The State of the Union as Spectacle

President Trump delivered an address in which the words were secondary.

Amy Williams and Army Sgt. 1st Class Townsend Williams kiss at the State of the Union address
Drew Angerer / Getty

Pundits sometimes speak of the State of the Union as if it were a treasured artifact that has been passed unaltered from the Founders to the present. In reality, the event has changed drastically over time.

The Constitution requires that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” George Washington did that by delivering a speech. Thomas Jefferson opted for a written report, and every president followed his model until Woodrow Wilson, who revived the speech. Harry Truman put it on television. Ronald Reagan introduced “Lenny Skutniks,” the honored guests presidents call out during the speech.

Donald Trump, always more showman than statesman, put his own spin on the State of the Union tonight. What was once primarily a written speech became one in which the words were secondary, and the spectacle was foremost.

Not content to merely use the Skutniks as props, Trump juiced the drama. He presented a school-voucher scholarship to a fourth grader from Philadelphia. He awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh mid-speech, enlisting the first lady, Melania Trump, to bestow it in the gallery. And in an emotional peak, he praised an Army wife whose husband was deployed to Afghanistan—then announced, to her surprise and that of those watching in the chamber and at home, that her husband had actually returned home, making the family reunion a national TV event.

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.

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.

One view holds that the old norms, once broken, can never be repaired. Once the melodramatic production Trump offered is in reach, why would any president ever resort to mere speechifying? Yet Trump is a singular president. No resident of the White House has ever come from such a thorough entertainment background, not even Reagan, who had long since left Hollywood behind for politics. Nor has any resident of the White House ever had so little hesitation about doing things that might debase the dignity of the office. It’s hard to imagine a successor having either the will or the ability to pull off stunts like this. Trumpism, as a political ideology, will endure after this president leaves office. But Trumpism, as a political style, is attainable only by Trump.