One basic rule of logical debate tells us that anecdotes are not data, and that setting policy based on singular instances is a bad idea. Much to Sheldon Cooper’s dismay, however, we are not a planet of Vulcans, where Spock-like logic and emotional detachment reign supreme. Humans are emotional beings, hard-wired to react certain ways by millennia of evolution, and driven by the chemicals called hormones in response to what we see, hear, smell, feel and taste.

That emotional responses matter is well-known in the realm of politics, and politicians throughout history have used this reality of human nature to advance agendas, garner support, undermine opposition, and as political leverage.

Last night’s State of the Union address was a master-class in personalizing the political. I normally don’t watch SOTU addresses, because they’re boring, predictable bits of political theater, where everyone knows who’s going to clap when, who’s going to stand when, who’s going to sit, who’s going to smile, and who’s going to frown, and because I can read the transcript the next morning in 10 minutes, instead of devoting an hour plus to listening to applause breaks. The unique theatrics of this Presidency, however, plus my schadenfreude-driven desire to witness Nancy Pelosi chew wasps (as I’ve written before, I wasn’t happy that Trump won, but I was THRILLED that Clinton lost), prompted me to break protocol.

I’m glad I did.

Trump and his speechwriters/planners figured it all out. In tone, Trump showed nothing but love and admiration for America and Americans, speaking in a glowingly upbeat tone about the nation and its people. No scolding, no “half of you suck,” no “we’ve got to change who and what we are because it stinks” pontificating. Someone new to the game would come away with a rock-solid feeling that Trump loves this country and its people. As much as anything, Trump won the Presidency because people grew tired of being told they sucked, they were wrong in everything they believed, they were bitter and deplorable, and Trump stayed on point with the positivity.

In agenda, the “America First” and “Make America Great Again” were presented superbly, with none of the zero-sum, we-win-when-they-lose negativity and divisiveness that has driven politics (of both parties) in recent years. In the policy areas where I am most skeptical of Bad-Trump e.g. trade and immigration hard-lining, Trump deftly danced around the protectionism I fear and spoke words far more in line with the “everyone wins in free and fair trade” reality. Whether that materializes as reality is a whole other matter – while the devil is very much in the details, SOTU speeches are not about specifics. The tone was pitch-perfect.

And, the tone was amplified, in just about every major policy and issue discussed, with personalization.

To press his point about flag-kneeling, he called out to a 12 year old boy who started an effort that planted 40,000 American flags at the graves of veterans.

To press his point about criminals getting into America via the immigration system he doesn’t like, he called out to the black and latino parents of two teenage girls murdered by MS-13 gang members.

To emphasize his repeated extolling of the American spirit, he called out to a Coast Guard Petty Officer who was a first responder to Hurricane Harvey, and to a firefighter who rescued dozens of children at a camp during the California wildfires.

To highlight the success of his deregulatory, pro-business agenda, he called out to the husband-and-wife owners of a small business that’s expanding, and to one of their workers, a welder (who happens to be black).

Indeed, he made a very specific point, among his various football-spike datums regarding low unemployment, that black and latino unemployment were at historic lows. All this and much more was obviously calculated and orchestrated, and it worked like a charm. Democratic politicians sat dour-faced and wasp-chewy (I got my wish regarding Nancy Pelosi) even in moments that spoke to the constituencies they purport to champion. Watching members of the Congressional Black Caucus, dressed in African garb to protest Trump’s alleged “shit hole” remarks, sit stone-faced during the standing applause break for Trump’s announcement of record-low African American unemployment was damning.

The race card has been played to broken-record constancy against Trump, with perpetual assertions that he’s not only a racist, but the vilest sort of racist. I’m skeptical that a life-long New York Democrat could be the sort of caricature racist that his detractors assert, but that’s beside the point. The allegation has stuck to him, and it’s been used time and again as justification for the monolithic opposition the Democrats have maintained to all his policies. Trump’s selection of guests stole that wind. Against allegations that his immigration ideas were about race, he presented minority American families harmed by immigrant criminals. Against allegations that his economic policies harmed minorities, he presented, with both data and personally, minority benefits of those policies. In every policy he touched on where partisan divides exist, he used an invited guest with perfect demographics to undermine the opposition.

And, he did all this while speaking repeatedly of bipartisanship. In Alinsky-esque tactical shrewdness, Trump drove wedges between opposition politicians and the American people. He sold a message that his plans and policies were good for all Americans, and quite effectively implied that the Dem opposition was thus anti-American. And he did so with well-chosen zingers and rah-rah lines, including a segue from the tale of a North Korean defector seeking freedom to the roots of American liberty that prompted a “USA! USA!” chant from many (presumably Republicans) in the chamber. As powerfully, in a demonstration of incredible tone-deafness, Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois stood up and walked out in the midst of that chant.

Yes, the President and his strongest supporters exhibit jingoistic nationalism. Yes, there are unfortunate elements of nativism in his policies, elements that will work to the detriment of the nation if actualized. Yes, there are things that Trump wants that I disagree with, and that I think will be damaging to the country’s future. But, believing that America is a good place, with the right ideas on liberty and individualistic pursuit of success and happiness, is not in and of itself a Bad Thing.

Trump laid traps for the Democrats at the SOTU last night, and they walked right into them. He employed several Alinsky tactics against the people for whom they were written. In particular, rule #13:

Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

was carried out to enormous effect, with the aforementioned combination of in-person anecdotal demonstrations of his successes and the wedges inserted between the people and the Democratic politicians themselves. To quote second-wave feminist Carol Hanisch, “the personal is political,” as Trump proved last night. And, as a reminder that those of us who desire logic and dispassionate analysis to hold greater sway than anecdote and individual experience, I offer:

Tom, don’t let anybody kid you. It’s all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat every day of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it’s personal as hell. You know where I learned that from? The Don. — Michael Corleone in The Godfather

Yes, the State of the Union is kabuki, and much that was promised therein will morph and mutate as it wends its way through the sausage-making of governance. That doesn’t make it irrelevant, not when used to send the message that the opposition is anti-American. No matter whether that’s true or false, the message was delivered, loudly and strongly, and the images and videos of Democratic leaders sitting stone-faced or glum, booing, and walking out amidst a relentlessly positive and pro-America speech will haunt the party for a long time.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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