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'New American moment': Trump puts patriotism at centre of call for unity

Nicholas Kamm / AFP | US President Donald Trump during his debut State of the Union speech in Washington on January 30, 2018.

Donald Trump hailed a "new American moment" as he made his debut State of the Union address Tuesday, in a speech that called for political unity while heralding traditional conservative values that are unlikely to find much cross-party appeal.


correspondent in New York

It started with self-congratulation, moved on to calls for unison, before diving headlong into some of the most divisive issues American politics has known in decades. Donald Trump's first State of the Union speech on Tuesday night in many ways was an exercise in banishing some of the doubts that have cast a shadow over the first year of his presidency – a year that has seen flagging approval ratings, the ongoing saga of the investigation into his alleged ties with Russia and policy initiatives that have deeply split both lawmakers and American society.

Striking a more solemn tone than in previous key addresses, sticking largely to script and avoiding the off-the-cuff and idiosyncratic remarks for which he has become known, Trump rattled off a list of achievements, ranging from a soaring stock market to falling unemployment and the beginnings of the dismantling of Obamacare.

God, family and the flag

But the main crux of the speech was focused not on policy successes put on painting a picture of an America free of the divisions many of which his opponents would argue he has helped to create, an America united and, largely, united by god and the family and the flag.

"Tonight, I want to talk about what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of nation we are going to be. All of us, together, as one team, one people and one American family.

"We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny and the same great American flag," he told the lawmakers gathered at the US Capitol and the millions of American citizens watching on television.

Hailing what he called a "new American moment", Trump invoked what are often thought to be very old values.

"In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the centre of the American life. Our motto is 'in God we trust'," he said, adding that "we celebrate our police, our military and our amazing veterans as heroes who deserve our total and unwavering support".

It was a sentiment that Mike Pence, Trump's evangelist, conservative vice president sitting behind him and large sections of the traditional Republican base would no doubt have strongly agreed with.

However, an appeal for a coming together based on what are clearly conservative principles was always likely to struggle to gain traction among his opponents and so it proved as his speech moved on to calling for Democrats and Republicans, who have spent much of the past year locked in a bitter battle over enacting Trump's policies on healthcare and immigration, to work together in unison.

Democratic boos and blues

"Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve," the president said. While Republicans stood up to cheer and applaud, the vast majority of Democrats sat rooted to their chairs entirely unmoved.

It was a pattern that would be repeated time and again throughout a speech that ran well over its 50-minute scheduled time slot, even as Trump made pledges that would seemingly have significant cross-party appeal including investment in infrastructure and increasing paid family leave.

The most stark examples of the divisions now present in American politics, and the clearest indication that his call for unity may be no more than a pipe dream, came as Trump began addressing the polarising issue of immigration.

At one point, as Trump heralded his administration's plans to curb immigrants bringing family members into the United States, boos and hisses erupted from some of the Democratic section of the audience.

Another comment, in which Trump claimed that "Americans are dreamers too", a clear reference to the legislative battle over the repeal of the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or "Dreamers" act, was also likely to rankle with Democratic lawmakers and voters.

Likewise, Trump's announcement that he was overriding another Obama-era policy pledge – to shut the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay – will have pleased only one half of the House and the voting public.


Not that any of it will matter to Trump's supporters, many of whom will see this speech as a new injection of impetus for the president's administration and a sign he continues to fulfill the campaign promises that won him the election. As he wrapped up his speech, a chant of "USA! USA!" erupted from the Republican portion of the crowd as lawmakers rushed to congratulate the president.

Ultimately, while Trump's stated desire to see renewed unity in Washington may well be sincere, he made it clear that it would need to be a unity built upon his "America first" mantra.

"The United States is a compassionate nation," he said, "but as president of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America's children, America's struggling workers and America's forgotten communities."

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