Well, that was weird.
I’ve been around long enough to read the secret terrain and hidden texture of presidential speeches and to understand how the competing camps in any administration push and pull the product into its final form.
It’s typically a long path from a date on the calendar to a State of the Union speech, but Tuesday night’s effort showed every sign of being created, destroyed, cut, pasted, rebooted, and then run through an English-Urdu translation program and back again. It felt more like last-minute Sharpie-scribble than wordsmithing. It was long, discursive as hell, and its grace notes felt odd and contrived. Leaving the text aside for a moment, President Donald Trump's performance was downright Trumpian: He’s always bad on teleprompter, stilted, reluctant, and barely literate; Tuesday night was little different, marked by his usual sniffles, the Il Duce hand gestures, and his tendency to veer between subjects without transition or pause.
It wasn’t just bad. It was downright weird. This was a speech that will go down as a truly strange moment in American political rhetoric. Trump going for uplift seemed so ludicrous that I almost took pity on the White House struggle-bus speechwriting team. Almost.
As predicted, there were a few crowd-pleasing nuggets excreted from the cloaca of some Kellyanne Conway focus group. They’re irrelevant; we all know that this White House could give less than a damn about policy, and the Democratic House and even the Republican Senate now have largely written Trump off. Few, if any, of the things he promised tonight will ever see the light of day because Trump will never dedicate the time, resources, or political capital to achieving them.
Since a key requirement of Esoteric Trumpism is that its followers live always in Year Zero, the Trump-centric internet is gushing praise over President Bigly Rightwords, treating his largely incoherent word gumbo as if he had delivered a modern-day Gettysburg Address. Hitting crowd-pleasing slow-pitch lines—“Boo, Nazis!” “Yay, heroes!” and “'Merica!”—is like watching an airplane fly, or a monkey fling its waste; these are the expected behaviors of a president giving a State of the Union.
The uplift material in the speech was a rich vein of false equivalencies and collision with reality. Finally, a president willing to say the tough, unpopular thing and speak out against childhood cancer and AIDS. At last, a president who honors cops, military personnel, and brave kids! I’m stopping there; the eye-rolling is going to give me a migraine.
The aspirational piffle was to squeeze out one more round of inevitable and inevitably wrong stories about The Moment Trump Became President.
Strip away all the decorations and this speech was about two big things.
First, it was a collection of defense measures for a wounded president who has had his bluff called over and over again in the past two years, and who was deeply humiliated by losing the shutdown battle last week. Looking out in that chamber tonight, even a man as slow as Trump couldn’t fail to miss the 40 GOP members he helped send into retirement; 2020 isn’t looking as easy as he thought it might.
Because Trump is bleeding politically and under rising legal pressure from every quarter, last night’s State of the Union speech contained his usual pastiche of Trumpian paranoia about the border, dick-waving braggadocio, outright lies, and movie-script ideas passed off as intelligence reports. Coyotes! Duct tape! Mad Max caravans!
Sure, we all knew he would trot out the usual base-stoking Wallsturbation lines, and he didn’t disappoint. We’ve heard the dramatic claims so often they’re almost laughable. Trump’s followers still persist in their belief he’ll produce the Wall, but he was practically begging for the Freedom Ditch by the end.
It was one paragraph in this long, odd, terrible speech that gave away the game, but first, let’s set the Wayback Machine to 1974.
That was the year that Richard Nixon stood in the same spot Donald Trump stood on Tuesday night and made a last gamble to save his presidency. Nixon, a man orders of magnitude smarter and more astute than Trump could ever dream of being, rolled the dice that night and lost. Pinned down by Watergate, Nixon used what would turn out to be his final State of the Union in a failed attempt to leverage the majesty of the moment to pry off political peril.
Nixon called on the House to end the probe that had brought the crimes of Watergate directly into the Oval Office, declaring that “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.” He read the House wrong, but got one thing right: One year of Watergate was enough. Two weeks later, the House turned the Judiciary Committee loose to pursue impeachment charges; game over.
Trump made his own big bet tonight. The hokey opening “can’t we all just get along” riff about bipartisanship and comity deserves no more than cursory ridicule. What really mattered tonight was a single line that left the assembled grandees in the House chamber slack-jawed and in a state of near-shock. Even his supporters had a moment of “WTF, bro?” shock.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous, partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way,” said Trump, consciously or unconsciously echoing Nixon’s fateful remarks.
“Nice country we’ve got going here. Either Mueller gets it, or the economy does.”
That was the quiet part said out loud, the real secret under the entire rickety rhetorical jalopy of this State of the Union speech. Trump knows his legal peril grows by the day, and he’s struggling to pry it off him while there might still be time.
Robert Mueller wasn’t in the House chamber tonight, but Trump’s odd performance and shambolic affect tells you the president felt the special counsel’s presence.