The State of the Union Was a Visibly Degenerate Variety Show

The address was a joke Donald Trump played on the House.

Vice President Mike Pence claps as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rips a copy of President Donald Trump's State of the Union in Washington, DC.
Vice President Mike Pence claps as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rips a copy of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

For most of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi contained herself. She offered to shake Trump’s hand at the beginning of the speech, an offer he declined. As he spoke, she flipped through an unbound text copy of the speech the way one might review a fresh batch of tax forms, and stood occasionally to recognize a soldier, a widow, or a United States–backed but otherwise unsuccessful claimant to the Venezuelan presidency. She enforced discipline, ensuring that no members of her caucus were rude during this grand tradition. At one point, she gave a death stare to her members who clapped for Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed in the Parkland, Florida, massacre, when he protested the speech’s gun rights advocacy and was escorted from the room. Guttenberg was Pelosi’s own guest.

It was unusually out-of-character, then, when Pelosi made a show of ripping up Trump’s speech immediately after he concluded. But even the most strained performance of normalcy couldn’t survive the full spectacle of the address. The speech is being described as a Trumpian reality show for its assortment of stunt-pegged character callouts in the gallery. It was more of a variety show, though, divided into alternating segments of election-season appeals to the middle, gags, and abrupt fascism. It was a joke he played on the House majority.

In the speech’s opening segments, Trump touted the state of the economy to automatic cheers from Republicans following each line. He sounded, early on, a tone meant to be aspirational, positive, and inclusive—at a useful time, as the Democratic Party had collapsed into caucus meltdown the previous evening. The gallery was stocked with characters: a 100-year-old Tuskegee airman, that airman’s 13-year-old great-grandson who wants to join the newly created Space Force, the aforementioned Venezuelan opposition leader, a fourth grader whom he rescued from a “failing government school” by offering a scholarship. The usual State of the Union initiatives, the kind you hear about once and never again, made their way into the text, such as the swell news that the United States had joined an “ambitious effort to bring together government and the private sector to plant new trees in America and around the world.”

Immediately after touting his new initiatives to treat Alzheimer’s, kidney disease, mental health, AIDS, and childhood cancer, the president awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, live, during the State of the Union. Well, Melania Trump—whose husband recognized her during the speech for her work “to advance a safe, healthy, supportive, and drug-free life for the next generation, online, in school, and in our communities”—did the work of putting the medal around Limbaugh’s neck.

You could imagine, in moments like that, a vaguely normal White House compiling a vaguely normal Microsoft Word draft in real time. An HHS official sends a speechwriter some notes to include on the latest initiatives they’re developing and then, what’s this on my desk? A Sharpie note from the president saying we’re also going to give Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom during the speech in an effort to get Democrats to boo a guy who just announced he had advanced lung cancer. In it goes, fine. The speechwriter gets back to business, dumping in something about a new global tree-planting dongle and then—hey now, Stephen Miller’s intercepted the laptop, and the speech … the speech is just gone:

Days later, the criminal alien went on a gruesome spree of deadly violence. He viciously shot one man going about his daily work; he approached a woman sitting in her car and shot her in the arm and the chest. He walked into a convenience store and wildly fired his weapon. He hijacked a truck and smashed into vehicles, critically injuring innocent victims. One of the victims of his bloody rampage was a 51-year-old American named Rocky Jones. Rocky was at a gas station when this vile criminal fired eight bullets at him from close range, murdering him in cold blood.

Point out a military member’s family in the gallery, stage a surprise reunion with said military member, back from Afghanistan (see if the NFL has a script, they do that one all the time), then copy-paste some stock coda text—“This nation is our canvas, and this country is our masterpiece. We look at tomorrow and see unlimited frontiers just waiting to be explored. Our brightest discoveries are not yet known. Our most thrilling stories are not yet told”—and you’ve successfully counterprogrammed news about the Red Sox–Dodgers trade and Discovery Channel treasure-hunt specials about the missing Iowa caucus receipts.

On the surface, it was all as direct and literal as a game show. Education policy? The little girl gets a scholarship! Afghanistan? Here’s one of the troops, brought home, right now! What wasn’t mentioned head-on in the speech was the most relevant fact about the president and the presidency: an acknowledgment from Trump that he had recently been impeached in the room where he was speaking and, for the next 19 or so hours, would remain under impeachment in a Senate trial.

But revenge over impeachment was the subtext of the entire display. He wanted to make a mockery of Nancy Pelosi’s House. It wasn’t just the snubbed handshake. He wanted her to watch, and bite her tongue, as his wife gave Rush Limbaugh the highest civilian award in the country in her chamber. He wanted to throw in an applause break after every single line, to show her the loyal Republicans cheering on cue again and again, the same way they’ll line up to acquit him at trial. He wanted to throw another two or three gruesome sentences into his perfunctory smearing of undocumented immigrants, while she sat there. He wanted to say, in front of her, that “we will always protect patients with preexisting conditions, that is a guarantee” while his administration is currently fighting in court to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act under a triple-bank-shot legal technicality. It was a three-ringed troll job at a moment when his approval rating is up—not up above 50 percent, but he’s never needed a majority to do what he wants—and Democrats can’t come up with a countermove.