Trump’s State of the Union: A Call for Common Purpose, When the Direction Is Divisive

President Donald Trump gives his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 at the Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi look on. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump tried for the patriotic and feel-good rhetoric of Ronald Reagan in his State of the Union address by focusing on nostalgia for America’s high points of history and a sunny vision for the future.

“I am asking you to choose greatness. No matter the trials we have, no matter the challenges to come, we must go forward together,” he said in closing.

But Trump can’t escape what has marked so much of his tenure — a polarized country, the fissures often fanned by his own tweets and actions — in the span of a single night. The speech also is more likely to be remembered for what he said about issues like illegal immigration and the multiple investigations linked to his campaign and administration.

That’s not to say Trump is so off base in calling for common ground. His calls for infrastructure investment, his hopefulness at reaching a peace deal in Afghanistan, and his goal of eradicating HIV within the next decade drew bipartisan praise.

That said, he at points magnified divisions, seizing on some state-level efforts to ease restrictions on abortion and accusing some New York lawmakers of cheering at the passage of a bill that “would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” The reality is more nuanced, but it was a preview of culture wars to come.

Some of his remarks showed how mindful he was of his potential rivals in the room, the declared Democrats who are seeking to oust him next year. He attacked socialism, a hint of how he’ll counter the emerging Democratic platform of Medicare for All and higher taxes on the rich.

Strangely enough, Trump barely even mentioned the government shutdown, the longest in history, and seemed to make only a passing reference to ongoing negotiations to prevent another one.

But he did insist that he would get a border barrier. “I will get it built,” he said, drawing cheers from Republicans and silence from virtually all Democrats in the room. The line had echoes of what he said upon accepting the Republican nomination in 2016 — “I alone can fix it” — and signaled the future intransigence that is to come.

Here are other moments that stood out during the speech:

A shot at Mueller. Trump took a swipe at the investigations that have beset his presidency, criticizing Special Counsel Robert Mueller without mentioning him by name. He claimed that the scrutiny was threatening the booming economy.

“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there can not be war and investigation,” he said.

That rhyme line was a little clunky and got only limited applause. But there was praise on the GOP side for the general idea that the Mueller probe should be wrapping up, and by many accounts, it is. Lately, though, not a day goes by without some report of the widening scope of other investigations beyond the Mueller probe, and Trump also faces new oversight from the Democratic majority in the House.

Democrats cheer Trump’s job gains — just not the way he expected. One humorous moment came when Trump touted that of women getting 58% of the new jobs created last year.

Just after he said it, it seemed to dawn on some of the newly elected women Democrats, most wearing white, that he might as well have been talking about them. They gradually clapped and cheered, as their “hiring” helped Democrats win back the majority in the House.

“You weren’t supposed to do that,” Trump deadpanned.

Then he played along, and gave credit to the number of women who were elected last year.

That got many Democrats, including his harshest critics, on their feet. They cheered, gave each other high fives, and chanted “USA! USA!” Soon both sides of the chamber were taking part. Trump got unity, just not in a way he expected.

‘America will never be a socialist country.’ Trump’s attack on socialism says a lot about how he’ll approach 2020. He’ll characterize their ideas as outside the mainstream, even though polling shows that there’s substantial appeal for single payer healthcare and more progressive taxation.

“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” he said.

Some Democrats stood up and applauded, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who just unveiled a proposal to raise taxes on extreme wealth. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described Democratic socialist, just sat with his hand on his chin.

‘Wealthy politicians and donors’ want open borders. Trump was expected to deliver hardline rhetoric toward illegal immigration — and he did. He not only talked of the wall, but warned again of migrant caravans, a mention that drew groans on the Democratic side of the chamber.

But he also delivered a broadside against elites, saying that “wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.” It’s a clear reference to liberal celebrities and billionaire philanthropists who have been among his most visible critics. It’s also just the type of rhetoric that he’s used at campaign rallies. In other words, it’s doubtful that those words will get him any closer to winning over Democrats on the idea of a border barrier.

Trump’s called for unity, but spent a considerable amount of time on immigration, a culturally divisive issue at the center of his campaign and his presidency. According to CNN, Trump’s prepared text mentioned cited “immigration,” “immigrant” or “alien” at the highest levels of any president in a century.

Happy birthday. A one-of-a-kind moment came as Trump talked of Judah Samet, a survivor of the shooting massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., at the end of last year. The president talked not only of Samet’s survival then, but 70 years ago, when he escaped a Nazi concentration camp.

Trump said, “Judah says he can still remember the exact moment, nearly 75 years ago, after 10 months in a concentration camp, when he and his family were put on a train, and told they were going to another camp. Suddenly the train screeched to a halt. A soldier appeared. Judah’s family braced for the worst. Then his father crowed out with joy, ‘It’s the Americans.'”

Trump paid tribute to Samet, sitting in the gallery, and another Holocaust survivor, Joshua Kaufman, as well as a D-Day veteran who liberated Dachau, Herman Zeitchik.

But the president’s mention that it was Samet’s 81st birthday triggered a spontaneous singing of “Happy Birthday” throughout the chamber. That was believed to be a first for a State of the Union.