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The Esoteric SOTU Speech

How to understand which parts of the speech were the speechwriters and which parts were the president.
February 6, 2019
The Esoteric SOTU Speech
(Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

Wednesday morning: Another State of the Union is in the bin, along with the predictable raft of takes, pro and con, squabbling over whether what President Trump told the nation was bad or good, factual or fanciful. In the interest of digging a little deeper, here’s a little Jesus Seminar-style game you can play with these marquee Trump speeches: Trying to puzzle out which bits were authentically his, and which one his staffers rolled him into going along with.

A cynic might contend this game is too easy to bother with. When Trump waxes eloquent about America’s exceptional, bipartisan future—“our biggest victories are still to come, we have not yet begun to dream”—well, it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that’s the comms shop talking. When he mumbles through the climax of a pro-life segment (“All children, born and unborn, are made in the holy image of God”) without even stopping to let Republicans applaud, it’s like he’s not even trying to convince the crowd that his heart’s really in it. On the other hand, when he follows up a genuinely touching moment—an impromptu chorus of “Happy Birthday”  to a man who survived both the Holocaust and last year’s mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue—by joking that “they wouldn’t do that for me”? Breathe it in, baby: That’s the pure, unfiltered Trump.

But the game is made more challenging by the fact that Trump’s speechwriters are, after all, still Trump’s speechwriters. So when the president talks, for example, about the “tremendous onslaught” of “large, organized caravans on the march to the United States,” the riffs and the prewrite get a little trickier to separate. Say that on the spur of the moment he tweaks a prepared line to insist not only that “I want people to come into our country,” but that, in cheery contradiction of his own stated immigration policy, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever.” Is this the unveiling of a new policy swerve—or just a matter of Trump seizing an opportunity to wedge in some of his signature bombast?

The game can certainly help to while away the minutes of an overly portentous speech. But it has another use as well: It helps to inoculate the player against the wild speculation about a “new, more presidential Trump” that always goes around in moments like this. New York Times reporters might wonder aloud, for example, whether we can expect this new “Bill Shine remaking of Trump” to stick going forward. But the canny player will remember that, while Bill Shine might have been calling the shots Tuesday night, the rest of the week—and the year, and the term— is Trump’s turf. He doesn’t like handing over the reins for long.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it! It’s impossible to understand Trump’s continued Republican support without realizing that, for the more traditionally conservative portion of his base, the barely disguised transactionalism of moments like the State of the Union is part of the charm. Of course, they realize, the president is in his true element not during the big, stodgy speech, but during the pre-speech meeting with TV anchors earlier in the day—the one where he reportedly called Joe Biden “dumb” and Chuck Schumer a “nasty son of a bitch.” But they’re reassured by his going through the motions, no matter how woodenly. And in fact the woodenness itself helps: Look, you know I’m not up here babbling about bipartisanship because I want to be, they imagine they hear in Trump’s monotone. I’m up here because I need you. To lock you down I’ll tell you whatever you want to hear.

And you know what? They’re right: It’s only for the sake of this sort of Republican that Trump bothers to go through the traditional motions of a State of the Union at all. The requisite calls for bipartisanship aren’t intended to win Democrats over to the Trump agenda; they’re intended to solidify support among those Republicans who tell themselves they still value bipartisanship. Most people may forget about this speech by the weekend, but these folks won’t: They’ll cling to it like a lifeboat through the turbulence of the tweets and fights to come. It’s nice, after all, to feel needed.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.