Donald Trump is a lot of things: a con man, a carnival barker, a criminal who escapes justice. But we can never forget his one true calling: Trump is a reality-television game show host. It’s the only thing he’s ever actually been good at.
For Trump, convincing aggrieved Americans to reelect him is the game. Actually running the country is the show. Since he can’t distinguish between running the country and running for reelection, the result is a kind of a bizarre and terrifying game show in which we’re all trapped. Some days we’re playing Let’s Make a Deal and have to decide which Pandora’s box of crime and lawlessness is worth opening and trying to prosecute. Other days, we’re playing Saw as Trump asks us which child or vulnerable community we’re willing to cut off in hopes that others may be saved. Of course, there’s never a right answer to any of the choices: The only rule of Trump’s game show is that we’re never allowed to escape.
Last night was the third installment of State of the Union. Most of the tricks and tropes were familiar if you survived the first two episodes. Trump started off with a recitation of economic success he inherited from President Barack Obama, took credit for all of it, and somehow blamed Obama for not accomplishing anything. Then he repeatedly lied about what he is doing to protect health care. Then he repeatedly lied about the Democratic plans for health care. He used the word “socialism” several times, both incorrectly and threateningly.
He next moved on to shout-outs to various desperate Americans he claimed as beneficiaries of his enlightened rule. Those Americans dutifully stood and smiled and waved when called upon, likely knowing that their transactional host could rescind whatever benevolence he bestowed upon them at his whim.
Trump flourished, as always, the horrific recitation of some brutal crime committed by a nameless, faceless, yet certainly brown and menacing immigrant. The salacious fearmongering was then quickly used to justify the fresh hell he would visit upon all immigrants, and by extension all people who look like they might be immigrants, in the name of the highlighted victim. This time, it was some cockamamie plan to allow victims to sue sanctuary cities should they ever be attacked by immigrants. Because, I guess, guns don’t kill people, but cities do?
Still, this being his third State of the Union, Trump decided to add some new content, lest people feel they were stuck in a rerun of a prior show. Like the Wizard of Oz trying to talk his way out of being anything more than a snake oil salesman, Trump decided to hand out honors. He dredged up a Tuskegee airman, who was literally 100 years old, and “promoted” him to brigadier general. I’m sure that played well with Trump’s white audience: What better way to pretend that you’re totally not racist than by having some black people on your show? Don’t forget, this man created Omarosa.
I don’t think most people of color were fooled, because the highest honor of the evening went to one of the most dogged and unapologetic bigots in American public life: Rush Limbaugh. The longtime radio huckster recently revealed that he has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Limbaugh was invited to the State of the Union and seated by the first lady. During the speech, Trump thanked Limbaugh for his “decades of tireless devotion to our country.” Then he awarded Limbaugh the presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor we have) and asked the first lady to hang it on him on the spot.
Rush tried to act surprised.
While all the people in my house were still reeling, trading stories about the most racist thing they remember Limbaugh saying (for me it was when he called Barack Obama a “halfrican American”), Trump was on to his final trick: a soldier reveal. Most people have seen this on YouTube. A military family, usually a wife and a child, are called to some event while their spouse is deployed. The veteran surprises them with his safe return. Cheers and tears follow.
That Trump set one up at the State of the Union is unorthodox, yet totally in keeping with his method of command. He likes soldiers who don’t get captured, remember.
We’re so inured to the absurdist game show brought to us from the inchoate mind of President Trump that it would be easy to overlook what was not in the speech. Last night, the president stood before the nation, impeached forever, but he will be acquitted by the United States Senate today. In the State of the Union after Bill Clinton was acquitted of impeachment charges, he stood up and apologized for his actions that thrust the country into such turmoil. But Trump never apologizes and wasn’t about to start last night. Nor could he risk saying anything that would change the mind of his complicit Republican jurors in the audience. So he didn’t mention it. The emperor stood naked while Republicans applauded his new clothes.
The Republicans, as usual, had a unified plan. The Democrats, in contrast, were kind of all over the map. Trump started the evening by refusing to shake Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand, even though she politely extended it. Speaker Pelosi ended the evening by ripping up her copy of Trump’s speech the moment he finished delivering it, while he was still on the dais and she was clearly still on camera. All of the House women wore white in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment (not surprisingly, Trump did not find a 100-year-old woman to honor), but the Senate women did not. Some Democrats boycotted the speech altogether. Others walked out during it. Still others stayed for the whole thing and clapped or stood when Trump started handing out titles (or hailing Venezuela’s self-declared president Juan Guaido).
At least Pelosi’s response was performative. The official Democratic response was given by the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, and lacked anything that could be described as passion. It wasn’t a red-meat speech meant to rile up the base, or a thorough takedown of the many lies and untruths Trump offered in his speech, or even a reminder about why this dangerous, lawless president should be removed from office. Instead, it was mainly about bridges and potholes and all the good-government things Democratic governors are doing. I’m sure somebody thought the speech would appeal to “independent” voters, and I’m sure there are still people who think we’re going to defeat this malicious circus clown by reigniting America’s nascent desire for good rivet work.
But: Trump promised a space force, a Mars mission, and a cure for AIDS. People like big promises. Nobody shows up to a game show for the opportunity to win a shovel.
Trump has been playing the same games on all of us for three years, and it feels like Democrats are still unaware that they’re part of the show. The State of the Union didn’t just take place against the backdrop of impeachment; it was also juxtaposed against the stunning Democratic Party debacle in Iowa. Trump is putting on a summer blockbuster replete with CGI aliens and completely implausible plot twists. Democrats can’t put on a high school play without the lead actors getting knocked off stage by an unwieldy boom mic.
Because Trump is so ludicrous, because his tricks and lies are so painfully obvious, because he so clearly thinks this is all some sort of game, perhaps the entire Democratic Party has been lulled into thinking this bizarro reality cannot possibly last forever. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The last incumbent president to lose a reelection campaign was George H.W. Bush in 1992. That makes us a solid generation removed from the last time a president lost a general election. And Bush lost what was effectively a three-person race with a cratering economy hanging around his neck. Our economy is strong (thanks, Obama!). Trump has to be considered the overwhelming favorite to win this election based on our history and economy alone.
To escape this hell, Democrats have to be perfect. There can’t be foul-ups like Iowa. There can’t be missed opportunities like the State of the Union response. There can’t be structural incoherence like changing the rules to let Mike Bloomberg buy his way onto the debate stage after strictly adhering to the rules that kicked people of color off of it.
The State of the Union was the premiere of the reelection season of the Trump show. Of course, it was bad—every single episode of this show has been either bad or terrifying. But Democrats need to get in the game, now. Democrats have to make like this is Jumanji: Yes, the game has turned all too real, but the only way out is to beat it. Otherwise, we’ll be trapped forever with a president who isn’t smarter than a fifth grader.