The Oval Office address is a fine American institution, which presidents have used at moments of crisis to connect directly with the people. Franklin D Roosevelt used it to explain the New Deal, and to rally the nation after the Pearl Harbour attack. His successor, Harry S Truman, spoke of the Korean War and arms control. Dwight Eisenhower established his commitment to desegregation, John F Kennedy explained the Cuban missile crisis and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and Jimmy Carter spoke on the botched attempt to liberate US diplomats in Tehran. Now, Donald Trump has used the first Oval Office address of his presidency to raise bogeys like “vast quantities of illegal drugs” and “vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs” who apparently live off immigrants.
Trump did not declare a national emergency to push through funding for his wall on the southern border, which many had feared he would. But that barrier to human traffic was the centrepiece of a long harangue, as it has been to Trump’s entire presidency. The immigrant as bogeyman, determined to absorb resources which should go to true Americans and to undermine the American way of life, has been Trump’s most important contribution to a nation which appears to be deeply troubled. It has brought US politics to an unfamiliar low, in which the most visible debate appears to be over whether the wall should be made of concrete or steel.
Trump is a politician who lives for moments made for television and social media, and he could have used his first Oval Office to try to unite a nation that is now divided against itself, and begin a process that would allow government to function again, after being on ice for the better part of a month. But he has frittered away the opportunity by stoking fears of barbarian hordes, and taking recourse to dreary and questionable claims about his wall. He spent a lot of time blaming the Democrats for shutting down the government, though the truth is that the president is holding the people hostage, refusing to reach a compromise that would see the government back in business. His obsession with a physical barrier is delusional when migration is increasing rapidly, and brings into question America’s ability to engage with an important humanitarian issue of our times.