The State of the Union is strong, jobs are flooding back, national pride has returned, American might is unrivaled, and America’s enemies are on the run. Such were the themes of Donald Trump’s annual speech this evening (and practically every other that’s come before it).
The State of the Union has always underscored the absurd institutional liturgy of American politics like nothing else. Last night, a president facing impeachment proceedings and mired in too many scandals to count, huffed and bloviated while dealing in saccharine platitudes (“This nation is our canvass, and this country is our masterpiece,” he said at one point) that could have been uttered by past presidents both Democratic and Republican.
Amid the bread and circuses, elected members of the nominal opposition stood in rapturous applause for regime change (personified in Venezuelan would-be-coup plotter Juan Guaidó’s attendance at the speech) and the abstract idea of rural America while politely abstaining or clapping with resigned deference during red meaty portions intended for Fox News. Capping the event was an act of theatrical defiance by Rep. Nancy Pelosi that will in all likelihood be forgotten within twenty-four hours.
It was, for want of a better cliche, American politics in a nutshell.
Predictably laden with machismo and hyperbole, Trump spun an all-too-familiar narrative of a hitherto declining economy in the midst of a miraculous comeback; of imperial strength unmatched across the globe; and of a country where anyone who works hard and plays by the rules is sure to be rewarded. With a few variations, it’s a fable told by many a president past. Coming from the lips of Donald Trump, however, its contradictions and absurdities quickly become a lot more obvious. Trump lays bare the empty liturgies of American politics like few other presidents, because he so visibly cuts a cartoonish figure amid the supposedly spiritual gravitas of the office he holds.
As climate disaster looms, wage gains stagnate, medical debt soars, and the casual brutality of daily life for millions of Americans becomes undeniable, a former reality host who strong-armed his way into the most powerful executive office in the world pinned a medal on Rush Limbaugh and extolled the virtue of agents who round up asylum seekers while informing the nation that things have never been better. Looking out from atop the dais, Trump was as baroque as ever, a postmodern Nero presiding over the end times with all the triumphalism of Winston Churchill on VE Day.
The predictable hollowness and absurdity of the speech notwithstanding, its contents gave a preview of what’s to come next fall when the president seeks reelection. Though Trump’s rhetoric has never matched his record, tonight saw him striking a populist cadence on trade and posturing as the guardian of Medicare and Social Security. The phrases “pro-worker” and “blue collar boom” both made an appearance even as he blasted a “socialist takeover of our healthcare system.” Lurid tabloid imagery of immigrant crime and foreign invasion tied it all together, plus exclusionary nationalism and phony populism.
Whatever its grotesqueries, it’s a message that cannot and will not be defeated by the rhetoric and policies inexplicably still in vogue among centrist liberals. As 2016 demonstrated, technocratic liberalism married with vague uplift and an empty rhetoric of inclusion is woefully vulnerable to Trump’s brand of noxious populism. Tonight’s State of the Union is a dire warning about what may lie ahead if Trump’s reelection campaign is gifted with yet another establishment Democrat as an adversary in November.