Donald Trump turned to the most lethal of oratorical tools in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address: the rhyme. To summarize his argument that Democratic investigations into his administration could imperil America’s economic gains, he said: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” And then—copying directly from the prepared text here—the follow-up: “It just doesn’t work that way!”
In political speechwriting, flat attempts at cleverness are often made to paper over a total lack of substance, and this little rhyming number was no exception. Democrats in the chamber laughed at the line, just as they did when President Trump said, “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion”—in my opinion!—“be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed.”
The Democrats’ laughter wasn’t the over-the-top, fake guffaw that parties might prepare ahead of time for risible talking points. It was the sort of chuckling you do when you’re scrolling through your phone and only casually paying attention—exactly what many Democrats were doing throughout the speech—and hear something truly out of left field. It’s the way you might respond to someone who has nothing much to say, and no new tricks to force you to take him seriously.
Trump didn’t move Congress any closer to a deal on immigration, the most pressing matter currently facing Congress. (The expectations were so low, though, that negotiators were just happy he didn’t blow everything up.) If he was trying to get a border wall agreement—and he really didn’t seem like he was trying that hard—it wasn’t by putting something new on the table, a real concession that Democrats might consider. He resorted to the same scary warnings about the “tremendous onslaught” of “caravans” approaching the border (another chuckle line for Democrats) and once again used grieving families who’d lost loved ones as pawns in his insinuation that undocumented immigrants are naturally inclined to violence. In an ad-lib to satisfy his itch for hyperbole, he stated that he wanted legal immigrants “in the largest numbers ever” to come to the country, when in reality his administration turned down an offer in the last Congress to fund his entire wall because it didn’t cut legal immigration enough.
Anyway, it was all just words. They don’t mean anything, they haven’t worked in the past, they won’t work in the next 10 days. And everyone in the room knew it.
Trump seemed to think that he was skewering the Democrats by boldly declaring that he is prepared to stop socialism in its tracks, as if it had gotten particularly far along. “We are born free, and we will stay free,” he said. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Was this supposed to be a dig at New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Judging from the look on her face and the chatter she was making with members around her, she was asking the same question. So she laughed. Whatever. It wasn’t worth the effort to get particularly mad at anything this guy said.
The only break from this yawning rendition of the Same Old Thing was when Democrats decided to hold a dance party in the middle of the speech. When Trump, in the prelude to a short section introducing the “first-ever government-wide initiative focused on economic empowerment for women in developing countries,” mentioned that “we have more women in the workforce than ever before,” Democrats decided to take over the room. The 89 House Democratic women, all dressed in white, and their male counterparts started cheering, high-fiving, and in the case of one New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster, raising the roof.
Trump played along, telling them not to sit down just yet, and then delivered a line about how “we also have more women serving in the Congress than ever before.” The celebration continued, eventually transitioning into a bipartisan chant of “U-S-A!”
During the extended cheering, no one seemed to be thinking about Trump at all. They were celebrating amongst themselves. Trump was just a piece of furniture along the wall of a room, a fact of life that didn’t need their gratification or their outrage. He was just … there.