If you happened to fall to Earth from space last night and found a working television, like as not you saw the president of the United States doing a passable imitation of a man giving a speech. A first-molecule surface impression, thoroughly devoid of context, would leave you thinking this person did relatively fine. Not a fireball on the stump, to be sure, but not a calamity, either. He did not fall down, throw things or curse anyone’s mother. No fake emergencies were declared.
The best thing one can say about Donald Trump’s State of the Union performance last night — and it was a performance, nothing more — was that he did not treat the assembled members of Congress, the high court, the joint chiefs, special guests and television audience like they were one of his howling rally crowds outside some abandoned airplane hangar in Alabama or western Pennsylvania. No, Mr. Trump stuck to the script on the teleprompter, and that’s when the trouble began.
As promised during the pro forma pre-speech leaks to the press, the first third of the address was suffused with fluffy bipartisan pabulum no one in the building believed for a second, least of all the speech-giver himself. Pretending at it was a hard hustle from the jump. Before he spoke a word, Trump barreled his way through House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ceremonial introduction of the president, oafishly denying her even a sliver of the spotlight he so desperately craves. So much for bipartisanship.
Trump cribbed 19-year-old lines from Bill Clinton about greeting the 21st century, bragged about the US being the world leader in oil exports and fracking, and strutted out a few right-wing legislative victories like cutting the estate tax and wrecking the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. Of course, he got the whole room to stand and cheer for the hyper-expensive might of the military more than once. When he leaned into the microphone and intoned, “The state of our union is strong,” there was Speaker Pelosi, perched over his left shoulder like Poe’s raven, shaking her head and mouthing, “Nope.”
Then it got weird.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States,” said Trump about 30 minutes in, “and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” He capstoned these strange and poorly assembled comments with one last penetrating line: “We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad.” It took half an hour, but he attempted in that moment to tie the ongoing Robert Mueller investigation inextricably to terrorism, war and political dysfunction.
The infamous border wall made its first appearance at the 9:33 p.m. mark, put up its feet and stayed a while. A word cloud of this portion of the speech would include “onslaught,” “MS-13,” “caravans,” “cruel,” “troops,” “sexual assault,” “dangerous” and “countless Americans murdered,” putting it on par (minus the ubiquitous blue duct tape) with virtually every public statement Trump has made since he first began threatening to shut down the government two months ago. No mention was made of Mexico footing the bill. He did, however, have the gall to complain about walls around the estates of the wealthy while, behind his own walls, undocumented workers are being panic-fired by the score. “Walls save lives,” he claimed. “I will get it built.” Quoth Pelosi: nevermore.
There were several moments beyond Trump’s not-so-subtle Mueller jab and his hectoring about the wall that truly made the bile rise. A few minutes after explaining how everyone was doomed without his precious “barrier,” Trump did a quick riff on repairing the nation’s infrastructure. In the aftermath of the lethal polar vortex that descended upon half the country last week, talking up infrastructure repair moments after blathering about his useless and expensive wall was Perfect Trump.
Context, from last week’s Washington Post:
Frigid temperatures across the Midwest taxed the infrastructure that was keeping the coldest parts of America warm. Electrical grids collapsed, airline fuel lines froze and authorities encouraged the largely homebound population of the hardest-hit states to turn thermostats down to ease the burden on utility systems.
While Trump was beating the nation over the head with his wall last week, people in the center of the country were told to turn down the heat even as they risked freezing to death because the infrastructure tasked with keeping them alive and safe was groaning on the edge of collapse. The polar vortex killed at least 24 people and sent dozens more to the hospital. Not a single one of them would have been spared their fate by a wall on the southern border, but money tasked to build it could be well-used to help keep the heat on for millions. Unsurprisingly, this did not merit a mention last night.
“Already, as a result of my administration’s efforts,” said Trump during the second third of his marathon ramble, “in 2018 drug prices experienced their single largest decline in 46 years.” This, as it turns out, was one of almost 30 bald-faced lies he told last night. “A recent analysis of brand-name drugs by The Associated Press found 96 price increases for every price cut in the first seven months of 2018,” reports the science and medicine journal STAT. “At the start of last year, drug makers hiked prices on 1,800 medicines by a median of 9.1 percent, and many continued to increase prices throughout the year.”
Trump’s inaccurate crowing about lower drug prices also managed to cruise right past the pharmaceutical elephant in the room: insulin. “Insulin products cost very little to manufacture,” reports Mike Ludwig for Truthout, “but prices have skyrocketed in recent years. A vial of insulin that once cost around $25 now goes for about $400 to $500. Standing between people living with Type 1 diabetes and the insulin that keeps them alive are a number of wealthy corporations that value profit margins over human health.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 100 million people in the US have either diabetes or pre-diabetes, a number that is sure to rise as our population grows older and our diets grow worse.
For all that, the evening was not, in fact, a comprehensive dumpster fire. The Democratic congresswomen, rookies and veterans all garbed in white to honor a century of suffrage, owned the night. When Trump claimed credit for the number of women in the workforce, those white-robed women erupted in cheers and smiles, high-fiving each other as they leveled derisive laughter at the man behind the podium. Without downplaying their individually earned success at the polls, they made their message clear: We have this job because of you, putz. Thanks for that. Trump gave them his standard patronizing sneer, but even he knew he’d been aced.
And then there was Stacey Abrams, former candidate for governor of Georgia, who delivered the Democratic response. Abrams filled her short remarks with more dignity and truth than Trump could manage in his 90 grueling minutes. The Georgia gubernatorial election was perhaps the most blatant and destructive recent example of racist voter suppression in the US. Abrams’s words — including her call to voting rights — carried profound weight, and her vividly hopeful demeanor shined through even as she spoke of the darkest corners of modern politics. If Abrams does not announce her candidacy for the Senate soon, I will eat this keyboard at high noon on Main Street.
The State of the Union address is nothing more or less than a television show. Under normal circumstances and for most of the assembled, it is an opportunity for all the political peacocks to strut for the cameras before returning to the business of screwing us over in the holy name of someone else’s profit margin. With Trump involved, however, it is absolute farce. Nothing last night made this more obvious than the pre-speech announcement that Rick Perry had been tapped to be the designated survivor. If the building had exploded with all hands lost, we would have greeted the morning snug in the capable hands of a guy who couldn’t remember the name of the agency he currently heads.
These speeches are supposed to be about big ideas, our furthest hopes and greatest dreams. Here’s to hoping this is the last time we see Donald Trump delivering this particular address.
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