Controlling The Conversation

Last week, not long after President Trump delivered his State of the Union Address, a brilliant video appeared online. Unfortunately, today I couldn’t find it anywhere on the Internet so I can’t steer you to it. 

The clever video featured quick cuts of Donald Trump saying certain words in his SOTU Address, again and again. If I remember correctly, he used such words as “terrorists,” “criminals,” and “border security” a number of times. Those cuts of Trump saying his scary words were interspersed with a silent Trump, backed only by the sound of crickets, as the names of other issues appeared on the screen that in reality are much more urgent for the security and survival of our nation. 

That short video revealed what a sham this year’s Address really was — what little substance it actually contained. 

President Trump spent his valuable time in front of Congress and the nation basically playing to his base of support, a minority of Americans. He painted refugees at our southern border as national security threats. He announced a virtual “total victory” against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He portrayed Iran as a continuing nuclear threat. He claimed he was personally responsible for preventing almost certain nuclear war with North Korea. And he decried proposals to develop “Medicare for all,” declaring that as long as he was President, the United States would never become “a socialist country.” 

If you look at those statements with any knowledge of actual facts, you can see that Trump spent most of his 82 minutes talking about things that are far from the most pressing issues facing the United States. In fact, some of them aren’t really issues at all. 

What Trump avoided addressing are the real issues that are crying out for leadership from Congress and the President. He said not one word about the continuing erosion of our quality of life caused by gun violence and the irrational laxness of our gun laws. He made no mention of the ever-widening gap between America’s wealthiest individuals and everyone else (which ironically includes his MAGA support base). He had all of Congress seated in front of him but made no reference to the budget deficit that has dangerously deepened. He stayed away from mentioning the crippling debt college students must take on to get an education. And worst of all, President Trump ignored the existential threat of climate change, a reality that is going to clobber future generations on our planet in ways they can’t even imagine. 

I admit that I’m no doubt repeating things you already know. But I’ve mentioned these giant “gaps” in Trump’s Address for a reason. In the days since he noticeably stayed away from so many important issues, I’ve been bothered by what has happened. — Nothing. You would think that the President’s avoidance of subjects that affect every American would receive attention. You’d expect more mention in mainstream media. And you’d hope that the general population would pick up on the President’s flight from true leadership. 

But after Donald Trump’s anemic SOTU presentation, what subject has dominated the news in the days since he spoke? – The same subject that dominated the week before that, money for the wall and the fear of another government shutdown. (Yes, the Virginia “blackface controversy” did get a lot of attention. But the wall and the shutdown threat still remained top of mind.) 

And why? Because it makes no difference if the president is a wise person or a fool, when any American president speaks, it is news. And in today’s 24/7 media world the demand for headlines is a round-the-clock thing. As Teddy Roosevelt said, the presidency gives the person holding that office a “bully pulpit.” (You wonder what he would have done with twitter.) Today, we have a president who knows (at least so far) he can change the nation’s conversation with just his cell phone, his thumbs, and his Tweets. 

What I observed in the past week just reinforced that view. However, things may be about to change. The new Democratic controlled House may now be in a position, on occasion, to guide the national discussion toward reality-based issues that actually do need to be addressed. Last November’s victories made that a possibility. But looking at this most recent example of how much power the American president has over controlling the national conversation, you can see why winning the White House in 2020 is something we should all take very seriously.

Nels Howard, NTD Member since 1973