The state of the union speech has become an annual pageant of political theater, and Tuesday’s speech by President Trump was no exception. The content of such speeches is usually exactly what you’d expect the sitting president to say on any given topic, with a few surprises sprinkled in here and there.
To make it interesting television (or as interesting as an hour-long political speech can be), the networks have adopted the practice of turning the cameras on various people in the chamber, so that we can see their reactions to whatever the president is saying. Thank goodness. Watching those reactions is now a central part of any good state of the union experience.
And then there’s the clapping. Or not clapping, as the case may be. This can sometimes be a challenge for the party opposing the president, because presidents often say things that are universally accepted and worthy of applause. And in those moments, failing to clap can look pretty bad to the American people.
President Trump teed up several of those moments on Tuesday evening. His accounting of the economic success that minority groups have enjoyed during his presidency was a noteworthy one, for example. Democrats mostly sat on their hands in response, when they should have been clapping.
But the most revealing moment occurred after President Trump described the staggering failure of socialist policies in Venezuela, when he said, “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” Republicans erupted in enthusiastic agreement.
Democrats had a quick decision to make. To clap or not to clap? The cameras immediately went to the two most prominent self-declared socialists – Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. They did what any self-respecting socialist would do and refused to clap. But what about the rest of the Democrats in the chamber?
Almost without exception, they too refused to clap. It was telling. Not in that it revealed that every Democrat has embraced full-scale socialism, which hopefully hasn’t happened yet, but in that so many Democrats were afraid to suggest that they agreed with the President on that point.
I suspect that multiple forces were at work in that moment. The media has made darlings of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez; and both have a substantial portion of the radical Left backing their socialist ideas. President Trump was indirectly referring to them when he said, “Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country.” Many non-socialist Democrats are apparently afraid to buck the prevailing wind in the Party.
Another force at work was simple confusion, a.k.a. the Wasserman Schultz syndrome. Remember in 2015 when then-DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was asked by MSNBC host Chris Matthews: “What is the difference between a Democrat and a socialist?” Wasserman Schultz responded with a deer-in-the-headlights look, at a loss for words. Matthews asked again: “I used to think there is a big difference. What do you think it is?” Wasserman Schultz awkwardly tried to change the subject. Matthew would ask the questions two more times, never getting an answer.
I think that she couldn’t answer because she wasn’t exactly sure what the definition of socialism is. (It’s government ownership or control of a country’s major industries or means of production.) And I’ll bet that a few Members of Congress aren’t sure either, and they have no interest in studying the matter.
As recently as fifteen years ago, I think that most congressional Democrats, given time to think about the question, would have agreed with the statement that America should not become a socialist country. They would have rejected the nationalization of industries and the wealth-killing effect of socialism that has been replayed so many times on the international stage. And they would have said that their party stands for something different.
But now things appear to have changed. Just how much is hard to tell. Medicare-for-all (socialist medical care) may be just the beginning. One can only hope that this socialist fever will pass, but I’m not optimistic.
Kris W. Kobach served as the Secretary of State of Kansas during 2011-2019. An expert in immigration law and policy, he coauthored the Arizona SB-1070 immigration law and represented in federal court the 10 ICE agents who sued to stop Obama’s 2012 DACA executive amnesty. During 2001-03, he served as U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s chief adviser on immigration and border security at the U.S. Department of Justice. His website is kriskobach.com.