Critics say Trump's State of the Union address celebrates a racist America

Analysis: "The president ... is putting the full force and effect of his office and his status behind an unapologetic effort to make America white again," a civil rights lawyer said.
Image: Radio host Rush Limbaugh reacts after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union address on Feb. 4, 2020.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh reacts after he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union address in Washington on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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By Suzanne Gamboa

In his status check on the country Tuesday night, President Donald Trump celebrated Rush Limbaugh and said nothing about slavery or the genocide of Native Americans in his recount of the nation's history.

Those moments and others in his State of the Union speech were clear signals that the president will make little adjustment on race and racism as he seeks another term, experts say.

As part his speech, the president chose to bestow the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on Limbaugh, a man who has built a national brand on what critics have long said is a base of racism and division.

First lady Melania Trump placed the award around Limbaugh's neck as Republican lawmakers cheered and Democrats largely remained in their seats. The made-for-TV moment came four days after the president added six more countries to the so-called travel ban that he implemented in early 2017.

"Since he launched his campaign, he's run on a restrictive immigration platform. Rush Limbaugh is a very able partner in that," said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. "Rush Limbaugh was anti-immigrant before being anti-immigrant was cool."

Limbaugh, who has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, has long been a conservative darling to fans who have cheered his history of racist, sexist and homophobic comments.

He helped spread the debunked "birther" conspiracy theory, largely pushed by Trump, that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He said Obama's presidency gave rise to Black Lives Matter and "thugocracy." He said Michelle Obama was guilty of "uppity-ism."

Trump "gave Rush Limbaugh, a figure who promotes hate, extremism and violence against the Latino community, the highest civilian award possible," said Hector Sanchez, CEO and executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a group that advocates for Latinos and registers them to vote. "This speech from start to finish was a total disaster."

Limbaugh has said about Latino immigrants: "The objective is to dilute and eventually eliminate or erase what is known as the distinct or unique American culture. ... This is why people call this an invasion."

Rewarding Limbaugh is but one example of a larger problem, according to Steve Phillips, a civil rights lawyer, author of "Brown is the New White" and host of the podcast "Democracy in Color with Steve Phillips."

"The president has no interest in trying to unify the country and is putting the full force and effect of his office and his status behind an unapologetic effort to make America white again," Phillips said. "He's all in now in this culture war, which is most reminiscent of the efforts to destroy Reconstruction after the Civil War."

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Ray Suarez, the former longtime PBS journalist and author of "Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation," said there was no mistaking that the speech was an opening salvo in Trump's re-election campaign.

Trump has decided, Suarez said, that the way to remain president is "not to go out of his way to win approval from people who have disapproved of him in the past but make sure the people who approve of him stay on his side."

"I don't think anybody is naive about what a divisive figure Rush has been," Suarez said. "The president doesn't care deeply about people who don't like Rush Limbaugh."

He added: "Rush Limbaugh has throughout his career said racially provocative, offensive things, things that aren't true. If this bothered the president, he hasn't signaled it. He certainly wasn't showing it last night."

Trump's address continued his portrayal of immigrants as criminals by referring to the brother of a guest who was killed in California by an immigrant who was not legally in the country and had previously been deported. The statements reinforced his previously expressed view on immigration, which he began spreading when he announced his bid for president in 2015.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best," Trump said in his first campaign speech. "They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists, and some, I assume, are good people."

Trump invited and singled out two African Americans and one Latino guest to help make points in his speech, and he touted decreases in Latino and Hispanic unemployment.

Suarez said Trump's speech was consistent with who he has been. If he was going to soften any edges to reach out to certain groups this election year, "it didn't show last night."

The takeaway, Phillips said, is that the speech showed that "this country is really on the precipice of fascism." He added, however, that there is good news: The president "does not now and he never had the support of the majority of the people."

Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by about 2 million votes, but he prevailed in the Electoral College.

The question is whether what some see as a deeply racist strain in Trump's presidency is a factor for voters in November.

"People have to see the threat for what it is and call it out," Phillips said.

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