If I were trying to define where America is in 2020, I would use tonight’s State of the Union address. I am not going to talk about the pieces of it: plenty of pundits are tearing apart Trump’s economic statistics even as I write. But the speech, taken as a moment, illustrated the Trump presidency with chilling accuracy.
The speech was fictional, made for television.
Trump began by touting the successes of his administration, but it was all lies. I mean, it was gobsmacking lies. He talked, for example, of how he had turned the economy around from the devastation of his predecessor President Barack Obama, when, in fact, he inherited a growing economy from Obama that has, under him, slowed. And he talked of how the Republicans are determined to protect healthcare and coverage for preexisting conditions, even while they are literally in court right now to destroy those things. It was like Opposite Day.
Within that framework, Trump quite openly promised giveaways to crucial constituencies he needs for reelection. To evangelicals he offered anti-abortion legislation and the ability to use tax dollars for religious schools. To African Americans he touted all the gains for which he believed they should honor him: jobs, education, and so on. To wage laborers, he promised that his tariffs had brought thousands of jobs back to America. To women, he claimed to have provided parental leave. To all Americans, he promised he was protecting health care, social security, and Medicare. It was a piecemeal menu of why each constituency should support this president. It was also largely fictional.
The overall speech was a compellingly crafted narrative, with Trump as the all-powerful fictional hero. Traditionally, the State of the Union is a tad dull, to be honest. It’s supposed to tell Americans what has changed over the past twelve months. (Actually, historians love it because cabinet officers used to write their own sections, so it’s a terrific short synopsis of finances, foreign affairs and so on, but it ain’t exactly compelling reading in general.) But tonight, Trump used it as a campaign rally. He presented a portrait of a nation that had been on the verge of catastrophe before he swept in to save it. It was a theme that ties into American mythology: the cowboy who saves the villagers from destruction.
Trump did not stop with the general myth, though. He went on to play the game show host turned autocratic ruler. In the course of the speech, he developed the theme that he, the president, could raise hurting individuals up to glory. He promoted an older African American veteran to General. He awarded a scholarship to a child who had previously been unable to get one. He had Melania award the Medal of Freedom to talk show host Rush Limbaugh, a man ill with cancer (who obligingly pretended to be surprised and overwhelmed, although he had done interviews before the speech in which he indicated he was aware of what was about to happen). He reunited a military family. Contrived though all these scenarios were, they made him the catalyst for improving the lives of individuals in ways to which we all can relate. It was reality TV: false, scripted, and effective.
More than that, it was designed to demonstrate Trump’s power and, as communications scholar Michael Socolow pointed out on Twitter, it mirrored the performances of Hitler, who worked similar transformations on individuals during speeches to demonstrate that he had an almost magical power to change lives.
And then there were the attacks on the “other;” undocumented individuals, for example, who, in Trumps telling, became vicious criminals (although studies overwhelmingly show that immigrants commit crimes far more rarely than native born Americans). There were also more subtle clues for who belongs in America: Trump offered the Medal of Freedom to hate-monger Rush Limbaugh, who has gone out of his way to attack "feminazis," people of color, and "socialists."
Rather than being a review of the past year and a preview of the next year’s policies, the 2020 State of the Union was almost a religious speech, with the good guys, who were pure good, lining up against the bad guys, who were pure evil. And the leader of the good guys—Trump-- had done everything right, and could raise up his suffering supporters to bliss, simply with a wave of his hand. It will play well to True Believers.
It was, of course, complete fiction. But it was an interesting fiction, I thought. Trump repeatedly claimed to be doing the opposite of what the GOP really is doing, in an attempt to attract voters. That is, even he knows that the American people want something different than he is delivering, but rather than adjust his policies he is simply lying.
Nonetheless, Republican congress people, who surely knew what they were hearing was completely divorced from reality, continually jumped to their feet to applaud it. I found their slavish toadying more chilling even than the president's speech. It is Trump’s party now, to do with as he wishes.
For their part, Democrats tried to demonstrate their disapproval while still showing respect for the House chamber. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) mimicked a wall falling down as Trump boasted of his border wall (a section of which blew over last week), and Democratic women, dressed in white to honor suffragists, called out “HR 3!”—the bill the House has passed in honor of the late Representative Elijah Cummings for lower drug prices, a bill that sits unaddressed on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk—while Trump vowed to lower drug prices. Most on point, though, was Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who, as Trump went on, simply sat quietly reading the Constitution.
But as Trump finished, the final word went to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who pointedly and obviously tore up Trump’s speech for the cameras. Ever since, media has been on fire over her demonstration, which we have to think was precisely her intention. Her action stole all of Trump’s thunder, which will defang his speech as well as infuriate him. As a long-time observer of political leaders, I am in awe of her ability to read and dominate a situation, even situations in which she appears to have a losing hand.
After the State of the Union and The Great Tearing, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivered the Democratic response, while Representative Veronica Escobar (D-TX) delivered a separate response in Spanish. Both focused on Democratic policies to make American’s lives better. Whitmer’s speech, anyway (I did not watch Escobar’s) was lucid and calm. It played as a dramatic contrast to Trump’s, offering a fact-based, undramatic American future. It was a powerful contrast that might offer respite to voters who are just… tired.
I will speak another day to the Iowa caucuses (and I apologize to those who thought my dismissal of them yesterday was ageist—I was simply noting demographics and the changing Democratic make up, but I did put it more frivolously than it warranted), and to the fact that tomorrow’s impeachment vote will likely liberate Trump. I will write about his apparent desire to jail John Bolton, and about how the caucus and primary systems have evolved.
But tonight, America’s main story is that the president is in a full-out fight for his political survival, and to win the next election he is peddling a fictional narrative in which he is the autocratic hero who can lift us all to a better life. His narrative sounds dangerously like that of a dictator… and Republican leaders seem to be on board with that.
But the rest of us are not. And in a wastebasket in the House of Representatives, there’s a torn-up speech to prove it.