Tuesday’s State of the Union address brought President Trump’s high-concept politics—history as reality show or three-ring circus—to a new pitch of excitement, distraction and entertainment.
The impeached president delivered the speech on the eve of his acquittal in the Senate. The results from the Iowa Democratic caucus this week remained unclear, lost in a ferocious electronic screwup that, nonetheless, raised the interesting possibility that a 38-year-old gay man from South Bend, Ind., might threaten Mr. Trump’s hold on the presidency. The idea that Pete Buttigieg could move into the White House on Jan. 20, 2021, with his husband as “first gentleman” acquired a sudden speculative plausibility. Or perhaps the new tenant would be a democratic socialist.
In this abundance of distractions and dramas, the political fate of the nation oscillating between extremes, a fairly subdued President Trump delivered his annual address to Congress in a monotone. From time to time, he would cock his head in a quizzical, half-challenging way, working his smiles and freeze-pose grimaces.
Behind him sat Vice President Mike Pence, as mysteriously impassive as always, and the woman who stage-managed Mr. Trump’s impeachment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi compulsively worked her teeth with lips and tongue, her fidgeting countenance alive with fury. When the president was finished, she emphasized the theater of the evening by dramatically ripping up the text of the speech, as if to say, like Samuel Johnson kicking a stone to dismiss that bishop (Berkeley) who preached the unreality of things: I refute him thus!
Long ago, during World War II, Army chief of staff George C. Marshall opposed the idea of an Allied invasion of North Africa. But he acquiesced in the plan because, he said, “the leader in a democracy has to keep the people entertained.” It is a lesson that Donald Trump has perhaps overlearned. The night of the State of the Union was dense in sideshows and subplots, in tensions and entertainments.
Up in the gallery, First Lady Melania Trump fastened the Presidential Medal of Freedom on conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, afflicted now with advanced lung cancer and wearing a new beard that gave him the appearance of an aged saint and martyr. He seemed to weep and he held his hands before his face, as if in prayer or amazement.
But he was no saint to the Democratic women dressed in white and arrayed, en bloc, on the House floor. It made for a curiously Jacobin effect, like a ghost chorus, a committee of avengers. The Democratic half of the chamber sat in glum silence; the other half chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” and “Four More Years!” They stood up and sat down and stood up again, as if the State of the Union were democracy’s version of a high Mass that called for such calisthenics of piety and obeisance.
Mr. Trump acted, as so often, in his role of what the Jungian vocabulary calls a psychopomp—a mediator between the conscious and unconscious realms of the mind. In his role as ringmaster and reality host, Mr. Trump introduced the bereaved parents of Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who in 2015 was raped and slain in Syria by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Last year Mr. Trump ordered the raid in which the Islamist monster “died like a dog,” so the moment clicked in perfect dramatic and moral symmetry: unspeakable crime followed by harsh justice. The grieving parents came to the moment in witness, applauding Mr. Trump, the avenger.
The president looked up into the gallery again to introduce Janiyah Davis, a young black poster child for school choice. Janiyah’s big glasses and wondering eyes spoke of her eagerness to learn. The little drama called back the nation’s memory—or half-memory—that one of the most sinister aspects of slavery was the way that it forbade black slaves to learn to read and write. Again, Mr. Trump managed to present himself as the bringer of justice.
It was presidential theater in a style that owed something to Bertolt Brecht and much to P.T. Barnum. Ronald Reagan had a genius for anecdotal audience participation in the State of the Union. He frequently called out to the gallery for heroes to stand and take a bow. Mr. Trump has brought the form to almost gaudy perfection. Up in the gallery, he reunited an Army wife and children with their husband and father, who was magically plucked out of the war zone and returned to his family by the wand of Trump. Here was the president as Prospero.
That half of the audience sat on their hands and stared daggers (impeached liar!) merely added to the entertainment. Mrs. Pelosi’s ripping up the speech brought the evening to an exquisitely sardonic conclusion, to be followed, next day, by the sequel of acquittal in the Senate.
And so the presidential year 2020 begins. And to think that this is only the first act.
Lance Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.