State of the Union addresses have become Washington kabuki theater at its worst. Everything is for show — the staged applause, the invited guests in the gallery, the self-congratulations, the empty promises. The insincerity on all sides oozes from the chamber. Worst of all may be the chin-stroking pundits who pretend this is significant.
They will intone — if President Trump makes it through the prepared remarks without foaming at the mouth about the Russia investigation — that he was “presidential.” If he could only be like that all the time, they earnestly proclaim. Yes, if Trump were not Trump and spoke others’ words that he likely doesn’t entirely grasp (quick, have him explain what the trade deficit really is), we’d all be better off. But he doesn’t, and we’re not.
Forgotten will be Monday’s events – the reports of a raving Trump calling the wife of acting FBI director Andrew McCabe a “loser;” of the president being irate over the Department of Justice’s attempt to prevent the release of a memo damaging to national security; and of him being determined to fire McCabe, who was told about former FBI director James B. Comey’s conversations with the president, making him a witness to alleged obstruction. Rather than point out that those revelations confirm Trump is temperamentally unfit for the job, and is uninterested in anything other than protecting his own hide, he’ll be patted on the head for reading off a teleprompter.
The usual play-acting associated with the State of the Union address is bad enough, but with this president it is hard to imagine how it could provide any insight into his thinking. There are two Trumps. The first one can get through a speech in the House chamber or at Davos by sticking to a script written by mainstream conservatives. The second has no interest in policy, no idea how to achieve it, no comprehension of American institutions, and no ability to lead the free world. In other words, we get either an entirely artificial and unrepresentative articulation of his presidency, or a raving, ignorant, race-baiter. The two have nothing to do with one another.
In this respect, we should stop paying attention to the prepared speeches (goodness knows our international allies must have at this point), and focus on his tweets — the exact opposite of what his apologists urge. The authentic Trump voice — a tangle of prejudices, resentments and urban myths — won’t be heard in his remarks tonight.
The insistence on taking the phony Trump seriously goes beyond his dogged defenders, the ones who decree that character and the Constitution must take a back seat to lowering the top marginal tax rate. Month after month, and now year after year, some members of the mainstream media have kept up the pretense that Trump is a normal president who absorbs material, rationally considers data and propounds policies calibrated to deliver on desired means. Is it some journalistic sin to point out that, for a year, the emperor has had no clothes?
What is the point, really, in dissecting promises of bipartisanship, when in a day or an hour he’ll create another juvenile slur to hurl at Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)? What service is the media providing when it notes the president is using less confrontational language about immigration than he does when he speaks his mind (fewer brown and black immigrants from “shithole” countries, please)?
There is pomp and tradition, sure. But there is also misleading or deceiving the public by insisting his words are authentic and portend a pivot, a new day, a fresh start, an about-face, or whatever for this president.
We see one saving grace in the State of the Union, though. As with all hypocrisy, it is the compliment vice pays to virtue. A president is supposed to sound generous, sober, high-minded, inclusive and responsible. He is supposed to show fidelity to the rule of law, celebrate our civil liberties and admire democracies around the world. He is supposed to embody our most noble ideas, not our worst biases. So, for a night, the puppeteers around Trump will have him channel the qualities and sentiments we all wished he possessed. It will be an inadvertent admission of Trump’s unfitness. All he can do is fake it at this point.
At least we will know there are people around Trump who understand what a president should sound like. If only they had the decency to quit their jobs and decry a president who lacks virtually every public virtue.