The unique horror of watching a Trump State of the Union
Seeing President Donald Trump deliver the State of the Union address just felt wrong. Even to a cynical, lefty millennial like me, the State of the Union is a dignified occasion. It connotes a level of honor and tradition antithetical to his mannerisms, his incompetence and his demagoguery. This is the kind of incongruousness that would make the whole affair funny out of context; I really wanted to laugh when Trump misread “CJ” as “DJ” and tried to pass it off like that was the guy’s name or when he delivered his applause lines so poorly that the audience had to wait a beat or two to make sure they were supposed to applaud. But the reality of the situation made the humor pretty much go out the window.
The demagoguery and the xenophobia, while appalling, aren’t what made the speech so hard to watch. None of that’s new. What made the State of the Union a uniquely horrifying venue for Trump to speak was the constant applause he received from congressional Republicans, because it laid bare their embrace of the president’s agenda, however immoral or un-American it may be.
As if to intentionally exhibit their motivations, legislators leapt up and patted each other on the back (literally) when Trump touted Republican success in passing their regressive, debt-ballooning tax reform package.
They gave him standing ovations for lines like “We celebrate our police” and “We stand for the national anthem”—thinly veiled denunciations of black people speaking out—and blatant lies about immigration and energy policy.
Each “pillar” of Trump’s immigration policy received thunderous applause—including his commitment to end “chain migration,” the term used to conjure images of out of control immigration that actually describes an already restrictive system that reunites immediate family members.
Nearly everything Trump said, every proposal and every (exaggerated or false) boast, was met with adulation from the right. After a year marked by bigotry and incompetence—and probably felonies—Republicans still stand by the president.
Anyone who went into the address still holding onto faith that the principles of Republican leaders in Congress could keep Trump in check came out of it with none. The whole spectacle last Tuesday night confirmed the Grand Old Party’s allegiance to the president despite his racist talking points and policy stances. Republicans aren’t tolerating him. They’re throwing their whole weight behind him. (The week following the speech was dominated by the Nunes memo, further confirmation that the GOP is above nothing if it means they can defend their man in the Oval Office.)
This year’s State of the Union symbolized a lot of things we already know. It reiterated the president’s adherence to white nationalism; it showcased Republican lawmakers’ embrace of that white nationalism; and it reminded us how deeply entrenched racism, xenophobia and simple disregard for other people are in our politics.
It’s one thing to see Donald Trump ranting on Twitter or at the podium of one of his self-esteem-boosting rallies. It’s quite another to see him in front of officials from the other two branches of government in the U.S. Capitol Building, delivering a tradition the country has observed for more than a century. If it were a movie, the State of the Union address would’ve felt like some excessive, heavy-handed symbolism for the sorry state of American politics—and how the majority party is outwardly promoting a platform of nationalistic xenophobia in the most stately setting imaginable.