If you just arrived in the United States and wanted to understand the difference between the Republican and Democratic vision for America, a good place to start would have been Donald Trump’s State of the Union address followed by Stacey Abrams’ Democratic rejoinder.
Donald Trump is a 72-year-old privileged New York white man who made a fortune in real-estate and reality television. His near-record-length SOTU address — 82 minutes — was framed in military images: Trump noted that June 6th marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day when the allies invaded the European mainland. He said, “Now, we must step boldly and bravely into the next chapter of this great American adventure.” He continued with the most controversial remarks in his speech, “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 in legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”
Stacey Abrams is a 45-year-old Georgia African-American woman who rose from impoverished circumstances to become a lawyer, entrepreneur, politician, and the 2018 Democratic candidate for Georgia Governor. Her 11-minute response was framed around community and service: “My family understood firsthand that while success is not guaranteed, we live in a nation where opportunity is possible. But we do not succeed alone. In these United States, when times are tough, we can persevere because our friends and neighbors will come for us.” She used this perspective to criticize Trump: “Just a few weeks ago, I joined volunteers to distribute meals to furloughed federal workers. They waited in line for a box of food, and the sliver of hope since they hadn’t received paychecks in weeks. Making livelihoods of our federal workers a pawn for political games is a disgrace. The shutdown was a stunt, engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people but our values.”
Typically, the State-of-the-Union address is where the President lays out his legislative agenda in broad strokes. Trump chose to focus on immigration (16 minutes): “Republicans and Democrats must join forces again to confront an urgent national crisis. Congress has 10 days left to pass a bill that will fund our government, protect our homeland, and secure are very dangerous southern border. Now is the time for Congress to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration and putting the ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers, and human traffickers out of business… walls work and walls save lives.”
In contrast, Stacey Abrams did present an agenda. She emphasized voting rights: “Let’s be clear. Voter suppression is real. From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places, to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy… This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have a say the vision they want for our country. We must reject the cynicism that says every vote cast to be counted is a power grab. Americans understand that these are the values our brave men and women in uniform and our veterans risk their lives to defend. The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders, not where politicians pick their voters.”
Trump’s most controversial SOTU claim was about North Korea: “As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula… If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”
Stacey Abrams most controversial line was: “Even as I am very disappointed by the President’s approach to our problems – I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America.”
Trump chose not to mention many issues that vex Americans; for example, education, healthcare, gun control, and climate changes.
Stacey Abrams did mention all these issues. For example, “Children deserve an excellent education from cradle to career. We owe them safe schools and the highest standards, regardless of ZIP code. Yet, this White House responds timidly while first-graders practice active-shooter drills and the price of higher education grows ever steeper.”
At the conclusion of his SOTU address, Trump asked: “What will we do with this moment? How will we be remembered?” And responded, “I am asking you to choose greatness.” This was consistent with the military frame of his address. And Trump’s self-image as commander-in-chief.
Stacey Abrams concluded: “Our progress has always found refuge in the basic instinct of the American experiment – to do right by our people. And with a renewed commitment to social and economic justice, we will create a stronger America, together.” This was consistent with her emphasis on community and service.
It’s hard to imagine that there could be a starker difference between the Republican and Democratic vision for the United States.