Donald’s Trump State of the Union speech Tuesday night was an example of the one thing he does better than anyone else in the political space: spectacle. The bizarre, wild show was full of reality TV tropes and moments, from surprise military families reuniting to Melania pinning the Presidential Medal of Freedom on cancer-stricken Rush Limbaugh.
In many ways, the speech itself seemed to be rote filler for those moments, noise between the notes.
Those production values weren’t limited to Trump; his snub of the traditional handshake to Speaker Nancy Pelosi before the speech was bookended in its closing moments, when she literally tore the text of his remarks into shreds.
Of course, this speech was, first and foremost, the usual Bataan death march for fact checkers; a slurry of lies, distorted statistics, and outrageous claims.
There was a rata-tat-tat laundry list of the biggest, greatest, longest, newest, brightest accomplishments. The usual condo-salesman braggadocio was there, with his claims of 4,000 percent economic growth, billions of new jobs, and the best economy in the universe, ever. He didn’t mention the $2 trillion unfunded tax cut, a trillion-plus in annual deficit spending, and the continued Fed borrow-and-pump injections that have an addicted Wall Street chasing the liquidity dragon. In Trump’s telling, the decade-long Obama-era boom was a radioactive hellscape where ragged children fought over scraps of rat meat by the guttering fires of the ruins of a lost American civilization.
Yes, comrades! In the glorious era of Trump, all the news is good! The beet harvest exceeds the five-year plan! We have accomplished record tractor production in the Wisconistan Oblast!
The speech itself was the usual re-election year presidential product: enough red meat for the base and a raft of programs and proposals that will never see the light of day, a desperate mating of focus-group must-dos, campaign team asks, and issue chum for suburban moms.
There were no truly great grace notes; it was workmanlike, and delivered in a workmanlike, monotone prompter voice even in the moments when some speechwriter had ground out some lofty lines meant to make even a turgid ignoramus like Trump sound like Demosthenes.
All presidents cherry-pick economic statistics for political benefit. In Trump’s case, he simply makes up whatever he feels at the moment. It’s a consensual reality bubble with his followers. Many of them have faced the terrible outcomes of his economic policies—see War, Trade—yet still continue to imagine the miracle has touched them as well. Coal miners, Midwest farmers losing their lands, steel workers, and others got shafted for three years by his trade war, and yet he described a magical-realism version where all the damage disappears with two shaky new trade deals. Never mind! Look at those adorable kids in the audience! Hey, there’s a Tuskegee Airman!
For all that, Trump did the Democrats a favor tonight and showed his hand. This was his campaign, at least the poll-tested, down-and-dirty messaging part of it. It’s useful to know how shameless he’ll be in his approach to the campaign. This speech was the bastard child of American Carnage and “Morning In America,” vivid in its shamelessness.
This was a wake-up call for Democrats, who for too long have acted as if 2016 was an aberration and Trump’s personal shit show, corruption, and idiocy all but ensure an easy win in November. But Trump is surrounded by people who are better at campaigns than the Democrats are.
The speech tonight was a contrast to the debacle in Iowa. That alone should be a wake-up call. Incumbent presidents, even a shitbird like Trump, are hard to beat and they command the heights of public attention. Tom Perez issued a tweet the day of the State of the Union bragging about reforms the party had made in the process, even as every headline in the country was about the Democratic field in chaos, and the mess of a non-result in the early boutique caucus in Iowa.
Democrats had better up their game, because there’s a lesson from tonight’s performance: A whole lot more Americans watch NASCAR and professional wrestling than watch Masterpiece Theater.
Trump knew this speech had a utility for his campaign, and that it is framed against the impeachment acquittal vote on Wednesday. He knows that soon—very soon—he’ll enjoy the fruits of Mitch McConnell’s labor. He knows that after he is acquitted in the Senate there is no power in American government that will constrain him again. He knows he is about to hold executive power at a level no president before him could have imagined. That knowledge was enough to have him read off the teleprompter for one night.
It wasn’t the speech that Trump wanted to give, which we’ll hear soon enough.
“The state of the union is pure, weapons-grade, uncut fucking chaos, and I am both unhinged and unbound from any consequence, ever. All the pretty words my speechwriters worked so hard on are a thin veneer over the seething mass of coming horrors. I have gambled our economy, compromised our security, and shredded our dignity, and I’ll do it again. My message to the American people: bend the knee. To my enemies: vengeance is coming.”