-twelfth of Iraq and Syria, and Trump has largely stood by as our military and our allies finished a job that was well underway.

Trump also took credit for averting a nuclear war with Asia. “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” he proclaimed. This is rich. When Trump first spoke to President Barack Obama after winning the 2016 election, he was surprised to learn from Obama that North Korea was a serious problem. Trump’s policy on this issue is a joke: He holds summit meetings with Kim Jong-un at which Trump pretends North Korea is dismantling its nuclear programs, while in fact no such thing is happening. That’s because Trump’s goal isn’t to protect us. It’s to convince us that he, our dear leader, is the only thing standing between us and Armageddon.

One common myth about authoritarians is that they view leaders of other countries as their enemies. In reality, as the Trump-Kim bromance illustrates, authoritarians are more interested in crushing domestic opposition, and they use conflicts with foreign adversaries to enhance their status at home. That’s why Trump, in his remarks about trade policy on Tuesday, stipulated, “I don’t blame China for taking advantage of us. I blame our leaders and representatives for allowing this travesty to happen.” Trump doesn’t want to humiliate Chinese President Xi Jinping. He wants to belittle Obama and Democrats.

2. Do as I say, because we are under attack. To silence his opponents and expand his power, the authoritarian needs a crisis. Trump has concocted a fake emergency, which he described in his speech as the “urgent national crisis” on “our very dangerous southern border.” Trump’s alarmism is bogus and insincere: After hyping a caravan of Central Americans just before the midterms, he dropped the subject as soon as the polls closed. But the “crisis” served its purpose: rallying Americans behind him.

Now Trump is reviving the scare campaign because he wants a monument to himself—a “great wall” on the Mexican border—and Congress is refusing to pay for it. He wants to build the wall by diverting military assets or, more brazenly, declaring a national emergency to bypass the legislature. So he depicts undocumented immigrants as a foreign invasion. “As we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States,” Trump grimly intoned. “The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well-being of all Americans.”

The invading caravan army is a farce. But Trump’s use of it as a basis for seizing extraordinary powers is no joke. For weeks, he has talked openly about declaring an emergency that would void congressional opposition. In his speech, he announced that because of the oncoming caravans, “I have ordered another 3,750 troops to our southern border to prepare for the tremendous onslaught.” Deploying the military on American soil for partisan advantage is bluntly authoritarian. So is bypassing Congress.

3. I will protect you from the socialists. In his remarks, Trump drew a straight line from Venezuela’s “socialist policies,” which have bankrupted that country, to leftists in the United States. “We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” said the president. “America was founded on liberty and independence—not government coercion, domination, and control. … Tonight we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

That sounds like a defense of freedom. But it’s straight out of the authoritarian playbook. In Latin America and other parts of the world, right-wing politicians typically hype domestic socialism as a menace, often by smearing social democrats as totalitarians. By doing so, these politicians divert scrutiny from their own power grabs. That’s exactly what Trump is doing. Twice in his speech, he denounced the “resistance,” accusing it of undermining national unity.

4. Any threat to me is a threat to our country. Trump’s defenders laugh off comparisons between him and dictators abroad. But the only difference between our country and those dictatorships is that we’ve constrained our tyrant. Every day, he claws at the boundaries of his power. On Tuesday, he warned that “partisan investigations” would imperil America’s “economic miracle.” Then he added ominously: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”

That’s a thuggish ultimatum. For more than a month, Trump took millions of federal workers and contractors hostage, choking them financially in order to demand his wall. Now he’s threatening to shut down Congress if it investigates his corruption. He’s claiming emergency powers, appropriating the armed forces, and blackmailing those who would hold him accountable. Our union is in peril.