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The State of Our Union Is a Reality Show

Surprise guests! Medals! And more! Season four of The Trump Show begins . . . tonight.
February 5, 2020
The State of Our Union Is a Reality Show
America is outraged by this violation of norms and decorum. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

With the best approval rating he’s had as president, an acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial scheduled for Wednesday, a list of accomplishments to tout as “promises kept,” and the implosion of the Democrats’ Iowa caucuses, Tuesday might have been the best day of Donald Trump’s administration.

So he turned his State of the Union Address into a TV show.

It was, as the Trump Show goes, much more sedate than we’re used to. There was no rant about the witch-hunt-hoax and no impressions of people from his enemies list. He did not appear to be unwell.

But even so, it was amazing. It takes a lot to push House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into pique, but the president/producer managed to get a reaction from her. After refusing to shake her hand at the start of the speech she ripped up her copy of his speech as he was departing the rostrum. As you can imagine, people on the internet were Very Concerned about this dreadful breach of decorum and breaking of norms. Many of them were the same people who were outraged by Joe Wilson in 2009. Probably.

The elevator pitch for the 2020 SOTU was Fantasy Island meets Make-A-Wish meets Oprah.

There was a 100-year-old Tuskegee airman who Trump decorated with a new medal in the Oval Office joined by his grandson who—by total coincidence!—wants to be in Trump’s Space Force. No matter that Pew Research polling shows that even a majority of veterans who support Trump on most everything are opposed to the Space Force. Trump found the validators! (And it’s important to use exclamation points—see the headline on “Great American Comeback! President Trump Delivers 3rd State of the Union.”)

There was a military wife and two kids whose husband suddenly appeared to surprise her (“surprise” her?) from a war zone. There was a young student on whom Trump bestowed a scholarship—right then and there—on live TV. There was, seated with Ivanka Trump, a formerly homeless veteran whose life turned around once he was employed under an opportunity zone provision in the 2017 tax law. There was Rush Limbaugh receiving a Medal of Freedom from Melania Trump.

Limbaugh, thinner and bearded, listened as Trump described his recent diagnosis of advanced lung cancer and may have been startled that the awarding of his medal Trump had announced to the media hours before was actually going to be given by the First Lady right then in the visitors section of the House gallery like some startling audience surprise from The Price is Right. All of it was so jarring that, as Pelosi manically flipped her speech script papers back and forth in desperation, you almost wondered if something would suddenly be revealed from behind Curtain Number 3.

Which, of course, is just want Trump wanted.

Trump’s speech also included some perfunctory presidential stuff about freedom and aspirations and terrorists killed. There were the standard mistruths—12,000 new factories no one can locate, a boast about “restoring our nation’s manufacturing might,” despite the fact that experts claim manufacturing is officially in recession.

There was breaking news that Trump is building an inclusive America “where every community can take part in America’s extraordinary rise.” Not mentioned in the fine print was that there will be a few exceptions—like those communities riven by anti-Semitic violence, or those that welcome refugees, or those that never got their healthcare repealed and replaced, weren’t helped by the tax cut, and never saw a new factory—either real or imagined—come back to town.

But hey, it wasn’t “American carnage”!

Though, of course, tucked in between the traditional passages we expected on late-term abortion and economic growth and trade, there was some creepy stuff Stephen Miller wrote. But you can put that aside.

The highlights of the show were the red-carpet guests, and the parts about ICE agents, and the dangers of socialism, and then the section he delivered with gusto about how much he has protected coverage for pre-existing conditions, which is bull. But whatever. Remember: This isn’t reality. It’s reality TV.

Having Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó appear among the other guests was a cynical pitch for voters in Florida since Trump has ceded Venezuela to Vladimir Putin (although Rudy Guiliani, in one of his numerous foreign-policy assignments outside official U.S. channels, was involved in trying to persuade Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro to leave office; Rudy didn’t get that one done, but one-out-of-two ain’t bad).

On Wednesday, Trump will be lauded for his address for as many hours as he is willing to sustain praise for it—and then, as surely as the sun sets in the west, he will blow everything up in his usual cycle of self-destruction that always follows his good days. For the rest of us this formal moment of national collection was a welcome reprieve from the ugliness of a two-week impeachment trial which will—also tomorrow—end in a triumphant and newly untethered Trump.

Season four is, as the kids used to say, going to be lit.

Meanwhile Senate GOP sources have spent the last few days insisting to reporters that Republican senators did not want the president to talk about impeachment during the SOTU, even though we all know that they don’t care what he does anymore.

It’s too late to care. They know what Trump’s acquittal is inviting and instead of dreading it, the king’s men seem to be relishing it, unable keep their eager complicity in check even until the trial ended.

Witness Rand Paul, who revealed the name of the alleged whistleblower on the Senate floor on Tuesday after being warned not to do so last week by the chief justice. Witness Lindsey Graham stoking conspiracy theories about the Democratic primaries.

Forget the theater of Tuesday night. This is, in fact, state of our reality show which has taken over the state of our union.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.