Watching the State of the Union address from Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, felt more like infiltrating an Ivy League alumni mixer than the blood-and-soil rally I had anticipated.
At about 9 pm, I was greeted at the doors by a pair of well-groomed men wearing Mickey Mouse gloves, and they welcomed me into the sprawling atrium of the Trump Hotel. There were between 100 and 200 people in attendance, most smartly dressed in expensive suits or collared sweaters, and only a smattering of red MAGA hats in sight; the gaudy outfits that usually color magazine features about Trumpworld events were the exception rather than the rule (though I did see a black-and-white print blazer featuring silhouettes of Trump’s face).
“I met him at CPAC,” said one preppy young man to his compatriot, apparently discussing his experiences networking. (CPAC, or the Conservative Political Action Conference, is an annual conference that hosts a series of panels comprising a who’s who of conservative political operatives.) His interlocutor firmly responded that they should talk about it later, because someone here might know him and overhear. The first guy agreed. Swamp or no swamp, DC is still DC.
The hotel, though decorated rather conventionally, did have a few Trumpy touches: Several ornate chandeliers, grafted onto huge rivet-studded metal support beams, arched over the crowd. The pungent smell of seafood lingered over the tables, several of which held platters of steaming red lobsters. People mostly drank wine and liquor; I opted for an imported Belgian pilsner.
The only people who resembled the working class for whom Trump fashions himself a spokesperson—“I am your voice”—were a few restless looking cops posted near the entrance and the waiters. While the crowd was mostly white; the ratio of men to women actually seemed more or less even.
Although they were all clearly there because of the State of the Union, most of the crowd did not seem particularly interested in the event, save for a handful of fans pressed up against the bar where four surprisingly small TVs were showing it. That’s not to say that people weren’t paying any attention; just that the speech did not command the same attention as what appeared to be the true purpose of the event: schmoozing.
The audio quality of the broadcast did not rise very far above a murmur, but Trump’s actual words didn’t much matter. You could tell from his cadence when he hit an applause line, and the audience would dutifully clap. Even that applause felt perfunctory, and Trump’s mention of high-speed Internet access in rural communities registered near-silence. One big exception was when he spoke about Rush Limbaugh, the conservative shock jock. At that point, virtually everyone rose to their feet in a standing ovation.
“Holy cow! They’re doing it right now! Oh God!” a gentleman at one of the lobster tables, clearly emotional, exclaimed as Limbaugh appeared on screen.
Death and destruction are frequent motifs in Trump’s speeches, and this one was no different. Extolling the valor of Army Ssg. Christopher Hake, killed in a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2008, Trump said, “That night, he made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Sergeant Hake now rests in eternal glory.” The phrase reminded me of the drill sergeant’s speech in Full Metal Jacket: “Marines die, that’s what we’re here for! But the Marine Corps lives forever. And that means you live forever!”
The camera then panned in on the face of the sobbing widow, Kelli Hake, and on her son, Gage, who was just 1 year old when his father was killed. Despite the obvious political spectacle—Hake was killed by a roadside bomb allegedly supplied by Qassim Suleimani, whom Trump killed in a controversial drone strike last month—it was an emotional scene.
The crowd responded fervently, although they seemed to process the tableau with a peculiar mix of rage and pride that reminded me of the mood after 9/11. It was chilling.
As Trump’s speech wound down, people began to file out, and in the cacophony of their exit, most people, including me, did not seem to notice Pelosi’s widely publicized ripping up of a copy of Trump’s speech. People turned instead to what appeared to be the real focus of the event—the other attendees—and said their goodbyes.
When the address ended, the loudspeakers abruptly shifted to throbbing electronic dance music without words. Thinking the older folks might find the music a strange choice, I glanced around to gauge their expressions. Nobody seemed to care.