If a toddler throws her dinner on the floor, a second or two of fuss might ensue, but it’s not anything very startling. The adults clean up, then continue as before.
But if a guest throws dinner on the floor in a fancy restaurant, that is startling. Everybody turns to look. The staff will be agitated; explanations will be demanded.
That rule of life was confirmed last night. President Donald Trump’s behavior at the State of the Union flouted decencies and conventions from beginning to end. Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled her displeasure with the spectacle before her at the beginning and end of Trump’s speech.
No surprise: Pelosi’s actions are now the focus of attention.
Review the Trump equivalents of throwing his dinner on the floor on State of the Union night:
The president refused to acknowledge Pelosi on his arrival, rebuffed her proffered hand, and could not even look at her.
The president crammed his speech with blatant and aggressive lies. The Trump administration is not committed to protecting patients with pre-existing conditions; it has repeatedly sought to end this protection and is in court right now trying again. The U.S.’s position as the world leader in oil and gas production is not thanks to any action of Trump’s; the country moved into first place in 2012. Trump has not presided over any kind of “comeback” of the economy, which grew faster in the three years before he took office than in the three years since. Manufacturing employment has not recovered under Trump; because of his trade wars, manufacturing employment has crashed on his watch. Trump’s untruthfulness is notorious, but it’s still a departure to lie and mislead so often and so brazenly before all the assembled Congress.
The staged reunion of a military family for the cameras was a departure from normal decorum, too. President Ronald Reagan introduced the showman’s touch of seating in the gallery a hero to be applauded. The device originated as a generous moment of recognition by the nation. Trump has reduced it to an Apprentice-like exploitation of other people’s most raw emotions of loss and grief for his own crass purposes: entertainment, distraction, political mobilization. A soldier on active duty should not be asked by his commander in chief to perform his return home to wife and child before a global television audience. That’s abusive and intrusive. It also degrades Congress and the nation, by voyeuristically opening to public view a moment that normally would be private. You might say, last night was the night that Apprentice producer Mark Burnett truly became president.
Even more indecent was Trump’s conversion of the State of the Union into a campaign rally. The Constitution requires that the president “from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” By long custom, the State of the Union is attended by the justices of the Supreme Court, by the joint chiefs, and by foreign diplomats. They should not have been deployed as props during chants by Trump supporters in the galleries and from Republican members of Congress of “Four more years” and “USA! USA!” If the State of the Union is now openly a campaign event, none of them should be there—and really, members of the non-presidential party should be excused as well. No honest information is being provided, scarcely any necessary and expedient measures are being recommended for consideration—it was all just a slightly-less-thuggish-and-openly-racist-than-usual version of a Trump rally.
Slightly less openly racist. We all belong to the suffering human species. Cancer commands our compassion whomever it strikes. But to summon all members of Congress to join in a ceremony honoring a person they have good cause to regard as a preeminent media race-baiter—well, it was as wrong as it would have been for President Obama to demand Congress applaud Louis Farrakhan, not that Obama ever would have demanded such an outrageous thing. Like Limbaugh, Farrakhan has a fan base, but even their fans understand that both men owe their success to their genius for denigration and contempt. To honor such a person on such an occasion is the most spectacular possible way of announcing: The State of the Union no longer aspires to speak to the country as a whole.
Trump bases his legitimacy on the support of two-fifths of the nation (“95 percent approval among Republicans!”). He interprets the job of being president as fighting the cultural battles of the two-fifths against the majority. By his own account, he hates the state of New York “even more than I should.” He disparages California as a land of filth and homelessness, the city of Baltimore as rat-infested, and Chicago as a zone of unchecked criminality. Americans share fewer and fewer symbolic public events. The State of the Union was one of them. Trump has changed it into something purely partisan and factional, programming the evening exclusively to and for his cherished two-fifths. Who knows when or whether it will ever be changed back?
Trump has not lost his ability to offend or insult. He has lost his ability to surprise. Since 2017, commentators have reacted to Trump’s travesties by praising him for not doing worse. Trump is graded on a curve like no president in history. If he refrained from erupting in schoolyard epithets, or abusing nations as “shithole countries,” or inviting onlookers to punch a senator in the face? Then he was growing into the job. Trump indeed did not do any of those things last night, so he is collecting puppy-training accolades today. What a good boy!
The German artist Max Liebermann remarked after a brownshirt parade under his window in 1933: “I could not possibly eat as much as I would like to throw up.” Through the gruesome evening, a look suggesting such a thought flashed again and again across Nancy Pelosi’s face. When it was all over, including the insults to her, she allowed herself a human moment of protest against the spectacle into which she had been involuntarily enrolled by more than a century of custom.
It is now Pelosi, not Trump, who is the target of criticism. The world expects the speaker to know how to behave. If she deviated from expectations, she did so as a self-aware adult who can be held accountable for her actions—unlike the damaged child who occupies the White House.
The criticism of Pelosi perpetuates a dangerous dilemma in American life. Trump will trash norms of decency and decorum, either because he chooses to or because he cannot help it. But he and his supporters invoke those same norms when they need help or protection. When Trump degrades State of the Union night into a WWE WrestleMania, it’s: USA, USA. When Pelosi crinkles her eyes in disapproval: Hey, that’s the successor to Washington and Lincoln! When Trump hurls abusive nicknames? Well, that’s just what he does. When Pelosi omits a customary compliment? How dare she.
It’s not only Trump personally, but his whole administration. In the summer of 2018, then–Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was denied service at a Washington-area restaurant. There was much tut-tutting then: How have we allowed our political differences to escalate to such a point? Wasn’t there a time when a dinner out could be a refuge from politics, when opponents could be civil to one another? And the next day, she returned to her usual daily work of lying and defaming, hurt and offended that anybody would doubt that she remained a good person underneath it all.
In only the past 10 days, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could summon a reporter, scream and curse at her, spread a false story about her afterward, and then solemnly avow American leadership in the defense of the free press in a public interview. Trump and his retainers want to behave like banana republicans while inheriting the prestige of Reagan Republicans. It’s a deeply crooked deal.
Trump’s abnormality rightly inspires a profound yearning to reassert normality. But that goal for politics post-Trump should not make anyone naive about what is happening under Trump. Courtesy of James Comey, Vladimir Putin, and the Electoral College, Donald Trump has gained the power of the presidency. But he has never wanted, sought, or even faintly understood the authority of the presidency—and so of course that authority is not available to him whenever he finds it convenient to shame opponents. Those who most respect the office Trump holds, and Nancy Pelosi heads that list, are most sensitive to how Trump defiles that office. The time will come to clean it. But for now, nobody should have to pretend not to smell it—not even on State of the Union night.