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Donald Trump's first State of the Union speech: Superb stagecraft can't hide uninspiring content and inward-looking vision

President Donald Trump’s first “State of the Union” address had something strangely familiar in its presentation. The stagecraft was superb, with powerful visuals of cheering members and moving shots of special invitees like the crippled North Korean defector. The delivery was energetic, full of hand gestures and the speech itself sprinkled liberally with populist and sometimes rich metaphors, and a certain tendency to hyperbole when presenting facts. The content, however, entirely fulfilled the president’s basic strategy of putting America First, and reigniting patriotism. One aspect of the latter included his insistence on the need to stand for the national anthem. Certainly some sense of déjà vu for Indians.

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

The president's State of the Union speech to a Joint Sitting of the Congress is mandated by law, and is a method of apprising Congress and seeking its participation in matters that the president considers important in the years ahead. Such speeches are, therefore, usually both prepared and studied in detail, and are the subject of speculation weeks before its delivery.

In this case, what was notable was that there were no carefully considered ‘leak’ of what the president might say, or in fact any particular speculation from the press. The media was more taken with the state of the president’s mental health, and whether he would, in fact, stick to his teleprompter or branch out into the wide unknown.

At any event, the speech followed hard on the heels of a ‘shutdown’ when Congress refused to pass the relevant appropriations legislation over disputes on immigration and an expensive border wall to fend off Mexicans searching for a better future in America.

In any event, there was much to consider in the president’s well-delivered speech. Trump —  much like Prime Minister Narendra Modi — has an ability to go the heart of what concerns those who are out of the world of Twitter/media /critics, using simple and easily understandable language. Unlike Modi however, Trump has an audience ever willing to believe in the greatness of America. Thus his references to the care of veterans, the bravery of firefighters and the police, and the armed forces all bracketed with the uniqueness of the American spirit.

All of which is fine, and this is where any comparison with the Indian prime minister ends. Trump's speech unequivocally linked crime, drugs, and almost everything negative to immigration. The message was clear: Crack down on immigration and America will be great again. However, facts prove the reverse: That America’s greatness arises from the varied people with diverse skills who arrive on its shores, and that many of today’s patriots were yesterday’s immigrants. The number of foreign-born individuals have been steadily increasing from just 5 percent in 1965 to 13.5 percent by 2015.

In addition, data also shows that immigrant families are far from poverty-stricken and uneducated. Their children are more likely to go to college, less likely to commit crimes, and they contribute immensely to the American economy. Indians, who constitute about 2.4 million of the migrant population, are shining examples of this. The 11 million Mexicans or more who are part of organised crime in specific states, aren't. But a political strategy that encourages hate against the “other” could have repercussions on all communities, including Indians. Neither is this just about H1-B visas, though that is a continuing worry. The issue is about the US turning insular and narrower in outlook. That’s not been good news in the past, nor is it likely to get any better in the future.

Another thrust of the president’s speech was again phrased dramatically. The end of “economic surrender’ as he called it, is also likely to please the fish and chips sections of the population, since it is linked to rebuilding industry and ending unemployment. An immediate demonstration of this determination was soon apparent. The administration slapped a 30 percent tariff on solar panels leading to a warning of the collapse of an already moribund alternative energy industry and loss of thousands of jobs.

A Chinese firm that specialises in this area, announced plans to open a plant in the US and create 800 jobs. That’s “muscular” policy for most Americans, and more so since it proved the naysayers wrong. Here, India and the US are on a collision course. The Ministry of External Affairs may quote surveys (predictably two years old) that show that 100 Indian companies have made $ 15 billion worth of tangible investments across 35 states, creating more than 91,000 American jobs. That's not going to help much. The Trump mantra is clearly going to be ‘do more’ in this area too, at a time when the Modi government is looking for exactly the same thing: More jobs at home.

Muscularity was also evident in the short section on foreign policy and counter terrorism. Reversing the Obama administration's (unkept) promise to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay will please the intelligence community and homeland security. Linked to this is a determination to go after the bad guys in Afghanistan and Syria alike. That will again win him friends in India and in most democracies. New Delhi has little to complain about in this area, and more cooperation can help bilateral relations as well as Indian objectives in the region.

The last aspect is regarding the US nuclear arsenal. The Nuclear Posture Review 2018 already called for a new low yield nuclear warhead for the Trident submarine-launched missile. The objective is — rather ironically — to reduce the kill capability of the nuclear arsenal so as to make it more credible in a time of low capability threats like North Korea. Simply put, a nuclear policy which threatens to wipe out an entire country is likely to be seen as unrealistic and rather like using an earth mover to close a mouse hole. A lower yield weapon on the other hand, holds out the threat or the possibility that the weapon could be used, under certain unspecified circumstances. That’s the essence of deterrence and is fine.

However, trouble lies ahead. Such statements inevitably lead to a round of ‘modernisation’ by competitors or those who quite realistically see the US as the primary threat. Sure enough, a report picked up from China's PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the People's Liberation Army, called for a modernisation of the Chinese nuclear arsenal.

The Russian arsenal is also once again on the modernisation path, with one example being a reported 100 ton warhead on an autonomous torpedo with a range of 10,000 kilometers. It’s full circle, and the world is going to be far more unstable than before. If China modernises its arsenal, the Indian nuclear and military establishment will probably demand its own modernisation effort. At a time when the defense budget is unlikely to increase, and there is already a huge backlog in terms of acquisitions, such calls are likely to remain unheeded. We quite simply can't afford it.

All in all, the State of the Union speech had little direction, leadership, or  vision. Overall, there has been a shift in the kind of leaders who are being thrown up in democratic exercises. Gone are the polished phrases, and the commitment to decency and true justice. The conclusion of a deeply troubling book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat entitled How Democracies Die finds precisely this. Democracies are being destroyed from within, primarily due to the erosion of unspoken rules and conventions which allow a true democracy to function. On the whole, it’s the rabble-rousers who are at the forefront. It seems like déjà vu all over again.


Published Date: Feb 01, 2018 15:23 PM | Updated Date: Feb 01, 2018 15:29 PM

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