No mere spectacle, President Trump’s State of the Union address will set the course of his campaign into 2020. The basic divide he sees—whether this is how he would characterize it or not—concerns the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. Does the American Founding celebrate recognizing an equality that calls us to expand and protect the middle class or is the equality it celebrates a call for socialism? That is the distinction between the two parties and between the general citizenry and the elites of the administrative state.
Its rhetorical brilliance aside—in particular the body-slamming choreography with the ladies in white—Trump’s performance-art speech is the most important State of the Union (SOTU) address since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1944, in which he declared a new understanding of the purpose of government by setting forth an “economic bill of rights” for America. With this speech from Trump, FDR is finally confronted with a reply from a Republican president.
First, the case for what, prior to last week, was the reigning champion SOTU is best made by President Obama’s mentor, law professor Cass Sunstein. Sunstein called FDR’s 1944 address “the speech of the century” in his 2004 book, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever. There FDR lists eight economic rights that create the fundamental right of “security,” given his premise that “Necessitous men are not free men.” He had campaigned for these rights in his first presidential campaign, back in 1932.
Today we would not think these “rights” controversial at all, but they are open to a wide latitude of interpretation. Of course Americans should be able to have good-paying jobs that provide decent wages; home ownership, health care, retirement protections, and education. These are all goods considered to be part of the deal in being American. America is supposed to afford people the opportunity to live a life where these things are attainable. But if these fruits of prosperity are understood as rights in the sense of government guarantees, problems arise.
For example, how much is enough here? FDR declared “The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.” Does “recreation” mean ski vacations in Switzerland? What is “adequate” medical care? Government-paid abortions? Likewise, what does “The right to a good education” entail? Free college tuition—at a community college? Is that a “good education”? These “rights” could be understood as simply middle-class aspirations or as open-ended, spiraling guarantees—precisely where the Left and many hapless people in both parties find themselves embroiled in dispute with their fellow Americans today.
We need to scrutinize Roosevelt’s premise: “As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights [of the original Bill of Rights] proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” Thus, his new economic rights, we are made to understand, can change under differing political and economic conditions; they are not immutable natural rights that define the nature and limits of legitimate government. Instead, they are rather like politicians’ pledges. Their goal is, the amorphous “equality in the pursuit of happiness.” What does that mean? It depends on who you ask and when you ask it.
Here lie the seeds of the Left’s identity-politics utopianism. Is citizenship for illegal immigrants part of the security they need for their pursuit of happiness? And what about gender identity? Or protection against the humiliations of “appropriation” (viz. blackface)? Legally enforced political correctness follows. Sunstein scoffs that “the fear of tyranny is jejune”—that is, cloddish, so pre-progressive, and the province only of some zombie-like Rush Limbaugh fan. In Sunstein’s view, only such deluded people would, in their peculiar insecurities, have such fears.
But as this long experiment in evolving rights unwinds, it turns out that we deplorables need those antiquated political rights after all, which turn out to be “adequate,” and Trump is the one who finally revives them.
To perform this task, his SOTU sharpens the decisive differences among Americans so we understand where we are. In response to the alarming “new calls to adopt socialism in our country” Trump reminds that “America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free and we will stay free.” Will we sell our birthright for a bowl of government gravy?
The context in his speech for the blast against socialism is a moral defense of strong borders, the right to life against late-term abortions, and his America first foreign policy. The entire speech is a way of interpreting Rooseveltian aspirations through an anti-New Deal lens, and not for the purpose of fooling anyone but because this is the only realistic and American way to protect and expand the middle class. In doing all of this, Trump even got his audience to laugh (and sing!) together. Like Americans.
The most vivid example of his anti-socialist goal is Trump’s early showcasing of blacks who, though once troubled, redeemed themselves. Bringing ever more blacks into the middle class has been a consistent theme of his political speeches going back to his presidential campaign. But his opponents stick to a narrative seeking to tie him to a racism that—while perhaps characteristic of the incidental supporter whose endorsement Trump did not seek—is not characteristic of Trump, his policies, or of his administration. Yet perhaps it is easier for the Left to denounce a phantom racism than it is to defend their very real advocacy of socialism?
Of course the implications of Trump’s denunciation of socialism are borne out by the indignant leftist reactions to it. Progressives since Woodrow Wilson defended the theory of socialism as legitimately democratic. Once again, Trump draws out the Left.
Recently, E.J. Dionne revived Sunstein’s argument that the “New Deal might be described as an effort not to incorporate socialist thinking but to preserve capitalism by removing its harshest edges.” But Dionne, defending the “Green New Deal,” speaks more boldly: “The s-word is not now, and, in its democratic forms, never should have been, an obscenity.”
In a free country there will always be disagreement over the common good. In its zeal to force consensus, socialism necessarily quashes individual desires. Hence, socialism dismisses political rights, which it holds to be a bourgeois concept that leads to individual achievements (and failures) and, hence, unbearable inequalities.
Today’s ardent leftists, like Dionne, object to Trump’s demonization of socialism.
But Trump is simply playing turnabout on FDR’s maligning of conservative Republicans (that is, those who believed in constitutional government) toward the end of his 1944 State of the Union: “if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called normalcy of the 1920s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of fascism here at home.”
Even in FDR’s time, conservative Republicans were made out to be the equivalent of the Nazis—the enemy whom Americans were about to destroy! Democrats have always made such accusations—only temporarily stifled by the Eisenhower presidency—but whenever they are pushed that earworm always returns. Trump is only striking back and restoring justice, 75 years later, as the heroes of Normandy did.
The choreography and lyrics of Trump’s speech reminds us that socialism of the national or international variety, Nazi or North Korean, demands heroic response. Decent people require liberation from their oppression. And Trump is providing it.
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Photo Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
About the Author: Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, as well as for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of seven books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.