Democrats hoped President Trump's first State of the Union would sound like he often does on Twitter: scattered, dramatic, and like a bully. Republicans worried he might go off-script, completely rogue, or talk about himself most of the time. To America’s surprise, Trump did neither.
Instead, he wove several real-life stories of American heroes into the tenets of his speech, showing that bravery, heroism, selflessness, and ingenuity of the people creates the fabric of the country's greatness.
To be sure, Trump’s speech wasn’t perfect and he still was very much himself in that he didn’t exactly lay out a specific agenda this year. Here and there he would touch on some goals, but didn’t say specifically how he would tackle those issues. He said nothing of the rumors of collusion with Russia (perhaps a wise choice) or the investigations into that, nor did he outline an actual strategy for dealing with North Korea, except to point out what a “menace” the country has been. It wasn’t a policy-heavy speech, to the chagrin of wonks everywhere, but rather a speech meant to glance back with nostalgia, forward with hope, and paint with a broad brush what makes America truly great.
Trump spent a great deal of time honoring law enforcement and members of the military. He mentioned disasters we were all familiar with (Hurricane Harvey) but heroes whose names we may never have known had he not highlighted their bravery. People like Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashlee Leppert, who saved 40 lives during Hurricane Harvey, or firefighter David Dahlberg, who rescued nearly 60 kids from a fire at summer camp.
Many were brought to tears when Trump told the story of how police Officer Ryan Holets and his wife, Rebecca, tried to help a pregnant woman with an opioid addiction. The couple went above and beyond the call of duty by adopting the woman’s baby, a little girl, whom Rebecca held during the speech.
The stories continued all evening. When Trump touched on foreign policy, he didn’t rail about nuclear war (although personally I would have appreciated some specific plans on policies for dealing with North Korea). Instead, he made the issue a human rights one, which was as brilliant as it was unexpected. He expressed gratitude to Otto Warmbier’s parents, who lost their son after North Korea arrested and tortured him. When Trump pointed out they were “powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world,” Otto’s parents could hardly hold back tears.
Perhaps the most powerful story of Trump’s speech was that of Ji Seong-ho, a defector from North Korea. Ji lost his legs and hobbled on crutches to escape the regime, and now lives in South Korea rescuing other defectors. In a moment that seemed spontaneous, or at the least genuine, Ji lifted his crutches and the crowd applauded his bravery and humility. Trump said Ji’s story was a testament to “the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom” and seamlessly transitioned to how that same freedom gave birth to America and still beckons to us today. “But it was home to an incredible people with a revolutionary idea: that they could rule themselves. That they could chart their own destiny. And that, together, they could light up the world.”
With story after story of heroes and allies like Ji, Trump’s speech showed everyone, including Democrats, what they have known all along: Trump didn’t make America great again — it’s only been one year; America is already great — Trump just prefers to talk about its strengths rather than focus on its weaknesses. As Trump said, “Americans fill the world with ardent music. They push the balance of science and discovery. And they forever remind us of what we should never ever forget. The people dreamed this country. The people built this country.”
Critics of his speech will no doubt say it was laced with too much American exceptionalism, but Trump still mentioned many flaws and areas for improvement. Not to mention, the speech worked: According to CBS News, eight out of 10 people who watched the speech said he was trying to unite the country, rather than divide it. Two-thirds said it made them feel proud to be Americans.
There is much the Trump administration will need to accomplish to be considered successful, but for now, stirring pride and encouraging hope is a great place to start.
Nicole Russell is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is a journalist in Washington, D.C., who previously worked in Republican politics in Minnesota. She was the 2010 recipient of the American Spectator's Young Journalist Award.
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