My main advice? Distrust the words. All of them.
Here I mean not just the specific words Trump uses, but their overall aim. Normal presidents have employed words in the State of the Union mainly for public purposes: to inform, inspire, challenge and unite. They have taken, of course, some partisan potshots at opponents along the way. But their broader goal has been to assert and serve some vision of the common good. Even their exaggerations and simplifications were generally dedicated to this objective.
In the case of our abnormal president, rhetoric is bent to a different purpose. Trump — with the apparent approval of congressional Republicans — conflates his political fortunes with the national interest. This is the reason he saw nothing wrong with twisting Ukrainian arms to undermine an opponent and cheat in a presidential election. Nothing done to help him can ultimately be judged corrupt because he regards his success as identical to the nation’s. This is the plain meaning of the Dershowitz Doctrine — the theory advanced during the Senate trial by legal expert and Trump defender Alan Dershowitz that, since public officials universally regard their election as serving the public interest, this intention can’t be the basis of a “quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” (Dershowitz now denies this was his actual meaning, but he will be forever remembered as the scholar who gave constitutional blessing to malignant narcissism.)
This approach to politics has rhetorical implications. Some are relatively innocent. To Trump, self-praise is a kind of patriotism. So major portions of his speeches are occupied with infantile boasting. This may not do great damage to the republic, but it can be uncomfortable to watch.
Other strategies are more sinister. Much of Trump’s rhetoric is not an attempt at persuasion; it is the assertion of dominance. When he declares — as he recently did — that Mexico is currently paying for the construction of his border wall, he is not seeking a response of “true” or “false.” He is requiring a decision to “submit” or “resist.” Swallowing his interpretation of facts and events is the evidence of loyalty to his person. To cheer is to yield.
More than any other recent politician, Trump uses language as an instrument of power. To him, epistemology is ideology. A willingness to accept his claims — and to view all competing information as fake and false — is what defines his movement. And his job is made easier by a conservative media bubble that allows people to live in Trump’s alternative reality 24 hours a day.
So how does Trump employ such profound influence over so many American lives? First, he attempts to keep his followers in a constant state of agitation against elites, presented as their oppressors. Both red and blue America can discover — in a vast nation made minuscule by social media — sufficient material for daily outrage. We now have a president who finds it politically useful to turn natural differences into the trench lines of an endless culture war. It is deeply damaging to the health of our union. And no three-minute peroration about national unity at the end of a State of the Union is going to change this.
The second way Trump employs his power is to encourage hostility toward some of the most vulnerable members of the human family, including migrants and refugees. If Trump dares to repeat the charge that he has been unjustly treated by Congress, viewers should recall the kind of due process found in Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program. More than 56,000 asylum seekers — including rape victims, pregnant women and children with autism — have been condemned to squalid camps, victimized by crime and kidnapping, denied adequate access to counsel, and subjected to a review process rigged against them. In God’s eyes, they are Trump’s real jury.
Here is my viewing advice: Any claim of credit deserves deep skepticism. Any claim of exoneration for an abuse of power that everyone — really everyone — knows he committed deserves laughter. Any attempt at rebranding deserves derision. And any claim of victimization deserves the quality of justice that Trump himself provides.