Am I the only one who was hoping Donald Trump would skip the State of the Union address? The annual harangue to Congress, vernal solstice on America’s civic calendar, is provided for in Article II of our Constitution, which requires the president ‘from time to time’ to ‘give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union’. That briefly meant a presidential speech, until the gloriously terse Thomas Jefferson dismissed it as too monarchical and began submitting a written update instead. This tradition, admirably low-key, persisted for more than a century until Woodrow Wilson revived the verbal address in 1913, one of the many reasons to curse his presidency.
Since then, the State of the Union has evolved from a speech into a flashbulb pageant of government in which those who are supposed to be most proximate to the people, our congressmen and senators, are reduced to golf-clapping animatronics, while the president soaks up their adulation a la Caesar returned from Gaul. It’s like your prime minister’s questions, levelling our vaunted separation of powers, except the legislators aren’t allowed to argue back and the entire thing is glossed in faux bipartisan unity. Jefferson had it right—and theoretically a president could still revert to written form if he wanted. Trump recently showed his willingness to kick political tradition in the teeth when he cancelled on another garish Washington ritual, the White House Correspondents Dinner. I was hoping he’d maybe go for round two.
Alas. It should be noted that Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress was nominally only that; by technicality it isn’t a State of the Union until the president has been in office for at least a year. But it still sparked a number of controversies before it had even started. ‘I will not greet him and shake his hand’, averred Democratic Congressman Elliot Engel of Trump, seemingly under the impression that somebody cared. Less asinine was Trump’s advance statement to reporters that ‘the time is right for an immigration bill’ to legalise millions of illegal immigrants, a position that, it was rumoured, just might make it into his speech. Given that Trump’s line on undocumented aliens during the campaign was ‘they must go’, this would have been a dramatic shift indeed.
It never materialised, not really. About halfway through the address, Trump did allow, ‘I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible’, though he gave few details and many qualifications. The real meat was his trademark chest thumping on enforcement and pledge to build The Wall. If there was a shift on immigration, it was in his promise to move ‘away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead [adopt] a merit-based system’, a jolt through the wires to a Congress where legal migration across all income levels has long been considered sacrosanct.
Then it was onto Nato, and the muscles of most in attendance immediately tensed. They needn’t have worried: ‘We strongly support Nato’, Trump said, ‘an alliance forged through the bonds of two world wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism’. Cut to beaming defense secretary James Mattis. ‘But our partners must meet their financial obligations. And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that’. Then he ad-libbed: ‘And in fact, I can tell you the money is pouring in’. By that, he meant we’ve secured promises from some European leaders to beef up their defense budgets, often concurrent to spending increases that were already happening. I’m not sure I’d characterise that as ‘pouring in’, though in the scheme of Trump logorrhea I suppose it barely even registers.
Elsewhere, an account of a recent visit with Harley Davidson executives saw Trump deviate from script to reveal they’d asked him to ride a motorcycle and he’d declined, and sustained applause for the heroic widow of slain Navy SEAL Ryan Owens led him to ad-lib, ‘Ryan is looking down right now and is very happy because I think he just broke a record’. There were no flabby reams of superlatives; Trump was charming and disciplined, even when he improvised. He called for bipartisanship and condemned a recent wave of anti-Semitic crimes. He did drill his agenda harder than most presidents usually do, like towards the end when he asserted, ‘My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America’. The Republicans thundered, the Democrats sat there like gargoyles, and the recent wave of nationalism that’s been rocking the globe whooshed under all their seats.
It was not a banner night for America’s left-of-centre party, whose representatives glowered throughout the address and began vacating the chamber before the words ‘God bless these United States’ were even out of Trump’s mouth. And then for the traditional opposition response, cut to the brightest young thing in the Democratic Party today…72-year-old former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear! Not even the current Kentucky governor—he’s a Republican now, as are most of our state officials. I don’t care what Beshear said and I’m certain you don’t either. It may be that, as with your Conservatives, Trump’s greatest asset is the cadaverousness of the party opposite. Still, he did himself enough favours last night that he’s probably glad he didn’t submit an essay.