Was Donald Trump’s debut State of the Union address effective, you ask? Of course it was, because even this administration understands that SOTU is The Show. The man of the hour even agreed to rehearse it—a practice that we all know is anathema to him.
All the same, the real excitement was that nobody’s seen much of the composite character known as Ronald J. Trump since last February. Nobody, Trump’s base included, expects Ronald J. to be the man who woke up in the White House this morning. Howling like Quasimodo, Ronald was probably back in his padded cell inside Trump Tower before midnight.
Yes, it was nearly a year ago that Donald’s relatively mannerly and bland animatronic twin brother made his public debut at POTUS’s maiden speech to a joint session of Congress, just over a month after his id-driven sibling’s “American carnage” inaugural. Marred only by a Donaldesque ad-lib about setting a record for applause, this unannounced doppelganger’s tribute to a fallen Navy SEAL led Van Jones, of all people, to declare on CNN, “He became President of the United States at that moment. Period.”
It was nearly a year ago that Donald’s relatively mannerly and bland animatronic twin brother made his public debut at POTUS’s maiden speech to a joint session of Congress.
Talk about your fake news! Ronald did resurface briefly last August, glumly Telepromptering his way through a speech explaining why our war in Afghanistan had become such an imbecilic, nonsensical quagmire that the only solution was to keep plowing right in under the leadership of an imbecilic, nonsensical Commander-in-Chief and his flinty-eyed covey of generals. But he was a notorious no-show after the neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville that led to Heather Heyer’s death, and the White House never bothers to trot him out after mass shootings or anti-Muslim hate crimes. The reports that he was spotted occasionally flitting around Davos just last week are unconfirmed.
But everyone anticipated that semi-seemly Ronald would be subbing for his boisterous brother in the House chamber last night, and right we were too. (Reportedly, at least some MAGA-land zealots were dismayed at the prospect; they wanted the usual divisive rakka-rakka, not namby-pamby “presidential” behavior.) The major Donaldism on display was a new physical tic: that stately if not robotic pivot—finally!—to his left (as it turns out, though, that’s precisely where the Republicans were sitting) to let home viewers admire his bulldog jawline and solemnly pursed lips, mimicking the profile on a Roman emperor’s coin.
He began by harking back to his first appearance in the chamber in early 2017, when “a new tide of optimism was already sweeping across our land.” And true enough, one was—the Women’s March had given millions of people hope that resisting him might be more than a chimera. “We have seen the beauty of America’s soul and the steel in America’s spine,” he went on which wasn’t wholly inaccurate either—we’re just learning to see it in spite of him, not because of him.
Confirming his supporters’ worst fears that he’d go cuck, the sham Trump even extolled the virtues of unity: “one team, one people, and one American family.” (Can you say “Stronger Together”? Crooked Hillary should sue.) Seeded throughout the speech instead of saved up for the end, the shout-outs to human props in the gallery hailed a pointedly diverse bunch: an African American welder, a Latino ICE agent, a female Coast Guard technician, a North Korean defector. Within limits, true—no Muslims, no damned gays. But who did you think he was going to single out for presidential approbation, Milo Yiannopoulos?
Predictably, he took credit for the booming U.S. economy, which wasn’t even all that Trumpian of him. All presidents do that when times are flush, regardless of whether their policies had anything to do with the economy’s upswing. (Only economic problems are “inherited”—never successes.) He talked some perfectly astounding guff about the GOP tax bill’s benefits to the middle class, omitting to mention the huge windfall for corporations and the one per cent that was the legislation’s real (and only) point. Of course, the whole works could come crashing down any old day, since all this has the makings of a classic bubble—but that’s hardly his lookout, is it?
The speech’s poison darts were relatively well concealed, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Most obviously, MS-13 has been a godsend to Trump. He can make that gang sound like a bigger menace to America’s well-being than the nefarious activities of Putin’s Russia, which he left largely undiscussed. He also knows very well that whenever he brings up MS-13’s name, his base will simply hear “Latinos”—and return with renewed ardor to the fever dream of a border wall, even though MS-13 is actually a homegrown, good old American criminal gang. That added an edge to his unveiling of the “four pillars” of his immigration policy—an oddly Gingrichian formula, by the way, at least back before Newt became a pillar of salt himself. Calling them that was an awfully high-minded characterization of what amounted to a kidnap note: “If you want to see your Dreamers alive again, you’d better give me my damn wall.”
That was almost the only allusion to the menagerie of unacknowledged animals in the room.
Partly because it seemed tossed in virtually at random, another not-so-veiled threat went overlooked by most instant-analysis commentators: “I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” Translation: disloyalty to Trump will put government employees’ heads on the chopping block. If most people in the crowd didn’t catch his drift, former government ethics chief Walter Shaub certainly did. “POTUS calling on Congress to remove civil service protections for feds serves the goal of politicizing the career ranks, and it comes on the heels of Paul Ryan saying he wants to ‘cleanse’ the FBI. There’s a reason America did away with the spoils system. (Hint: banana republic),” he tweeted.
Yet that was almost the only allusion to the menagerie of unacknowledged animals in the room. If Robert Mueller’s Russiagate investigation was the 600-pound gorilla, Stormy Daniels was the cougar—and the reason Melania Trump had to be literally in the room, not to mention saluted by her husband. Climate change, the biggest topic omitted from the speech—not even in order to gleefully deny it, as is Trump’s wont in more unbridled circumstances—was the starving polar bear. Meanwhile, the Heffalump in the room was the GOP’s dire prospects in this year’s midterms, thanks largely to the hugely unpopular, polarizing POTUS that Ronald Trump was doing his best to temporarily turn civil.
The operative word here, needless to say, is “temporarily.” The difference between Trump’s February 2017 speech to Congress and his first SOTU is that absolutely nobody got busy afterward claiming he’d finally grown up in the job or so much as pretending to buy his animatronic pieties about conciliation, bipartisanship, and compromise. In fact, the real Donald Trump was back in the saddle just minutes after the speech ended, caught promising GOP congressman Jeff Duncan that he’ll “100 percent” release Devin Nunes’s prejudicial FBI memo—the one designed to tarnish Mueller’s probe. One paradox of this presidency is that whenever the president acts presidential, we all know it’s a charade he can’t wait to be done with—and even so, we also can’t help welcoming it as a brief vacation from the ignominy of life in Trumpland.