The State of the Union Was an Elaborate Troll

Trump’s speech turned what’s typically a unifying civic ritual into a glorified campaign rally.

Donald Trump arrives in Congress to deliver the State of the Union. He refuses to shake Nancy Pelosi's hand.
Drew Angerer / Getty

There was no handshake last night, much less any sort of reconciliation.

President Donald Trump simply stuck a copy of his speech in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand and turned his back as she extended the other.

“Four more years!” his supporters bellowed as he faced them from the lectern in the House of Representatives. So began the prime-time launch of Trump’s reelection bid, dressed up as a State of the Union speech. Throughout the evening, he trashed his predecessor’s legacy and questioned Democrats’ basic patriotism. He spent little time touting bipartisan compromise, instead building a case for why his opponents should relent and embrace an agenda that has left at least half the country cold. He didn’t mention the Senate impeachment trial that is on track to end later today with his acquittal. Yet throughout the address, he needled and provoked the Democratic lawmakers who’d tried to oust him and whose electoral defeat he is now looking to engineer.

He was more showman than statesman, injecting a few camera-ready flourishes into the daytime-TV persona he’s used to fill seats at his campaign stops. He singled out a guest in the gallery, Amy Williams, whose husband is serving in Afghanistan. Trump thanked her and her two young children for their sacrifice. Then, with his best come on down! affect, he treated her and the audience to what he called “a very special surprise.” On cue, Townsend Williams, decked out with military medals, entered the gallery and hugged his family while the crowd chanted “U.S.A.!”

At another point, Trump looked up at the gallery and directed his wife, Melania, to bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who announced on Monday that he had an advanced form of lung cancer. The first lady draped the medal around Limbaugh’s neck while someone in the crowd shouted, “Thank you, Rush!”

Briefing reporters beforehand, one administration official said that the address would present a “positive, forward-looking vision.” But Trump spent a fair amount of time looking backward at the political personalities despised by his core supporters. Barack Obama isn’t on the 2020 ballot, of course, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that listening to Trump. Without mentioning Obama by name—at rallies, Trump often refers to the 44th president as Barack Hussein Obama—Trump said he’d reversed the “failed economic policies” of the last administration and touted the nation’s low unemployment rate. (Unemployment also dropped steadily under Obama.)

As Trump’s campaign sees it, reelection hinges on maximizing turnout of his base. Trump used the stage last night to excite his supporters with attacks that stir their nativist passions. He faulted New York City—once run by a potential general-election rival, Michael Bloomberg—for showing leniency toward undocumented immigrants who go on to commit crimes. He blamed California, the largest blue state, for adopting the same policies. Reprising an argument that he’s used at campaign rallies, he accused Democrats of trying to “bankrupt our nation” by offering government health care to undocumented immigrants. One of the guests he had invited to the speech was the brother of a man killed by an undocumented immigrant in California.

“I feel for their loss,” said Michael Waldman, the former chief speechwriter to President Bill Clinton, referring to the families of victims killed by immigrants. “But the meta-message is that brown people are going to kill you.”

A State of the Union speech is supposed to be a unifying civic ritual: two parties and three branches of government all assembling beneath the Capitol dome once a year. Mindful of the symbolism, lawmakers of opposite parties entered the House chamber together last night. After a wrenching national trauma like impeachment, a president might use a State of the Union speech to deliver a healing message. Perhaps he would express contrition for what got him impeached in the first place. Maybe even pledge not to repeat the same behavior that got him into the mess. Then again, nah.

That’s not Trump; he doesn’t apologize. As aides had worked through final drafts of the speech, Senate Republicans cautioned the White House to steer clear of impeachment, fearing he would upend a trial that is on a glide path to acquittal. “You don’t need to look back at this divisive time,” a person close to a top Senate Republican told me. Trump acquiesced; he owes them. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, orchestrated a speedy trial and beat back attempts to call witnesses who might have added fresh detail to the case.

It’s easy to imagine that Trump was tempted to raise the issue. Everywhere he looked, there were reminders. Behind him sat “Crazy Nancy” Pelosi, who set in motion the impeachment inquiry that has consumed him for months. Sitting in the seats before him was “Pencil Neck” Adam Schiff, the representative of California and impeachment manager who called Trump fundamentally amoral.

Holding off cost him nothing, though. There are 273 days before the election—plenty of time for personal reprisals. And, in any case, the divisive message wasn’t lost on the Democrats in the room. When Trump finished, Pelosi stood up, took the copy of the speech that the president had handed her earlier in the night, and tore it in half.

It was another scene in the reality-TV show based in the White House. Impeachment ends today, but the newest episode is under way. And if Trump’s most recent approval ratings—49 percent, the highest since his inauguration—are any indication, the country could be in for another four seasons.