The State of the Union is an unusual speech for Donald Trump. The characteristically rash choices of words and passionate rants that were commonplace on the campaign trail were noticeably stifled by the teleprompter on February 5th. Despite the prudent format, Trump’s 2019 State of the Union upheld a familiar populist message.
Generally, populism is used to describe popular ideological movements under the leadership of strong outsider candidates. In “Populism on the March” by Fareed Zakaria, populism is described as being characteristically hostile to elites and established institutions, therefore seeing itself as the patriotic voice for the common, forgotten person (1). As for its causes, in “How Democracies Fall Apart,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz describe populism as having roots in economic issues, as well as uneasiness towards globalization and immigration (1). These aspects of populism can be found throughout the 2019 State of the Union address.
First, Trump’s State of the Union speech was directed at common Americans, and it invoked the patriotism within them. When describing his agenda, Trump said that it was not democratic or republican, but the “agenda of the American people.” Moreover, he called for making our “culture richer” and our “middle class more prosperous.” These pleas directly relate to Zakaria’s description of populism and the “forgotten” common person. Some would argue that patriotism in the State of the Union is an expectation rather than a populist exception. However, the brand of patriotism Trump employed in his 2019 address is arguably different. When he claimed that “nowhere can compete with America,” and repeatedly referred to the unique strength of America in World War II, he fostered nationalism. Trump’s populist tone can also be seen in the goals he has set for the remainder of his term.
One main element of the State of the Union was the President’s call for bipartisanship in upgrading the infrastructure of the United States. This unassuming point in Trump’s agenda is undeniably populist. First, it is populist in that it disregards the party establishment in favor of a popular and salient policy. Moreover, it can be compared to past populist infrastructure policies. In their article, “Highway to Hitler,” Nico Voigtlaender and Hans-Joachim Voth argue that the building of the Autobahn increased the popularity of the Nazis enough to allow the popular referendum that gave Hitler sole control of Germany as Führer. While I do not wish to compare Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, the popular support that can stem from the perceived competence of leaders who successfully complete large infrastructure projects is worth noting. Furthermore, although America does not face an economic crises similar to the the one that helped Hitler come to power, Trump’s economic boasts are still salient to his populist message.
Unsurprisingly, the State of the Union included boasts of the current economy. Trump’s economic achievements are a key factor in his appeal to common Americans. In his address, he gladly claimed responsibility for tax cuts and child tax credits for “working families.” He also boasted about an economic boom and the historic unemployment numbers under his guidance. These appeals relate to the economic aspect of populism mentioned by Kendall-Taylor and Frantz. Trump’s State of the Union also focused on an element of populist movements that is particularly prominent across the West.
The President’s 2019 address spoke to the uneasy feelings many Americans harbor about globalism and immigration. These issues were described as the roots of populism in Kendall-Taylor and Frantz’s article. First, Trump boasted that America is now a net exporter of oil. For many Americans, dependency on foreign oil has seemed like a recurring failure of the establishment parties. Moreover, Trump also discussed renegotiating deals with China, Mexico, and Canada. By pushing back on dependency on foreign oil, the TPP, and NAFTA, the President is pushing back on globalism.
Furthermore, the President’s address focused on illegal immigration. Playing on the fears of Americans is a clear populist aspect of the 2019 address. However, some may argue that this is a common party establishment policy rather than a populist policy. However, Trump strategically worded the immigration portion of his speech to support the common American and belittle the establishment elite. Specifically, he said that “wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.” In contrast, he noted that “working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal immigration.” This cost, he claimed, is felt in “reduced jobs, lower wages, over-burdened schools, overcrowded hospitals, and increased crime.” Zakaria’s argument supports the usefulness of the type of language Trump used as he notes in “Populism on the March” that establishment governments have refused to fix immigration issues “whether because powerful economic interests benefit from cheap labor or because officials fear appearing uncaring or xenophobic” (6). Through President Trump’s anti-globalist and anti-immigrant language, the populist message is clear.
In the 2019 State of the Union, Trump spoke to patriotism, the common American, economic issues, and the fears of globalism and immigration. Each of these issues reveals not only the populist nature of the speech, but possibly the deeper state of our union as well. As Kendall-Taylor and Frantz warn at the end of “How Democracies Fall Apart,” “citizens in Europe and the United States should hesitate before assuming they are invulnerable to a populist-driven backslide” (3). The 2019 State of the Union is a reminder that while populist movements are prime examples of democracy, they also carry the dangers of ending it.
Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen.