Troll of the Union

Donald Trump’s State of the Union Was Designed to Troll Democrats. It Worked.

‘Democrats boxed themselves in on this,’ a White House official said after the speech, giddy over the optics, however fleeting, of ‘grumpy, out of touch’ Democrats.

Win McNamee/Reuters

President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech had a particular set of goals: talking up the economy and job creation, outlining a plan to keep the U.S. safe and, apparently, getting Democrats to frown on camera.

For the most part, he succeeded.

Democrats did their best to show their displeasure with Trump’s address—with many lawmakers rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and groaning at some of the president’s remarks. Others looked down at their cell phones for much of the evening.

Even before Trump started, the indifference and rancor was evident. When the president made his way to the podium, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) remained seated, reading a newspaper.

The structure of the speech seemed designed, at times, to produce this imagery. Trump led with positive economic news and a rundown of companies investing in the United States or awarding their employees raises or bonuses. With cameras attuned to the members of Congress in the crowd, the economic talking points produced memorable dichotomies between the ostensibly positive news heralded from the podium and the sour faces of congressional Democrats in the crowd.

The reactions delighted members of the administration who felt, early on, that the visuals of the evening would be as important as the speech itself. The day before the address, the White House had summoned some of the president’s trusted allies and outside advisers to the Entrance Hall in the official residence in order to give marching orders and a pep talk. Trump noted that they all had to “fight” because the news coverage of his presidency has been so negative, and mentioned that it was nice to be surrounded by friends who go on TV to say “nice” things about him for a change.

“Man, are you a warrior—you’re a warrior!” Trump told attendees, according to three people in the room. “We’re all warriors in this fight.”

After the speech, one senior administration official gloated to The Daily Beast that “Dems have been putting down thousand-dollar raises for a month. Tonight they did it on camera, in front of millions.”

“Democrats boxed themselves in on this,” another White House official said after the speech, giddy over the optics, however fleeting, of “grumpy, out of touch” Democrats.

State of the Union addresses are supposed to be an opportunity for a president to lay out agenda items in addition to taking a victory lap for the past year. Trump’s first one was more the latter than the former. He outlined relatively few legislative items. And those he did spotlight—such as a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package and a paid family leave program—seemed unlikely to get anywhere near passage.

In its place, Trump trolled.

The result was at times awkward, as when Trump touted declining African-American unemployment. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus—many of whom were wearing African kente cloth in protest of Trump’s comments about “shithole countries”—remained seated and stared straight at the president. Some shook their heads while others were simply stone-faced.

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Elsewhere, the tensions were evident but not as visible.

After outlining the dignity of the American worker, Trump subtly pitted them against undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. “Because Americans are dreamers too,” he said.

Following praise for Preston Sharp, a young boy who started a movement to put flags on the graves of fallen soldiers, Trump slipped in a dig at athletes who chose to kneel last year during the national anthem in protest for civil rights.

“Preston's reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us of why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the National Anthem,” he said.  

Trump’s speech was filled with stories of extraordinary Americans who triumphed through adversity and tales of horror about foreign adversaries and those within American borders. And when Democrats sat on their hands—such as during a dark riff on the gang, MS-13—it was mission accomplished.

Just minutes after the speech ended, the Republican National Committee blasted out an email to reporters tarring Democrats for all the times they refused to stand and applaud.

Scoring political points doesn’t necessarily help with moving legislation, though. And little of what Trump said on Tuesday night seems likely to help his administration move items through Congress. In particular, the president confronted a cold audience in his attempt to sell his immigration proposal, which he framed as a “down the middle compromise” with the opposition. Democrats laughed at the remark.

A few Democrats even shouted out “that’s not true” as the president outlined his four pillars— which include a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants brought into the United States as children, $25 billion for a border wall, an end to the visa lottery program and limits on family reunification.

After the speech was over, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a moderate Democrat up for re-election this year in a conservative state, seemed to admonish his colleagues for not being more civil during the president’s speech. But few other Democrats shared that concern.

One topic that they may very well have stood up and cheered for—an acknowledgement of Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and a pledge to ensure that such meddling didn't happen again—was not mentioned during Trump’s hour-and-a half-long speech.

—With reporting by Jackie Kucinich, Asawin Suebsaeng and Sam Stein.