The official speech given in response to the State of the Union is usually a boring, flat, and careful speech where the politician who was suckered into delivering it gives a unifying message about their party’s alternate vision for the United States.
But that’s not what you get when you give former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders the mic.
Sanders, who was recently sworn in as Arkansas’ governor, refused to give the normal across-the-aisle platitudes and instead delivered a scathing speech obsessed with the Republican Party’s culture wars that showed the GOP is only becoming more furious in its politics.
She kicked off her speech by calling Biden a liar, before mocking his age and accusing him of surrendering his presidency “to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.”
“Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight,” she continued. “Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is—your freedom of speech. That’s not normal. It’s crazy, and it’s wrong.”
This, to be clear, isn’t normal, even in the Trump era. Just last year, Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds gave a totally normal State of the Union response speech where she criticized Biden plenty but didn’t hit the Trump-level invective, and actually laid out a positive policy agenda. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott did the same in his official Republican response to Biden’s joint address of Congress in 2021.
But as the 2024 presidential race heats up, it’s clear Republicans are leaning even harder into the pugilistic, near-apocalyptic rhetoric and disrespect for normal politeness that Trump proved is beloved by the GOP base.
And this isn't just a one-off. Sanders was handpicked by Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to deliver the address. And during the State of the Union itself, it’s clear a significant number of Republican lawmakers are in her corner.
Republican House members ignored McCarthy’s request that they behave and keep quiet during the speech and repeatedly booed Biden, leading McCarthy to visibly shush them like a frustrated kindergarten teacher on a field trip.
Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene repeatedly yelled out calling Biden a liar, while many others loudly interrupted to yell he was lying that some Republicans want to sunset Medicare and Social Security (that’s true) and blame him for the border. At one point, when Biden was discussing the tragedy of opiate overdoses from drugs coming over the U.S.-Mexico border, one Republican yelled “it’s your fault.”
And Sanders’ old boss, former President Donald Trump, delivered his own totally normal video response that showed this isn’t an anomaly.
“His administration is waging war on free speech, they’re trying to indoctrinate and mutilate our children, he’s leading us to the brink of World War III and on top of that he’s the most corrupt president in American history, and it’s not even close,” Trump claimed about Biden.
Giving the response to the State of the Union is a thankless job with little upside and a guarantee that you’ll be mocked if you screw it up. Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s weird 2017 speech in a local diner was widely mocked online; Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio became late-night fodder for panickedly diving for a water bottle during his dry-mouthed speech in 2013; and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s stilted 2009 speech dealt a blow to his own presidential aspirations.
While Sanders’ speech certainly drew criticism from the left and center, she was met with praise from right-wing pundits, and likely only helped her national profile—and served as a potential audition to potentially be Trump’s running-mate if he wins the GOP nomination.
She and her team seemed particularly pleased with one line from the speech, retweeting clips of it numerous times afterwards:
"The dividing line in America is no longer between right and left — it's between normal or crazy,” Sanders said.
There was plenty of debate about which side was the normal one after her speech.