Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent Opinion contributor to CNN and the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
President Donald Trump gave one of the longest State of the Union addresses in US history, and the teleprompter scrolled through themes and tropes that ring familiar to those who watch these speeches.
We heard the touching stories of bravery and patriotism; we heard Trump boast of his successes – keeping the bragging to a more decorous level than his usual – and make some calls for national unity, not usually heard from the current White House.
But the most eloquent aspect of the speech was the words Trump did not utter.
Has it ever happened that a President of the United States, in arguably the most important speech he will deliver in the year – the one where he lays out his priorities, his principles – has failed to mention, even once, the word “democracy”?
Nothing is more fundamental to the essence of this country than the concept of democracy. Surely, Trump and his speech writers did not deliberately omit it. But the oversight confirms the fears many of us share that Trump finds democracy and its norms more of a hindrance than an inspiration.
Not surprisingly, Trump did not mention “human rights,” either. Every president in the last quarter century has highlighted the defense of individual human rights and human dignity as a core American value. The Trump administration has pointedly moved away from that.
This fits with Trump’s evident warmth toward several autocratic leaders who are undermining democracy and human rights in their countries.
And to those who thought Tuesday night’s Trump might veer into one of his favorite cringe-inducing tropes, it was a relief that we did not hear him lambaste the media or talk about “fake news.” But there was also no shout out from the leader of the free world in support of a free press, during a time when independent media is coming under attack in so many countries, with journalists harassed, jailed and worse. Such support from Trump would have been too much to ask, of course.
Some other words we did not hear from the President despite this unique moment in history was “refugees” or “asylum seekers.” Today, the world has more refugees than at any time since World War II, according to the United Nations. But Trump broached the topic in a most distasteful way, one that is familiar to nationalist demagogues around the world, exploiting the tragic story of two families whose daughters he said were killed by gang members who he said were in the United States illegally.
Using cherry-picked examples, like this, to try to tarnish a vastly larger population of the overwhelmingly law-abiding immigrant population is a time-tested method for fueling prejudice. And in this case, Trump went a step further, noting that the killers arrived in the US as unaccompanied minors, precisely the definition of the “Dreamers” – immigrants who came to this country as children and a population that Trump claims he wants to help stay in the United States.
Speaking of killings, Trump also failed to offer any ideas about the most serious threats to security faced by the American people, the explosion of mass shootings, which are becoming deadlier and more frequent – so common, in fact, that news organizations are down to reporting mainly the largest or most senseless. Such massacres killed far more Americans than terrorists in recent years – but the search for a way to address the crisis did not merit a mention in the speech, or even an acknowledgment by this administration that it, in fact, constitutes a problem.
Trump did talk about the military repeatedly, and his speech had a requisite section on foreign policy. But he never mentioned NATO, the alliance that has stood at the core of the West’s defense since World War II.
One year into his administration, the early fears that he would pull the US out of NATO have faded, but the President’s does not appear to have gained any particular affection for the alliance or for America’s closest friends in Europe. He did not mention NATO, Europe, or any European country.
One other burning topic that did not make it into the speech was the Russia investigation. Four decades ago, Richard Nixon used his State of the Union speech to call for an end to “the so-called Watergate affair,” declaring that “One year of Watergate is enough” and it was time to wrap it up.
Trump? He steered clear of the searing subject that has dogged his presidency.