Justin C. Cohen’s Response to the President’s State of the Union Address
As I watched President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on January 29th, I couldn’t help remembering the famous Las Vegas scene from the second Godfather film. During that scene, a steely Al Pacino – playing a mafia boss cum gambling magnate – confronts a United States Senator who is holding up gambling licenses for a new casino. After the Senator not-so-subtly asks for a bribe, Pacino, consumed with the awareness of his own power, tells the man, “My offer is this: nothing.”
My recollection was triggered, in part, by the symmetry of the characters in the two set pieces. Trump, like the fictional Godfather, made his fortune through specious real estate deals and illicit gaming. Trump and Godfather alike seem unconcerned with any moral compass outside of that which points to their own personal enrichment. Both men express certitude about the deservedness of their power, while dismissing critique, even from their putative peers.
But perhaps the most striking similarity is in what both men offer to anyone who isn’t a powerful, wealthy, corrupt, well-connected, white man: Nothing.
What does Trump offer to America’s women, who are building an unprecedented political movement to confront centuries of political underrepresentation, workplace harassment, and economic marginalization? That movement – whether we call it #MeToo or an extension of historical feminism – seeks pay equity, a correction of the imbalance of power in the corridors of America’s legislatures, and consequences for men who engage in sexual misconduct, among many other noble aspirations.
What is Trump’s offer to American women?
How about America’s black communities, which are of course varied and heterogeneous, but at times united by challenges that are germane to our country’s ugly history of racism and white supremacy? The Movement for Black Lives has spent years organizing to end police brutality, reduce the use of incarceration as a tool of public safety, and diversify our country’s public and private institutions. Black political leaders in cities, suburbs, and rural America seek investments and opportunities that so often bypass the communities in this country that are not white.
Trump’s offer to black America?
Nothing. (Not to mention a callous dig at the peaceful protestors who kneel during the national anthem in opposition to police violence.)
Perhaps no community of Americans is more threatened by the Trump presidency than our immigrant brothers and sisters. Those families who have bravely moved to our shores in pursuit of the American dream live in fear of terror not from their immigrant peers, but from ICE agents of the state masquerading as guarantors of public safety. Many of the children of our immigrant families, who are American in every way except as represented on a piece of government paper, are being excluded from the American dream because of the most inhumane sorts of regulatory overreach.
It is no surprise that Trump is offering those families more of the same: Nothing.
In the course of dismissing the concerns of America’s majority, Trump made lots of other offers that we should view with vigilance. His plan for an infrastructure bill, while eyebrow raising in its size, will require the support of Congress. Not a single Democratic Congressperson or Senator should vote for that bill unless there are guarantees that those funds will be used to support America’s cities, the diversity and vibrancy of which drive our economy and prosperity. His immigration plan, while pitched as moderate, would expand the prison state while leaving millions of children and families in the lurch. His investments in expanding the military would double down on the disastrous foreign policy of his republican predecessors, who poured billions of dollars into unwinnable overseas conflicts, while ignoring the needs of our struggling American children and families at home.
I watched the State of the Union address with anger and frustration. The image of a man – who we have all seen on video graphically describing the sexual assault of women – was flanked by two other men, all three of whom seem gleefully ignorant of the concerns of anyone in this country who doesn’t look exactly like them. As a white man myself, I am ashamed that I could share in this ignorance if I choose. That, perhaps, is the ultimate white privilege.
But the other privilege I enjoy as a white man is to reject this President’s callousness and call out oppression where I see it. And so, my response to the President is simple.
As long as you are the chief executive of this county, I offer you this: Nothing.