“The state of the union is strong” is a perfectly fine cliche for presidents, but the idea of strength has extra meaning today. In his first State of the Union address, President Trump tried to give good depth to that idea.
During his campaign, Trump occasionally invoked the idea of strength in an ugly way, praising strongmen such as presidents Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Vladimir Putin of Russia as “strong” leaders. Even as president, Trump’s attitude towards Turkey and Russia exuded an uncomfortable coziness towards authoritarian strength.
But there was none of that in his speech to Congress and the nation on Tuesday night. It was uplifting in his State of the Union address when Trump used the word strong and strength, 13 times combined, in a quintessentially American way.
“Our Union is strong, because our people are strong,” he said. Explicitly, it is not our government that makes our country strong, but our people and our communities. Trump invoked firefighter David Dahlberg who “faced down walls of flame to rescue almost 60 children trapped at a California summer camp threatened by wildfires.”
Trump identified America’s strength in selfless civilians such as the “Cajun Navy” which after Hurricane Harvey raced “to the rescue with their fishing boats to save people in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane.”
In this way, Trump performed an important linguistic shift. “Strength” wasn’t so much about power but about resilience. “Strong,” as Trump used it Tuesday night, echoed the post-Harvey idea of “Houston Strong” and the post-Boston Marathon motto of “Boston Strong.”
He referred to America showing "steel in its spine" and and also said there would be no more "surrender." These usages evoked several ideas deftly — a return to greatness, a contrast with the weakness and failure of the Obama years, and a firm foundation in the unquenchable American ideals embodied in its striving people.
A State of the Union invoking the “heroes of Yorktown and Saratoga,” and which described the Capitol itself as a monument to a free, self-governing people, was welcome. It made the speech smartly echo the themes of Trump's triumphant election campaign, reminding the governing class in Washington that it exists to serve its citizens nationwide.
The invocation of strength is cheering, uplifting even. America has many virtues, as Trump pointed out. We are extraordinarily welcoming and charitable as a people. We are merciful and open. These are vital national traits. But our strength is crucial.
Strength was what made Yorktown and Saratoga possible. We are a country, and not merely a colony, only because of our strength. The World Wars, both of them, could have ended differently, if not for American strength. The Cold War was considered lost by much of Europe. American strength was the winning factor. And in the current war on terror, it is a combination of our strength and our decency that makes us confident that the West will, once again, win the day.
Trump’s theme of strength, then, was a salutary break in two ways. It was a break from his invocation of strength in authoritarian ways, but it was also a break from the apology tours and bumbling of past presidents.