Trump's State of the Union Is a Parallel Universe

A by-the-numbers speech Tuesday that utterly failed to address glaring crises didn't exactly unite the country.
January 31, 2018, 5:27am
Photo by Win McNamee/AFP/Getty

When Donald Trump glad-handed his way up the aisles of the Capitol to deliver his first State of the Union, there was an awful lot of chaos swirling around Washington. A day earlier, the Republican House Oversight chair, Trey Gowdy, wrote a critical, sarcastic note slamming Trump's Department of Health and Human Services for routinely failing to give his committee information and documents. Just hours before Trump spoke, Victor Cha, who was expected to be nominated as the US ambassador to South Korea, was reportedly being passed over because he was insufficiently hawkish; later Tuesday, he published an op-ed in the Washington Post all but confirming he was out of the running and criticizing the idea of launching a limited strike on North Korea.


Also on Tuesday, the porn star Stormy Daniels, who Trump reportedly paid $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair she had with him in 2006, claimed the affair never happened. This despite her having given an interview to InTouch in 2011 all about the allegedly nonexistent tryst. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress late Monday voted to release a memo that's reportedly critical of the Department of Justice's handling of a surveillance operation against a Trump campaign aide—a move that sparked multiple cycles of outrage and counter-outrage and renewed fears Trump would kneecap the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. (House Democrats have their own memo that is supposedly critical of the Republican memo, though few people have seen that either.)

Of course, Trump didn't touch on any of that stuff in his address to Congress. (He only referred to Russia once, in the context of being a "rival" on par with China.) State of the Union speeches are rarely interesting and generally calibrated to stir up the least amount of controversy possible. The State of the Union is always strong, the administration is always achieving great strides while at the same time needing a united country and Congress to meet greater challenges. There are always genuinely admirable guests who illustrate whatever policies the president is praising, there are always applause breaks that go on for far too long. All of that was on display Tuesday night—Trump's two central innovations were displaying the names of donors on his campaign's livestream of the event and applauding himself at frequent intervals.

It wouldn't be entirely fair to say Trump made no news in his speech—which ran around an hour and 20 minutes, rendering it among the longest on record—but he barely cleared that threshold. The president said he wanted to make reducing the price of prescription drugs a priority, expressed a desire to enact prison reform of some kind, pledged to do something about the opioid crisis, called on Congress to pass a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, laid out his priorities on the immigration reform package being debated in the House and Senate, and announced he would be keeping the Guantanamo Bay detention facility open (and potentially bringing new prisoners in).

Though each of these points brought at least the Republican side of the audience to their feet, when seen in context it was all pretty muddled. How is his commandment to "get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers" to fight opioids supposed to square with criminal justice reform, and is Attorney General Jeff Sessions going to stand for any kind of reform anyway? Trump has been complaining about the high cost of prescription drugs since his presidential campaign—why has nothing changed? A $1.5 trillion infrastructure investment may sound good, but where's the detailed plan that Trump has been promising for months?

All presidents have to deal with the gulf between their soaring rhetoric and the grinding processes they must slog through in order to achieve their aims. But Trump may have set the land-speed record for making and then breaking a lofty-sounding promise: Near the beginning, Trump told the crowd, "Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people." Well under an hour later, he made a pointed reference to standing for the anthem that drew a big ovation—a clear callback to the petty feud Trump started with black NFL players who kneeled during the anthem in protest of systemic racism last season.

But it's probably a waste of time to closely parse a speech like this one. Fans of the president were always going to find it inspiring, his detractors were always going to jump over every word, and cable news was going to spin itself into a furor no matter what. In truth, these States of the Union never quite live up to their trappings, and what presidents say at these things is rarely remembered. What will go down in history is how Trump's administration handles his second-year agenda, which judging by the speech will focus on opioids, immigration, infrastructure, and North Korea—all thorny issues that any American government would struggle to deal with.

Is this White House up to the task? Well, it apparently just axed its pick for South Korea ambassador, another sign of a State Department at sea. More officials could soon be questioned and even indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, as several Trump associates already have been. The president is unpopular and prone to tweeting inflammatory nonsense for no reason at all. And there's such a lack of attention to detail in this administration that some invitations to the speech called it the State of the Uniom. Whatever the current state of the union is right now, expect it to get worse.

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