Everybody hates the State of the Union. It’s long, it’s boring, and it’s quickly forgotten. But it’s also extremely important to the nation, which is exactly why it’s a good thing that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has done this:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday asked President Trump to postpone his State of the Union address — or deliver it in writing — citing security concerns related to the partial federal government shutdown.
The suggestion, which could deny Trump an opportunity to make his case for border wall funding in a prime-time televised address, came as White House officials were urging Republican senators to hold off on signing a bipartisan letter that would call for an end to the government shutdown, now in its 26th day.
In a letter to Trump, Pelosi said the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which have key responsibilities for planning and implementing security at the scheduled Jan. 29 address in the House chamber, have been “hamstrung” by furloughs.
“Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th,” Pelosi wrote in the letter.
There are Republicans who think this is just petty trolling, and to a degree they aren’t wrong. I’m sure Pelosi wasn’t exactly dismayed at the idea that this will send the president into a rage.
But Pelosi is right to do this. Because what’s happening right now in Washington is antithetical to everything the State of the Union as a public spectacle is supposed to communicate. Holding it under the current circumstances would actually be deeply misleading to the public.
That’s because holding it right now would convey that, to some degree at least, things are normal. That even if there’s a government shutdown, it’s the result of two sides being locked in a conventional Washington standoff, and soon enough, they’ll find away to bridge their differences.
But things are not normal.
By now the televised State of the Union address is a firmly established ritual in our civic religion. Like all rituals, it has both explicit and implicit purposes. Whatever specific message the president stresses, the address also communicates important things about the nation and its government. Other than a presidential inauguration, it’s the only regularly scheduled event at which just about the entire federal government is represented. Both houses of Congress, cabinet officers, members of the Supreme Court — they’re all there. Whatever their differences, they come together, take their proper seats and perform their part in the ceremony. It all offers a visual tableau of the government’s stability and durability.
But we can’t — and we shouldn’t — pretend that everything is okay. The government is largely run by an impulsive, vindictive, reckless toddler and his chief enabler in the Senate, who together have created the longest shutdown in history over a single idiotic policy demand.
Republican nihilists are hoping that the shutdown will serve their goal of shrinking government services (just the ones they don’t like, of course). The administration just ordered 46,000 IRS workers to come back in and work for free to make sure tax refunds go out on time, lest too many Americans feel the direct pain of the shutdown — and hold him accountable for it. The entire Republican strategy is based on the assumption that because Democrats actually care about whether government operates properly, they’ll be quicker to give in, and because Republicans don’t care, they can hold out for longer.
Why should Pelosi help Republicans communicate to the public that this is normal or acceptable?
Getting it right where the networks blew it
Only several weeks ago, we had a national debate over whether Trump should be given a prime-time platform by all the major networks, simply because he asked for one. This was admittedly not an easy decision. It’s hard to say no when a president asks for time in the middle of a difficult national moment, which the shutdown very much is. But every producer and executive knew full well that Trump would not say anything new about the shutdown or utter anything designed to reassure the country. Instead, they all knew Trump would use their airtime to lie and demagogue relentlessly to the American people in service of a deeply polarizing policy goal — the wall — that he has never seriously justified, and that (we all know this, too) is really about keeping his base riled up for the coming legal battles he faces.
We know that Trump intends to do something very similar with his State of the Union address. The Wall Street Journal reports:
White House aides had started preparations for the State of the Union speech, and some aides wanted to use the captive audience to castigate lawmakers over the shutdown and press his case for $5.7 billion in funding for building hundreds of miles of a border wall.
“Lawmakers,” of course, really means Democrats. Trump’s top adviser Stephen Miller has a big hand in writing the speech, which means that Trump will unleash precisely the same fusillade of lies that he did only a few weeks ago — the same lies he has been telling for two years now.
In this context, it’s important to see all the lying about the wall and the border as something much more than conventional political dishonesty. The push for the wall — and all the lying about it — has amounted, on the part of Trump and the White House, to a truly extraordinary spate of official misconduct. The wall itself is part revanchist symbol and part figment of Trump’s megalomania and terror of looking weak in the eyes of his base. Trump has not made a serious public case for it, and worse, he simply doesn’t feel any obligation to do so.
The lies justifying it involve the relentless demonizing of desperate and destitute people who are just trying to exercise their legal right to apply for asylum in the United States — an extension of his relentless, bigoted demonization of vulnerable minorities at home. Trump literally sent in the military as a prop to create made-for-TV imagery of a fake national security crisis, to prop up his party’s midterm campaign message. Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency to build it — entirely on false pretenses. The lies and bad faith constitute a major aspect of the abnormality of this moment. They constitute a major aspect of the crisis of this moment. The State of the Union speech would simply be the latest installment.
Until the shutdown is over, we shouldn’t pretend that we’re not in the midst of a crisis of the president’s making. The president will get to deliver his State of the Union sooner or later. But until he ends this crisis — or until Senate Republicans put it out of its misery for him, since he doesn’t appear to see any way out — he shouldn’t be afforded the opportunity to rub our faces in all the lies and bad faith once again, making it all that much worse.