I had an appointment and missed most of Trump’s speech; needless to say I don’t really regret missing such moral wretchedness. But I was actually looking forward to Joe Kennedy III’s speech. David and I had a chance to meet him a few years ago, and he was unpretentious, smart, and real — not coasting on the family heritage, even while obviously availing himself of it.
Anyway, I thought he was darned good, in an unenviable position:
Usually it seems like the SOTU response is aimed at the same audience as the address itself. This time it seemed different, based on the assumption that Trump has already alienated much of America — and that segment needs moral support. It was extremely candid about the viciousness of this very administration, not simply its inadequacy in facing exogenous threats. The Trump administration is itself the cancer on our country, it seemed to say.
Russia knee-deep in our democracy.
An all-out war on environmental protection.
A Justice Department rolling back civil rights by the day.
Hatred and supremacy proudly marching in our streets.
Bullets tearing through our classrooms, concerts, and congregations. Targeting our safest, sacred places.
And that nagging, sinking feeling, no matter your political beliefs: this is not right. This is not who we are.
It would be easy to dismiss the past year as chaos. Partisanship. Politics.
But it’s far bigger than that. This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us – they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.
For them, dignity isn’t something you’re born with but something you measure.
By your net worth, your celebrity, your headlines, your crowd size.
Not to mention, the gender of your spouse. The country of your birth. The color of your skin. The God of your prayers.
Their record is a rebuke of our highest American ideal: the belief that we are all worthy, we are all equal and we all count. In the eyes of our law and our leaders, our God and our government.
That is the American promise.
And it clearly delineated the methods and habits of mind that define Trumpism: Life and politics as a sadistic “zero-sum game.” It recognized implicitly, if ruefully, the appeal of sheer spite, particularly when people do not feel like they’re getting a fair shake themselves. Not by name but by implication, it called Trumpism bullying, which it surely is. It identified, at great length and specificity, with the underdogs of American life.
It wasn’t the definitive liberal (small-l) credo-as-rebuttal, but it was one very decent draft of it.
Regarding the optics: The setting was excellent – a voc-ed school in a working-class town; a friendly audience obviating the necessity to stare straight into America’s living rooms. His delivery was decent — he has a habit of speaking too fast, which he curbed; but some words were thrown away or clipped. But he seemed sincere.
There are plenty of talented people on the Democratic side who could have done a good job; JKIII probably skipped the line because of his last name. But he delivered the goods, rather better than most previous contestants. For now, I’m less interested in his own political prospects than what this speech does for developing a common language of resistance and rebuilding. Our words matter. These were good ones.