The State of Our Union

It has been a week since Donald Trump went to Capitol Hill to deliver his State of the Union speech. I must say this blog post has been hard to write for two reasons. First, it was difficult to watch a man who has no regard for the rule of law and has had no legislative accomplishments other than an indulgent, obscene GOP tax law casually use the words “we” and “us” as though he understands the precarious situations many Americans face on a daily basis without sustainable wages or adequate health care. Second, I know we need hope in a situation that is very serious and very grave, but I can’t talk about the state of the union without mentioning Donald Trump and his abysmal performance since he’s taken office. I can, however, point to the foundational values on which this nation was founded that are the guiding principles for being a united country.

The State of Our Union is so much more than what we heard from Donald Trump

When I think of the nation’s annual State of the Union Address, I think of executive accountability, democracy, and a shared sense of the common good. The State of the Union Address is an evening when the President comes to Capitol Hill to address representatives of all three branches of government, to report on how “We the People” are doing economically, and how best we might move forward legislatively and otherwise. Historically, it’s a practice that was not always delivered in person. Americans would read the President’s report in the newspaper, or years later, gather around the radio, then television. Regardless of the time, it is understood that it is an evening for us to gather and take stock of who we are as a nation and who we aspire to become. Early in my life, I recall that it was not the President’s party affiliation that was most important. Instead, it was understood that we are persons who are part of a larger “We the People.” We are in this experiment of democracy, together – responsible for a good common to all. This is not what I heard this past Tuesday evening.

Trump’s Speech: An Exercise in Division

Mr. Trump used a lot more references to “we” and “us” during his speech than is his usual custom. Buried, however, within Donald Trump’s rhetoric and professions of national unity, we heard a clear articulation of his agenda of disunity. When discussing the need for immigration reform, Trump diminished new American immigrants by equating them with gang members and murderers. Having fomented fear in his listener, Trump then went a step further and attempted to erase the particularity of fear of deportation faced by our nation’s Dreamers by claiming that all “Americans are dreamers, too.” Repeating again his racially fraught theme of “Make America Great Again,” Trump further tried oratorically to erase the legacy of this nation’s first African American President. He touted gutting the Affordable Care Act by repealing its funding mandate as part of a tax bill that will explode the Nation’s deficit by 1.5 trillion dollars making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and he announced his reinvigoration of Guantanamo Bay for the purpose of indefinitely warehousing and interrogating enemy combatants. He noted the appointment of judges who purportedly would take an originalist interpretation of the Constitution as written and gave a nod to gun manufacturers when he chose to give a shout out to the 2nd Amendment fueling a wedge issue that has been framed to separate Americans from reasonable gun legislation that would protect our nation’s children. Particularly distressing, and one that should sound the alarm bells to all patriots who hold dear our democracy, was Trump’s request of Congress to empower his cabinet members the right to remove federal employees who purportedly betray the American trust. This is code for removing lifelong civil servants who believe in science or who place nation before Trump. Of course, the lowest point of the speech was when Trump called for the United States to modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal – a position antithetical to all modern Presidents before him both on strategic as well as moral grounds. The speech was not only an exercise in division, but a path to annihilation. Overall, not a good evening for those in our Union who are women, persons of color, new immigrants, religious minorities, LGBTQ citizens, and people who care about the survival of our children, grandchildren, and creation.

Peaceful Resistance: As Antidote and Patriotic Act

Many citizens and some House Democrats boycotted the State of the Union Address. Others watched and cathartically tweeted in response while Donald Trump told this nation who he is and what he wants – absolute power- political and economic while cloaked in the righteousness of his prosperity gospel. It was a calculated message far more antithetical to “We the People” than even his demeaning anti-democratic tweets.

There is only one way to survive this unprecedented assault on our democracy. We must continue to peacefully but actively resist. We must continue to talk to one another to remind ourselves we are more alike than different. We the People are united against all threats to our democracy both foreign and domestic. We are in this social contract together to keep this organic, live democracy thriving for the promotion of dignity and justice for all, not the few.

It is the American promise to solve the problems of the nation. In the last few months as I’ve traveled throughout this district, the main streets of our towns and neighborhoods, and as I’ve been invited into your homes to listen and speak, I’ve witnessed just that. I’ve witnessed you feed our neighbors at the Roosevelt Center in Elkhart. I’ve prayed with you as a part of a larger interfaith group, discussed peace and conflict resolution in round group discussions, listened to thought-provoking discussions on creating “Circles of Care” to end violence in our community, and then witnessed you gather leaders to discuss cultural diversity at the South Bend Civic Theater. I read “All About My Dad” by children of Union workers who wrote about why they love their dads on sheets of papers that hung on the bulletin board of the Union Hall. I met with Dreamers who believe this country is the beacon of hope for their future and the future of their children’s children.

This country was founded on a social contract and it is this social contract pursued with reason, not bluster, that furthers our collective discussion to solve the serious national and international problems we face in the 21st Century. Now more than ever our vote is both an antidote and patriotic act to the disunity currently being spread in this nation. Repeating the words of Barbara Jordan, “We must not become the new puritans and reject our society. We must address and master the future together. It can be done if we restore the belief that we share a sense of national community, that we share a common national endeavor. It can be done.”

Pat Hackett