Back in 1964, a Supreme Court justice named Potter Stewart famously struggled to devise a legally defensible definition of obscenity. Equally famously, he failed. “I know it when I see it,” an exasperated Stewart wound up concluding. Having watched Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, I’m with Stewart. I can’t define obscenity any better than he could, but what I know is what I saw. For 80 minutes, the president of the United States — a k a POTUS — performed manual acts of self-gratification upon himself. And — as seems to be the fashion now among serial predators in positions of power — no one on the planet was allowed to leave the room.
Trump began the night by calling out the heroes. To be fair, he’s hardly the first president to conscript genuine heroes to use as political props. But whatever deep-seated feelings Trump has for men and women wearing military uniforms should be expressed only behind closed doors and only with consenting partners. One of the heroes Trump praised, it turns out, was Dave Dahlberg, a Santa Barbara firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. During last year’s Whittier Fire, Dahlberg hopped onto his dozer, rode it into a sea of flames, and helped save 62 young camp kids. Trump called out Dahlberg by name and had him take a bow. “Thank you very much, David,” Trump said. “Great job.” Compared to the praise heaped on other heroes, however, it felt clipped and perfunctory. Maybe it’s that Dahlberg comes from California, a state with which Trump is at war. Or maybe Dahlberg doesn’t use a gun as part of his job. For whatever reason, Trump didn’t clap that much.
By contrast, there was no shortage of clapping by Trump when he introduced the young, ass-kicking ICE investigator who explained with plucky cheek — after arresting nearly 400, including 220 members of the MS-13 gang — “We’re just tougher than they are.” Trump must have clapped for more than a minute straight — and half that time he clapped alone — after introducing the parents of two teens brutally murdered by MS-13. Trump’s point about MS-13 is not that they are uncommonly violent, which they are. The point is that they are immigrants from El Salvador. Throughout the night, Trump would repeatedly paint the broad spectrum of the immigrant experience with the brush of MS-13. Even to a card-carrying pinche güero like me, this was obvious. More obvious still was the shamelessness with which Trump pimped the insatiable pain of those grieving parents.
Like Justice Stewart said, I know it when I see it.
A small detail: Santa Barbara County is currently prosecuting 16 members of MS-13 up in Santa Maria. They’re charged with the murder or attempted murder of 11 individuals. It may be the largest prosecution of MS-13 anywhere. But logistically, it’s a nightmare, a massive drain on county resources. Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley said she’s sought help from the White House, the Department of Justice, the FBI, and Homeland Security. So far, nothing.
After the speech, I pulled my head out of the oven long enough to call Congressmember Salud Carbajal for comment. I really didn’t want to hear what Carbajal had to say — I figured he’d have all the pat talking points — but it’s one of those obligatory things reporters are supposed to do.
He called me back. Normally Carbajal is a jolly guy. It’s the face he shows the world. It’s his charm, his armor, the gel he uses to keep his hair in place. Tuesday night, Carbajal wasn’t jolly. His hair wasn’t in place. He’d sat through the speech dressed in his “#MeToo” black, not applauding and not standing.
Whether you like him or not, Carbajal is the American Dream Trump told us Tuesday night we can now start living. Except Carbajal — a bona fide Mexican immigrant who worked his way up the food chain into a seat in Congress — is already living it. “Laughable,” Carbajal barked, trying hard to sound amused. I’d just asked him what he thought. Carbajal had no shortage of talking points, especially about immigration. Trump had mentioned the need for coming together no fewer than 13 times. But it was Trump, Carbajal noted, who killed the compromise deal hatched by Democrats and Republicans just a couple of weeks ago to keep 800,000 Dreamers from being deported. “Laughable,” he barked again.
An undeniable point. But pat. Then Carbajal started talking about a woman named Neofita Valerio-Silva, who lived in Grover Beach. At least until January 4, when she’d been arrested, handcuffed, and deported by ICE for being in the country illegally. Valerio-Silva, it turns out, worked as a hotel maid. Before that, she owned a salon. She taught Sunday school. She is 47. She had no criminal history whatsoever. She owned a home. She sent two of her three kids to college already. Number three was getting ready to go. She had fled the violence and poverty of Acapulco 25 years ago. As of 2005, she’d overstayed her permits. Since then, she had sought and obtained various waivers that had allowed her to be here legally. For 18 years, she maintained steady contact with ICE. She never hid in the shadows. She was a model citizen. Except, of course, she wasn’t.
Then the waivers stopped. When she was picked up by ICE, one of the agents reportedly told her she was “coyote food.” Ultimately, she was dumped at a shelter in Tijuana. From there she made her way back to Acapulco, where she has family. Her kids — all American citizens — are scrambling to respond. Carbajal tried to intervene on her behalf. So, too, did the mayors of Grover Beach and San Luis Obispo. “Shouldn’t ICE be going after the real criminals?” they demanded.
Under the new regime, Neofita Valerio-Silva is the real criminal.
I know it when I see it.