Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
President Obama told a few jokes during his final State of the Union address. The best one, though, was so couched in the language of humility and high-mindedness that it flew right over everyone’s heads.
Claiming that one of his “few regrets” was that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said: “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
Obama surely knows as well as anyone that Abraham Lincoln’s election led directly to the Civil War. As for Franklin Roosevelt, here’s what he had to say about the one percent of his era: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
In fact, we live in divisive times—a moment when we can’t agree on issues ranging from gun control to climate change; when Republican representatives and senators Tuesday night couldn’t bring themselves to offer even tepid applause for Obama’s call for universal pre-kindergarten and “more great teachers for our kids.”
The unnamed guest at the State of the Union—and in South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s Republican response—was Donald Trump, who has emerged as the exemplar of that divisiveness, and a dangerous one at that. Defying all predictions (including mine) that he would fade by the time the presidential campaign got serious, Trump continues to loom large, offering little other than an authoritarian appeal to rage and racism.
Obama addressed Trump with this: “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
Haley, calling herself “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants,” also addressed Trump directly, though, like Obama, she did not name him: “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
It was a poignant moment for perhaps our two most successful nonwhite political leaders—both Christians, one suspected by his enemies of being a secret Muslim, the other raised a Sikh. But it remains to be seen whether it will do any good. As you may have heard, right-wing controversialist Ann Coulter responded on Twitter that “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.”