Donald Trump’s speech goes low, Stacey Abrams’s response goes high
Stacey Abrams’s “goes high” in her Democratic response. AP

WASHINGTON—To borrow Michelle Obama’s famous quote, Donald Trump “goes low” in his State of the Union address, and Stacey Abrams’s “goes high” in her Democratic response.

That, in essence, is the contrast between Trump’s 92-minute speech from the U.S. House rostrum and Abrams’s shorter, positive, reply from an Electrical Workers union hall in Atlanta.

When Trump called for compromise, Pelosi clapped but pointed sharply at the president making the point that he should take his own advice. AP

Trump filled his speech with red meat for the radical right, denunciations of “socialism,” and a renewed campaign for his racist Mexican Wall. His speech featured omissions, outright lies – such as claiming credit for the U.S. recovery from the GOP-policy-caused Great Recession — and gratuitous insults. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., struggled to keep from rolling her eyes.

And Trump threw in occasional calls for bipartisanship, without specifying where he would negotiate – or on what. He also used veterans of World War II as props. June 6 is the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Abrams didn’t go that route. While Trump vilified his foes, she replied, “We may come from different sides of the political aisle. But our joint commitment to the ideals of this nation cannot be negotiable.”

Abrams, the first African-American woman ever nominated for a state governorship, now leads a pro-voting rights organization. After voting roll purges of blacks by the white male GOP Secretary of State. Abrams was narrowly defeated last fall. Her talk highlighted congressional Democratic efforts to restore U.S. democracy, eliminating the corrupt influence of the corporate class’s big money in politics and restoring the full right to vote with laws that have strong enforcement teeth.

“This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country,” Abrams said. “We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a ‘power grab.’”

The “power grab” line came actually not from Trump, but from his chief spear carrier, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., several days before.

“We fought Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, yet we continue to confront racism from our past and in our present — which is why we must hold everyone from the very highest offices to our own families accountable for racist words and deeds, and call racism what it is. Wrong,” Abrams said.

The House Democrats agree. They already started moving on their voting rights/civil rights package, HR1, with a Judiciary Committee hearing on it the day before Trump’s address.

In addition to restoring the teeth the Supreme Court’s GOP-named majority pulled from the Voting Rights Act, HR1 would outlaw voter intimidation, promote easy voter registration, force disclosure of shady campaign contributions, and mandate states set up independent redistricting commissions. That would end congressional gerrymanders which GOP-run state legislatures use to deny voting rights and political power to blacks, browns, women, students, Native Americans — and to workers.

Voting rights wasn’t the only area where Democrats, and workers, took on Trump.

Worker rights, especially for the 800,000 federal employees Trump refused to pay for 35 days, also loomed large. Trump forced almost half of them – including the airport screeners, air traffic controllers, and federal firefighters – to work without pay. The other half he locked out. One depressed screener, unable to pay his bills or feed his family, committed suicide in Orlando Airport on Feb. 2. Trump didn’t mention that.

By contrast, Abrams volunteered at a soup kitchen to feed the locked-out workers and blasted Trump’s lockout/shutdown. And while Trump didn’t mention tough gun control, Abrams did. Democratic-run House committees held a Feb. 6 hearing on that, too.

“Our most urgent work is to realize Americans’ dreams of today and tomorrow. To carve a path to independence and prosperity that can last a lifetime. Children deserve an excellent education from cradle to career. We owe them safe schools and the highest standards, regardless of zip code,” Abrams said.

“Yet this White House responds timidly while first graders practice active shooter drills and the price of higher education grows ever steeper. From now on, our leaders must be willing to tackle gun safety measures and the crippling effect of educational loans, to support educators and invest what is necessary to unleash the power of America’s greatest minds.”

And while Trump claimed credit for an economic expansion he wasn’t responsible for, he didn’t even utter the word “workers,” who were the ones who lost houses, jobs, and pensions to the GOP-corporate-and-financier-engineered Great Recession, otherwise known as the Bush Crash.

Abrams pointed out workers are still hurting, and she specifically declared unions are one big way they can recover lost ground.

“In Georgia and around the country, people are striving for a middle class where a salary truly equals economic security. But instead, families’ hopes are being crushed by Republican leadership that ignores real life or just doesn’t understand it. Under the current administration, far too many hard-working Americans are falling behind, living paycheck to paycheck, most without labor unions to protect them from even worse harm,” she said.

“The Republican tax bill rigged the system against working people. Rather than bringing back jobs, plants are closing, layoffs are looming and wages struggle to keep pace with the actual cost of living,” Abrams added.

“We owe more to the millions of everyday folks who keep our economy running: like truck drivers forced to buy their own rigs, farmers caught in a trade war, small business owners in search of capital, and domestic workers serving without labor protections. Women and men who could thrive if only they had the support and freedom to do so.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., a former AFL-CIO staffer, added that Trump’s policies, including his $1.5 trillion tax cut for the rich and companies, only extend the pain for workers – especially when firms like GM pocket the cash and still move plants and jobs to Mexico, China and other low-wage exploitative nations.

Levin made that point another way. Lawmakers can invite guests to the State of the Union addresses, and many Democrats used their invitations to do so. Pelosi’s guests included an undocumented mother and her daughter, a DACA recipient – and five union presidents, led by AFGE’s J. David Cox. His union includes tens of thousands of Trump shutdown victims.

Levin’s guest was Ghana Goodwin-Dye, president of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Mich. Her members at GM’s Warren Transmissions Plant are losing their jobs: GM is shutting it, as well as plants in Ohio, Maryland and elsewhere in Michigan. It’s moving the Warren jobs to Mexico. “That’s the real American economy,” Levin said of the GM job losses.

The State of the Union address was flooded with the color white associated with the suffragist movement. The bold statement was initiated by the House Democratic Women’s Working Group. AP

Other Democrats invited formerly locked-out federal workers, Planned Parenthood beneficiaries and the reproductive rights organization’s new president. Those Planned Parenthood invitations were a direct slam at Trump’s outright lie about New York and Virginia legislation allowing doctors to kill newborns.

Trump also used his speech to campaign, again, for his racist $5.7 billion Mexican Wall. He’s threatened to shut part of the federal government again on Feb. 15 unless Congress caves in to his demand.

“Compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders,” Abrams retorted, invoking presidents of both parties. And while Democrats want to “effectively secure our ports and borders,” she replied that “America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants – not walls.

To put an exclamation point on opposition to Trump’s Wall, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, in the Dems’ response for Spanish speakers, said if Trump invokes a “national emergency” to grab wall money from the Defense Department, California will head to court to stop it.

Trump denounced what he called “socialism” in Venezuela and the U.S., but omitted any plans he has to send troops to intervene in the Latin American nation – interventions the U.S. has wielded up and down Central and South American for more than a century.

As for the U.S., Trump set up “socialism” as a straw man/bogeyman. “We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” he declared. “America was founded on liberty and independence –- not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

One of main targets there – unspoken – was Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and his key cause in the 2016 campaign, universal government-run Medicare For All. Abrams defended the Affordable Care Act.

Sanders had choice words about “socialism” and freedom, including freedom from health care worries.

“President Trump said ‘We are born free, and we will stay free,’” the veteran lawmaker retorted in a separate statement. “Well, I say to President Trump: People are not truly free when they can’t afford health care. People are not truly free when they cannot afford to pay for their prescription drugs. People are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. People are not truly free when they are exhausted by working longer hours for lower wages. People are not truly free when they cannot afford a decent place to live. People are not truly free when they cannot feed their families.”

“As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968: ‘This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.’ What Dr. King said was true in 1968 when he said it. It is true today and it is absolutely unacceptable.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.