In light of the president’s racist comments, a few African American members of Congress have already announced they will not attend the State of the Union address on Jan. 30. (Will it be held if there is a government shutdown?) President Trump declared Sunday — in terms reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook,” that “I’m not a racist.” Are members of Congress right to stay away?
To be upfront, I intensely dislike State of the Union speeches — which are unnecessary, overlong, overhyped and boring. Nearly as bad as the speech is the media exaggeration. (Journalists actually said foolish things last year like: Trump became president tonight!). Only half-joking, I would promise to vote for the first presidential candidate who would say, “I’ll go back to the tradition of sending something to Congress in writing.”
The State of the Union has become another semi-monarchial tradition — the sergeant at arms formally announcing the president, the president entering to staged applause, followed by more staged applause. It smacks of the Queen of England’s annual address to Parliament. The tradition of carting around “special guests” to put in the gallery to make some point or another has become trite and also hyperpolitical. And finally, it is absurd for Supreme Court justices to attend such nakedly partisan affairs.
With that out of the way, if we are going to have these speeches, is there a point at which members of Congress should not attend? Remember, there is no constitutional requirement to give this speech (let alone for members of Congress to attend). The Congress receives the president in person as a courtesy. (He could give the speech from the Oval Office.) In a sense, then, the question is whether the president deserves the artificial courtesies normally extended when he behaves in abhorrent ways.
We’re not talking about differences, even strong differences, of policy. We’re not talking about trivial flaps or controversies. We’re now at a point after a year in which the president has attacked the notion that there is a moral difference between neo-Nazis and counterprotesters, as well as attacked the First Amendment, the independent judiciary, African countries, members of Congress (include the use of racial slurs in the case of Sen. Elizabeth Warren), the FBI (which he accused of treason), the attorney general, the special counsel, his predecessor (with the false claim that Trump had been wiretapped), the city of London, Australia and many other people, groups, countries and institutions. He has lied in big ways and small — about 2,000 times, according to The Post. He has defied other presidential conventions, such as disclosing his taxes and divesting himself of properties. So under these circumstances, must members of Congress grin and bear it, listen to his address and extend the normal pomp that other presidents have enjoyed?
I understand the concern that staying away this time will create a never-ending cycle of State of the Union boycotts. Well, sign me up! (Remember, I am anti-SOTU.) And yet the gesture could well descend into another round of accusations and Trumpian efforts to claim victimhood. We’d soon be debating the boycott instead of Trump’s noxious behavior. It would lead to other partisan boycotts that wouldn’t be limited to a State of the Union or to a uniquely horrific president.
Despite those understandable concerns, I think any member of Congress would be justified in not going. Trump is behaving in unprecedented ways, so an unusual, extraordinary response is warranted. Some may choose to attend and silently signal their protest, which is another way of registering extreme displeasure. (“My parents came from a s—hole country” might be a popular button.) We are in unique times with a president whose actions justify in many cases formal condemnation or censure from Congress. A much lesser statement than that — staying away from a ceremonial speech — would seem warranted. (If a boycott by a visiting sports team or business leaders is justified, surely this modest rebuke would be.)
It’s a close call, but I would applaud a member of Congress who chose instead to attend a State of the Union watching party with a group of “dreamers.” That would be a noble gesture.