What the hell was that?
I’ve lived through many moments of American political fakery, but Donald Trump’s first official State of the Union address made them look like genuine world-shifting events. Hours before the speech, his administration and Pundit Nation promised us the theme would be “unity.” Instead, we got nativism and jingoism, gibberish, heavy breathing, and appeals to divisions of every imaginable sort. Near the end, Trump got the now-docile Republicans in his audience to jump to their feet chanting “USA, USA,” like sports fans after too many beers.
There was even a direct appeal to drunk white sports fans: Trump took a moment to trash the black athletes who take a knee during the national anthem, by first praising a young white boy who makes a practice of planting American flags on veterans’ graves. “Preston’s reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us 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,” Trump intoned. Republicans in the audience thrilled to the message, as did his base at home.
But to the extent that there were any soaring moments (nope) or successful arguments (yes for his base, maybe for the pundits), they will be forgotten within days, more likely hours, against the backdrop of the crisis of democracy that got more dangerous just in the last 36 hours. On Monday, the Trump administration ousted FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe over his role in the bureau’s investigation into Russian election meddling as well as its 2016 Hillary Clinton e-mail probe. The same day, Representative Devin Nunes and the GOP majority on the House Intelligence Committee released a memo attempting to discredit the Russia investigation, and at the same time suppressed the Democratic response to the memo. While almost no one paid attention, the White House announced that it would not extend the sanctions against Russia for that election meddling, passed by Congress last year with overwhelmingly bipartisan support.
So while Monday was the most dangerous day for American justice since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey over his role in investigating “the Russia thing” last May, on Tuesday the US establishment was commanded to pause its work and pay attention to the transpartisan pageantry of the annual SOTU. Luckily for the Resistance, there wasn’t much.
Since it was a shallow, image-driven event, let’s appraise it on those terms first. Trump and his most important enabler, House Speaker Paul Ryan, wore complementary blue ties. Did they talk first? Melania Trump, fresh from an unscheduled trip to the Holocaust Museum and then Mar-a-Lago, wore a white pants suit, which reminded many on social media of Hillary Clinton accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. Was it suffragette white? Future divorcee champagne? We can’t be sure. Trump spoke slowly, as though careful not to go off script on this night he was gifted to change the dreary narrative of his presidency.