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Trump strikes a softer tone, but delivers the same awful message

Trump strikes a softer tone, but delivers the same awful message
President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington on Jan. 30. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

In his first State of the Union address, President Trump spoke in an almost conciliatory tone that largely eschewed his usual bluster. Yet the underlying message was his familiar appeal to fear and resentment, particularly toward noncitizens and foreign adversaries. And the agenda he laid out was, with few exceptions, a thinly detailed retread of past pronouncements.

Trump was predictably full of praise for himself and his administration, citing the "incredible progress and extraordinary success" achieved in his first year. And as usual, he exaggerated the credit he was due for both the economy and the fact that on his watch "the coalition to defeat [Islamic State] has liberated almost 100% of the territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria."

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The president certainly tried to position himself as a unifying figure ready to compromise. Although most of his proposals were tired GOP ideas, he expressed support for a handful of initiatives that seemed designed to appeal to Democrats — a huge infrastructure-building program, paid family leave, a better approach to helping former inmates reenter society and a commitment to lowering prescription drug prices. Those are all worthwhile goals, and if he's serious about them, Democrats should work with him. He didn't say how he planned to achieve them, however, leaving one to wonder whether he'd renounce them all on Twitter in the morning.

Truly engaging Democrats not only in respectful dialogue but in actual compromise would be good for the country, clearly. It also would be beneficial for Trump's political standing at a time when his sagging popularity is threatening the Republican Party with losses in the midterm election.

But Trump's most detailed comments of the evening — on immigration, an issue crying out for compromise — were hardly an olive branch. Stressing the need for public safety and highlighting victims of violence by illegal immigrants, Trump urged Democrats to accept his latest proposal, which conditions a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers — young people brought to this country illegally when they were children — on drastic cuts in legal immigration and the construction of his silly, wasteful wall.

Not only is this proposal substantively offensive. In defending it, Trump used offensive language — though not as offensive as his infamous comments about not wanting immigrants from certain "shithole" countries — that harked back to his suggestions during the campaign that illegal immigrants were dangerous. "My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American dream. Because Americans are dreamers too."

If the president insists on using that sort of language, he will find that his calls for good-faith negotiations will be met with deep and deserved skepticism.

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