Noting Donald Trump’s roots in TV is banal, but the whole production owed as much to The Apprentice or WWE wrestling (in whose Hall of Fame he resides) as it did to Reagan or any other previous president. Like so much in the Trump presidency, the event was extremely vulgar, weirdly emotional, and entirely transfixing.
That all stood in sharp contrast to the speech itself, whose dullness was mitigated only by its outrageous untruths. Trump has never enjoyed and never excelled at giving speeches from a prepared text. He tends to read the script as though he is seeing it for the first time, adding weird ad-libbed asides for emphasis, and he did so again tonight.
Delivering such speeches, Trump is wooden and dull, in contrast to his animated appearances at campaign rallies. He cannot achieve oratorical greatness and seldom tries, and the more highfalutin passages landed awkwardly. (What on Earth is the meaning of “always remember, freedom unifies the soul”? Trump gave no indication that he understood that line either.)
As a matter of substance, the speech had less in common with a standard State of the Union and served more as a preview of his campaign themes: immigrants bad, economy good, socialism bad. He spent much of the early parts of the speech in an extended pander (ostensibly) to black voters, then pivoted to award the Medal of Freedom to Limbaugh, a longtime trafficker in racist and bigoted rhetoric. Many of Trump’s statements were either patently false or simply not credible as real policy proposals. But neither the substance nor the delivery of the words in the speech was the point. The live performance was. It won’t be Trump’s laundry list of economic statistics that dominates the headlines.
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Democrats have struggled throughout the Trump presidency to calibrate their response to Trump’s vulgarity. Do they go high when he goes low, as Michelle Obama counseled? Or do they get down in the mud, as Michael Bloomberg has more recently modeled?
At this State of the Union, the most notable Democratic responses fell into the latter category. At least two representatives, Tim Ryan of Ohio and Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, walked out of the speech. “I’ve had enough. It’s like watching professional wrestling. It’s all fake,” Ryan tweeted—his own attention-grabbing enactment of kayfabe, ironically. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump’s most formidable opponent over the past three years, once again came closest to challenging his dramatic flair. As Trump basked in applause after his speech, she theatrically ripped a copy of it to pieces on the dais behind him. (Trump had ignored her offer of a handshake as he entered the hall.)
For all the frenzy, the immediate effects of Trump’s speech are likely to be minimal. State of the Union speeches seldom have much political influence. The more interesting question is whether the theatrical display, and subjugation of words to spectacle, is an anomaly or an enduring innovation in the State of the Union, like the ones bequeathed to their successors by Wilson and Reagan.