When America’s founders crafted the State of the Union (SoU) address it wasn’t just that they wanted the President to come to Congress seating in the House of Representatives to roll-out a balance sheet of his achievements. It was not to give the President a chance to campaign for re-election.
For America’s founders, the SoU was meant as a compulsory exercise during which the President would report to Americans what s/he has been doing in the course of the just ended year to ensure that the hard earned union stays so and that democracy and prosperity will continue to be the only game in town. This has been so for over two hundred years until last night during Donald Trump’s third SoU.
Part of the media said the speech was a victory for Donald Trump, a well-done re-election bid. But what I saw was a total defeat for American democracy. Key moments at the start and end of the speech exposed the deepening political divide in America and signal the need and even urgency for decisive action by the American voter.
Trump refuses to shake hands with the leader of the House
In a democracy, statesmen and stateswomen do not take political opposition as a personal affront. That is what democracy is all about, allowing others to oppose you and do what they think is best for the nation. It is the people who decide which of many ideas would prevail. But Donald Trump proved to have a thin skin and to be undemocratic last night. He refused to shake hands with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif).
Trump is infuriated that Nancy Pelosi led a process that ended up in his impeachment in the Democratic-led House of Representatives. However, the Senate, where Trump’s Grand Old Party (GOP) or Republican party holds the majority has made it clear that it would acquit Trump.
Even though seen as using impeachment to make a political comeback for the Democratic party, Pelosi and the Democrats were right to initiate the impeachment process. In their own words, they did what they believed was best to protect the Constitution. For Trump to take his impeachment this personal is a mark of a lack of leadership. Trump would rather have preferred a dictatorship in which he would have the power to repress all opponents?
Pelosi rips Trump’s speech
The failed handshake came after Trump handed his speech to the Vice President, Mike Pence, who doubles as the Head of the Senate and to Pelosi. Pelosi extended a hand to greet Trump but the President clearly ignored her hand and turned his back, moving on to make his speech.
Then at the end of the speech, applauded most of the time only by the Republican side of the House, Nancy Pelosi took her time and ripped the papers containing the speech which Trump handed to her just before going on to make the address. After ripping the papers she threw the shreds on the table in front of her.
When asked why Pelosi said “it was the most courteous thing to do” (to mark her disapproval of the speech). However, the only problem is that there is the handshake she did not receive at the beginning of the address. Not clapping, not standing, shaking one’s head in disapproval has been the traditional way of being courteous when Congressmen and Congresswomen do not agree to the President’s statements during a SoU.
Nancy Pelosi could do all of that but she decided to rip Trump’s speech to get back at him for not shaking her hand. In so doing, she refused to come out of it all like the bigger person, she pandered to Trump’s undemocratic behavior and demonstrated that she too had undemocratic instincts.
2020 will be decisive to the health of American democracy
Trump’s election in 2016 shocked many. His rival, the seasoned Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, won the popular vote. However, the electoral college decided otherwise, bringing to power Trump, a complete political outsider and one of the most unconventional politicians in U.S. political history akin to discourteous behavior.
But to say that Democratic opposition to Trump’s policies has been to revenge this disgrace is not true. The judiciary has time and again reversed many of Trump’s decisions. Trump did not help matters with his July 25, 2019 call to the Ukrainian President.
In seeking a quid pro quo, asking Ukraine to investigate the son of a political rival, Joe Biden, in exchange for military assistance, Trump overtly abused his office. Democrats had the legitimate right to push for his impeachment. If they didn’t, then America would be nothing short of a weak State. But the Republicans’ emerging defense is that Trump was wrong but that his actions in relation to the Ukraine call do not warrant an impeachment.
For many, Trump’s (imminent) acquittal means that to use the office of President of the United States of America for personal gain is no longer unconstitutional, if it was before. This section of public opinion predicts that henceforth, by dint of this new law, America’s Executive branch of Government, specifically the President, can do what it wants. This is set to further deepen the already deep political chasm and lack of bipartisanship unless the people act.
During the SoU, Trump said the economy was doing better and that he had rebuilt the army. There is much to be said about these claims as he hardly backed them with data. But even if it were true, Americans would have to make a choice between having full bellies and living in a political space veering dangerously towards big government, not to say dictatorship, and placing democracy above all other considerations. 2020 will tell.