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Trump doubles down on immigration fears

Michael Knigge Kommentarbild App *PROVISORISCH*
Michael Knigge
January 31, 2018

Key passages of President Trump's first State of the Union harkened back to the dark imagery and tone of his presidential campaign. Those hoping for a reset of his presidency should take note, says DW's Michael Knigge.

Trump addresses congressional lawmakers
Image: Reuters/J. Bourg

In his first official State of the Union address, President Trump did not disparage anyone by name. He did not attack Hillary Clinton or the media, two of his favorite targets. He did not encourage divisions between Republicans and Democrats — in fact, he paid lip service to bipartisanship, calling on lawmakers to work together for the American people. So much for the good news.

But while the beginning — and to some extent the end — of his very long speech could still be characterized as having a somewhat upbeat theme, with its focus on the economy and American pride, the tone of Trump's remarks in the middle of the speech became increasingly dark and menacing. 

The immigration-themed passages, in particular, painted a frightening picture of an America supposedly victimized by both legal and illegal immigration. Trump's depiction of immigrants wreaking havoc on ordinary Americans reached its low point when he exploited pain for political purpose. Just like during the presidential campaign, he drew attention to parents in the audience whose children were killed by gang members who were also undocumented immigrants.

Focus on immigration

Interestingly, the immigration part of the speech was also the most detailed passage of what was otherwise an address lacking in specifics. Trump reiterated what he called the four pillars of immigration reform: a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers; a border wall; ending the diversity visa lottery; and a drastic reduction in family migration.

DW correspondent Michael Knigge
Michael Knigge is DW's Washington correspondent

He said immigrants can bring in an unlimited number of distant relatives. This is false. Only immediate family members — not distant relatives — can be sponsored by citizens or  green card holders.

Importantly and ominously, Trump not only linked undocumented immigration to gang violence, he also linked two key paths to legal immigration – the diversity visa lottery and family migration – to terrorism.

While Trump used the word "compromise" to describe his offer of a path towards citizenship for the Dreamers coupled with a drastic reduction in legal migration, his depiction of America as a nation threatened by immigration actually seems to leave little room for compromise with the Democrats on that issue.

What's also telling is Trump's focus on protecting Americans' livelihoods from perceived threats by any type of immigration and his repeated depiction of an America under economic siege by foreign nations who deploy unfair trade practices to the detriment of American workers.

It worked in the campaign to rile up his base and arguably still does today.

Anathema to US as nation of immigrants

Just as telling is what he downplayed. Russia — whose reported meddling in the US election and possible links to the Trump campaign is the subject of several high profile investigations — was mentioned once, China three times and the word "democracy" not one single time.

While Trump's first State of the Union speech will surely be well-received by his political base and will also resonate with a good part of the Republican Party, its deeply nativist and beleaguered tone are anathema to anyone who considers the United States a nation of immigrants and believes in its motto "E Pluribus Unum" or "Out of many, one."

Having said that, the speech does have at least one useful effect: It should finally end any futile talk about Trump as a potential "uniter" or about a potential reset of the Trump presidency.