Often, when President Donald Trump is giving a speech, he addresses only a single audience: his loyal Republican base.
But Tuesday night, in Trump’s third State of the Union speech, the president took the path he almost always avoids in his red-meat rallies, delivering a message that also took a second audience into account and tried to bring it into the fold.
That second audience, so crucial to Trump as he seeks reelection in November, is composed of people who may not like him very much — or at all — but could be convinced to vote for him, or stay home in November and vote for no one, if the eventual Democratic nominee turns them off enough with far-left promises.
With this strategy, the president focused a tremendous amount of energy on highlighting the advances of minorities during his three years in office, and of black Americans in particular.
Trump hammered the point that blacks, Hispanics and Asians are enjoying their lowest unemployment rates in history, saying black youths and women are, as well. He recognized numerous black audience members, including:
- GOP Sen. Tim Scott, of South Carolina, for his work on enterprise zones that Trump said are creating jobs, often for black workers, in rural and inner-city America
- Charles McGee, a 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman, and his grandson, eighth-grader Iain Lanphier who hopes to serve in Trump’s new Space Force
- Single mother Stephanie Davis and her daughter, Janiyah, who waited for the chance to attend a new school until Trump told her she’d gained a scholarship and admission during her speech.
The speech was, in many parts, so positive toward black Americans that it could conceivably alienate Trump’s support from the far-right white nationalist end of his coalition, highlighted by the president’s boast that he has provided record-high funding for historically black colleges and universities.
Most of the speech Tuesday night focused on the positive. But when Trump’s tone turned ominous, it was on issues where the middle-class members of every race, ethnicity and gender often disagree with many Democratic Party leaders and the further-left presidential candidates.
When Trump went negative, it was to intone that “Socialism destroys nations, but always remember, freedom unifies the soul,” a confusing bit of rhetoric.
Much of the speech was meant to convince a larger swath of Americans that they actually side with Trump, not Democrats. Democrats, Trump promised, want to ruin your health care with a “socialist takeover” while giving free care to immigrants here illegally, and “135 legislators in this room” have supported plans to do it. Democrats create sanctuary cities, and states, in places like California and especially New York City, where Trump referenced the case of Reeaz Khan, a Guyanese national in the United States illegally who is accused of raping and killing Maria Fuertes, a 92-year-old Queens woman. Khan had been arrested for assaulting his father, and the city refused to turn him over to federal authorities before Fuertes was killed.
And Democrats want to kill fetuses with late-term abortions, a practice polling shows is unpopular with a strong majority of Americans (though doctors say it is almost never done for any reason other than medical need), and which Trump, like many Republican presidents before him promised to ban.
And throughout his speech Trump allied himself with the military and military families, a popular stance across racial and ethnic lines. He even went as far as to create a surprise reunion for a military family by springing a father and husband just back from Afghanistan on his family in the gallery.
In many ways this State of the Union speech, coming the day after the Iowa Democratic caucuses, kicked off Trump’s reelection effort in earnest, by showcasing a new message that tries to be more inclusive toward much of the nation by demonizing and isolating the far left.
Whether it works will depend on how his base reacts to it, whether his base is upset by it, whether the new supporters he is trying to reach are swayed, and whether a splintered Democratic Party goes far enough left in this race to legitimize Trump’s claims.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.