Washington (CNN)If elections are won by defiant showmanship alone, Donald Trump, the grand political illusionist, will waltz to a second term in November.In the most politicized State of the Union address in modern times, the President took the choreography of an annual America ritual to new levels on Tuesday night at a fraught moment in the nation’s history.And he spelled out a daunting warning to a band of Democrats who couldn’t even cobble together a winner in the Iowa caucuses on Monday, that he’s an effective, relentless political communicator who will stop at nothing to win.In two stunning moments that book-ended the evening, Trump, as he began his speech, turned his back on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s outstretched hand in a snub that encapsulated their boiling bad blood.
Then, after he wrapped up, Pelosi, channeling her disgusted and outraged Democratic members, ostentatiously tore up the speech in full view of the cameras, in a sure-to-go viral moment that showed she can do theatrics too.Trump rattled through the night in a mood of huge self-confidence, taking political risks a more conventional politician would have spurned. It wasn’t the performance of a President shamed and cowed by impeachment ahead of a vote in the GOP-led Senate expected to acquit him on Wednesday.
At his 2017 inaugural address, Trump invoked a dark nightmare of “American carnage.” Now he’s selling “The Great American Comeback.”He painted a vision of a prosperous unified American utopia, pulsating with racial harmony and common national purpose, leaning heavily on the strong economy and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years.But in hitting hardball notes on abortion, immigration, religion and awarding a Medal of Freedom to talk show king Rush Limbaugh on live TV, the President made his most brazen political base play yet.
Fusing the roles of commander in chief and reality show host, the President orchestrated a moving reunion between a soldier home from the Afghan war and his unsuspecting wife and children — in a prime-time version of the YouTube videos that you can’t take your eyes off.This and other gestures, including his award of a scholarship to a young minority student to attend school under a controversial administration program, were touching and emotive. But they also were a trap for critics who risked coming across as callous if they accused Trump of cynicism.
The President proclaimed that the “state of our union is stronger than ever before” — boasting of standing up to China, winning with new trade deals and bringing torrents of jobs back to their rightful home.He conjured the kind of “America First” toughness, populist rhetoric and refusal to stand with elites against the heartland that powered his 2016 triumph and which he is ratcheting up ahead of November’s election.He used his most valuable card — the strong economy — skillfully and at length, boasting that he “shattered the mentality of American decline” and was building the world’s “most prosperous and inclusive society.”His millions of supporters will have seen more than enough to get them flocking to the polls in droves in November — even as doubts emerge about the unity and competence of Democrats following the Iowa caucus debacle.But as is often the case with Trump, the reality that he sketched was often at odds with the facts.
His 80 minute appearance was pock marked with exaggerations, falsehoods and misleading rhetoric.He effectively accused Democrats of seeking to steal the health care of Americans with socialism and portrayed himself as the protector of coverage for pre-existing conditions. But his administration has made repeated attempts to kill off Obamacare, the law that initiated those protections.He boasted of building over 100 miles of a “long, tall and very powerful” wall on the US-Mexico border. Yet most of that construction is in replacing dilapidated barriers with an enhanced wall system.The trade deals he touted, like those with China, Mexico and Canada are far less sweeping than his extravagant claims.