Dionne: Trump delivered the Eddie Haskell State of the Union

Dionne: Trump delivered the Eddie Haskell State of the Union

February 8th, 2019 by E.J. Dionne Jr. in Opinion Times Commentary

President Donald Trump gives his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 at the Capitol in Washington. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

Photo by Doug Mills

One of the memorable characters from the old days of television was Eddie Haskell of "Leave It to Beaver." President Trump no doubt remembers him. Haskell was sycophantically respectful toward parents to their faces but always plotted and schemed when their backs were turned. To a generation, Haskell symbolized hypocrisy of the most annoying kind.

Trump's address Tuesday was the Eddie Haskell State of the Union — although Haskell's performances were more artful, because he turned nasty only when the elders weren't looking. In Trump's case, his two-faced politics was on display in the very same oration that went on and on and on.

E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

At the outset, Trump tried his mightiest to be a bipartisan unifier in the manner of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. "We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America's future. The decision is ours to make."

But the real meaning of Trumpian solidarity emerged as the address continued: Give in to me on everything and there will be no conflict.

For one thing, he could not even refer to his opposition by the name they choose for themselves. He insisted on referring to the Democratic agenda as a "Democrat agenda" — the most tired of McCarthy-era rhetorical tricks.

And a large part of his speech, especially the replay of his Chamber-of-Horrors bombast on immigration, was nothing but partisanship. The usual cast was there, the "ruthless coyotes" — Lord, he loves referencing those coyotes — the "cartels, drug dealers and human traffickers," and, of course, the "caravans."

He offered not a single nod to the traditional value of not separating children from their parents when they arrive at our borders.

All this was in the service of his main warning: "An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation."

So there you have it in one place: (1) Investigations are as bad as wars; (2) all investigations are "ridiculous partisan investigations"; and (3) if the economy tanks, it's because Democrats are investigating him. Oh, and between the lines, beware of all the socialist Democrats who are trying to take him down. "America will never be a socialist country," he promised. Take that, Sweden and Norway!

The Democratic response to Trump from Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia last year, won unusually good reviews for speeches of its genre, partly because it was blessedly compact compared with the president's sprawling, undisciplined jumble.

Abrams said what she meant and did not pretend we were about to enter a fantasyland of miraculously dissolving party differences. Rat-a-tat-tat, she catalogued the issues her party wanted to bring to the fore: the foolishness of Trump's shutdown, gun safety, student loans, voting rights, the GOP's reactionary tax bill, farmers caught in a trade war, protecting the Affordable Care Act, climate change, LGBTQ rights.

There was also this on-target reply to Trump's canard that all who oppose his immigration policies favor "open borders." Abrams's answer: "Compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders."

But Abrams's most powerful contribution to her party's discourse may have been her open invocation of religious commitment and the virtues it can promote. "These were our family values," she said of her Methodist home, "faith, service, education and responsibility."

She spoke of the "uncommon grace of community" and drove the point home by reciting the creed of all who embrace a healthy, measured individualism but reject the narcissistic kind: "We do not succeed alone."

That Eddie Haskell would never think like that is a measure of who won the night.

Washington Post Writers Group

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