The great thing about President Donald Trump promising to focus on unifying our nation is that it’s an issue that’s both crucially important, and very much within his power to improve. In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Trump said “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”
That’s a great place to put his emphasis because Trump’s behavior is a fundamental driver of our national divide, and has been since before he declared his candidacy, when he became the nation’s leading promoter of the idea that his predecessor might be an illegitimate leader born in Kenya. For Trump, saying he’ll address the divides in the nation is like a serial arsonist saying he’ll make America not burst into flames again. That’s called being the right man for the job.
And while many say Trump is so unbearably, consistently, explosively divisive because he just can’t help himself, the president says he has tremendous self-control and decorum and presidentialism. So, go to it: Make America Unified Again!
But what, exactly, would that take? First off, he’d have to get away from the Trump-centric behavior he exhibited throughout Tuesday’s speech, endlessly clapping for himself, demanding via hand gestures that Republicans in the audience rise to applaud and pay homage, and using the word “I” so often it must be worn down to a nub on Stephen Miller’s keyboard.
But it’s more than that he’d have to change, because this speech, while pedestrian, was mostly the better version of Trump the nation could live with, not the worse one we’ve all too often seen.
He’d have to stop the name-calling. Unifiers don’t belittle.
He’d have to stop gloating over his election win. It was amazing, unexpected and huuuuuge. We get it. But by continuing to fixate on the win a year later, Trump simply rubs salt in the wounds of those who opposed his presidency. With an approval rating in the mid-30s, driving the 60-plus percent of the nation that does not approve of Trump batty to entertain the third of the country that does is about the most divisive thing a president could do.
He’d have to stop trashing the nation’s bedrock institutions: the courts, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Justice Department, the election process and the press. Americans treasure these institutions as part of what makes our nation great. To denigrate them is to attack American exceptionalism.
And he’d have to continue operating in the reasonable, statesmanlike manner he adopted Tuesday night, long past the end of the speech, and for the rest of his term.
There are certain things Trump should change that he probably can’t change. He’s unlikely to start speaking ultra-carefully, to avoid ever misstating facts. He’s unlikely to start reading huge tomes on complex issues. He’s unlikely to adopt the self-deprecating and humble manner that is the mark of a truly confident man.
But all he needs to do to stop the divisiveness is be nice, nice like our kindergarten teachers tried to teach us to be. No name-calling. Play well with others. Treat others as he’d like to be treated.
It really isn’t so much to ask. Every president before him has managed it as he worked to oversee a pretty great nation.
And it really would help. Kindness and consideration for others, unlike tax cuts, really would trickle down.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.