The America of Trump’s big speech sounds good, but it’s a deeply incomplete picture
Trump’s State of the Union address was like ”Leave it to Beaver,” a TV show that made America feel better than she really had reason to.
Allow me to take you back. The year is 1957 and “Leave it to Beaver” debuts in black and white on CBS.
The earnest and playful family comedy offers up solvable moral dilemmas and a heaping spoonful of unvarnished optimism in the American Dream for six years and remains for many people one of the greatest television shows of all time.
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But one of the reasons the show was so popular was that it was, for many at the time, an escape from the anxiety-inducing social, cultural and economic changes affecting the country at a rapid pace. The Cleavers’ idealized version of 1950s American suburbia — safe, white, upwardly mobile and meritocratic — masked a reality that simply didn’t match the white picket fences of Mapleton Drive. Much to the contrary, at the time America was starting to feel the most significant economic downturn post-WWII in the Eisenhower Recession.
That year, 1957, the Arkansas National Guard was called to prevent the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of African American school children, from attending a white school. (Eisenhower then federalized the Guard, ordering them to support the integration and protect the black students.)
The Cold War had kids hiding under desks in duck-and-cover drills, and the Gaither Report called for even more missiles and fallout shelters.
Jimmy Hoffa was arrested, Ed Gein committed his final murder and the Dodgers left Brooklyn.
“Leave it to Beaver” was very much an antidote to all of this, a television show that made America feel better than she really had reason to.
I’ll be the first to admit, President Trump’s State of the Union Tuesday night gave me all the feels. From surprising a military mom with the return of her enlisted husband, to announcing a scholarship for a Philadelphia school girl, the event felt more like an episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” than the dry accounting of our economic and political health that it so often does. For a reality TV president, that’s fitting.
Trump boasted of a good economy, record-low unemployment, a successful anti-terror campaign, a war on opioids, and laudable, progressive legislation like paid family leave and criminal justice reform.
To be clear, the details were fuzzy and sometimes even false. As is often the case, Trump wasn’t so much speaking in truths but in themes: a strong but compassionate America that wasn’t just surviving, but thriving.
For a moment, it was hard not to feel good about the state of our union. Whatever your prescriptions for our many problems, who could argue with the obvious gratitude on the faces of real people in Trump’s America.
Except it wasn’t real. Of course, it was real to the individuals who clearly did benefit from a Trump administration policy, favor or giveaway. Nothing should take away from their sense of appreciation.
But as avatars, they felt more like the exceptions than the rules. Even in an America with low unemployment and steady job creation.
It is commendable, for example, to honor Gold Star families. It’s commendable to honor our troops and our veterans.
But Trump has notably and repeatedly antagonized and belittled other servicemen and women. And he has faced wholly justifiable criticism from those same groups since he was elected, just recently for calling the traumatic brain injuries suffered by soldiers in Iraq “headaches,” and “not very serious.”
It’s commendable to honor victims of terrorism. But reckless foreign policy throughout the Middle East has endangered Americans and our allies.
It’s commendable to honor global defenders of democracy, like Venezuela’s Juan Guaido and Ivan Simonovis, who fight totalitarianism. But Trump has repeatedly defended and even celebrated the world’s worst dictators, and he has sought to oppress democratic institutions like a free press here at home. Meantime, his efforts in Venezuela have been scattershot and ineffective.
It’s commendable to want to protect our children from premature birth complications, bullying, failing schools and all other ills. But this administration has ripped immigrant children away from their parents at the border. Seven kids — that we know of — have died in ICE custody. Trump has also sided with the NRA against common-sense gun control measures to keep our kids safe.
We should commend this administration for helping the people it has, including the inspiring honorees at Trump’s State of the Union address. But behind the anecdotes is the very real pain this administration has caused to wide swaths of Americans and would-be Americans.
The version of America Trump presented last night was meant to make us feel good. But there’s another America that Trump presides over, too — the one he often likes to malign, dismiss and denigrate, both in words and policy. And for them, life is not the idealized snapshot he offered last night.
S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.
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