Politics

Altered State

Trump reduces the State of the Union to its irrelevant essence.

President Donald Trump looks on before delivering a speech during the World Economic Forum on Friday in Davos, Switzerland.
President Donald Trump looks on before delivering a speech during the World Economic Forum on Friday in Davos, Switzerland.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, President Trump will address Congress with a speech that, according to anonymous White House aides, will be “forward-looking,” “bipartisan,” and “softened.” One aide described the speech as offering an “attractive message.” The theme: “building a safe, strong and proud America.” The president will read words off a screen about uniting both parties to produce friendly immigration and infrastructure bills. If he can get through the speech without launching into any tangents about Mika Brzezinski’s looks, cable pundits will declare the speech a “success” and muse about how it will help the Republican Party in November’s midterm elections.

And then Wednesday morning will happen, and none of it will matter, and no one will care.

The State of the Union address, a ritual borne out of a literal reading of the Constitution’s obligation that the president “from time to time … give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union,” has lost its efficacy in the age of the one-minute news cycle. The president can spell out his agenda for the year and then … something else will invariably happen to make everyone forget about what he wanted. Congress, despite the president’s call for bipartisan action, will continue to operate by its own politics: those of structural gridlock, created by that very same 18th-century document that requires the president to occasionally brief Congress on what’s going on.

But Trump takes State of the Union futility to another, final level. Whereas the last few presidents would have seen the news cycle’s immediate trampling of their messages as a frustrating reality, there is no indication that Trump would see it that way. Trump is as mercurial and lacking in attention span as the news cycles that would bury his message, and he is just as likely to be the one trampling on it. There is no reason to believe that he agrees with anything in his speech, or will remember on Wednesday morning what he said Tuesday night. Why should you?

A “softened” Trump is simply one that hides the ball. Consider, for example, the bad-faith way that the administration is presenting the president’s immigration plan.

The White House last week issued a legislative framework to cut legal immigration by eliminating family sponsorships for siblings, parents, and adult children. Absent any corresponding redistribution of those visas, the goal is to reduce immigration levels to the United States. No one can argue that this is not what Stephen Miller, the White House aide handling the administration’s immigration policy, intended.

But the administration doesn’t want to make a straightforward case for reducing immigration levels. Instead, its plan is to focus on which elements of family reunification it is willing to keep in order to present the president as an empathetic human being. The strategy, as the Wall Street Journal reported, is to “reframe the issue of family-based migration around a preference for the legal immigration of spouses and minor children, rather than as an exclusion of other family members.” Instead of eliminating all family sponsorships, he is keeping some of them, proving that he cares about families. The total fabrication of genuine feeling here is rich enough to ensure that Trump won’t be able to continue “selling” this message for more than a few minutes after the speech’s conclusion. Tweets demonstrating the president’s true feelings should recommence after the next Fox and Friends segment about an immigrant who committed a crime.

I get where the founders were coming from. Information traveled slowly back in the day, and you needed the president to check in with representatives “from time to time” to get the latest scuttlebutt about Barbary pirates. I get it. But the presidency no longer suffers from limited avenues through which to transmit information or propaganda to concerned parties. A State of the Union address can’t be judged as a “success” or “failure” because that presumes the speech is capable of having an effect. We learn far more about who the president is, what he wants, what his goals are, and how he thinks by checking Twitter at 7 a.m. on any given day. If Trump’s disinterest in consistency is good for anything, it’s for reducing the State of the Union to its 2018 essence: a speck of dust in a hurricane.

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Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.