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Trump’s First State of the Union: A Divisive President Delivers a Dictator’s Speech (Column)

The president didn't go off-script — but the script was appalling

With stilted, smug delivery, President Donald J. Trump delivered his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. It was an exceptionally cheap speech, one that relied repeatedly on the grief of parents who had lost their children, the appropriated trauma of soldiers and refugees, and flag-waving rhetoric that copped to unity but drew deep divisive lines. Despite the frantic standing ovations from the Republicans in the room — and the president’s ability to read lines in sequence off of a teleprompter — it was a badly written, abysmally delivered, and especially grim set of remarks.

This isn’t the Trump that his base signed up for — in the sense that this isn’t the Trump that flouts conventions, yells incomprehensibly, and rouses rabbles with easy-to-remember chants. This preening, softspoken wannabe-fascist might be the president that the Republican party was hoping for, but for what it’s worth, they could stand to operate their puppet a little bit better. Trump was clearly bored by his own speech — bored, and ignorant of most of the information in it; he barely made eye contact with the camera, choosing instead to swivel from one teleprompter to the other in a reading-out-loud performance so painfully slow he droned on as long as Bill Clinton.

And for some reason, he kept clapping for himself, directly into the microphone. Doesn’t it feel great to be winning, so much, all the time?

Towards the end, as he ran out of steam, Trump clutched the podium with an impatience that was reminiscent of a toddler squirming to get free from a time-out. His unfamiliarity with the sentences led to broken, flubbed lines that were delivered with the weird stylings of spoken word poetry, but without any of the attendant emotional weight; he paused for applause at all the wrong times, stumbled through the statistics and pronunciations, and clearly would have said anything that was put in front of him, like Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman.” “Atop the dome of this Capitol stands the Statue of Freedom,” he intoned at the end, with obvious disinterest; I wonder if you asked him right now, if he would remember that there is a statue atop that dome, and what that statue is supposed to represent.

Of course, Trump will likely get accolades for this speech. He did not go off-script, for maybe the second time in his life, except to periodically insert a modifier (“great,” “horrible” or “beautiful” are his favorites). He crowed about the triumphs of the currently reigning Republican party — specifically, the tax bill, because what else is there — and outlined a four-pillar plan to crack down even further on immigration in America. He asked for more military spending, to augment even further America’s nuclear arsenal. He praised Immigration and Customs Enforcement and decried the red tape of permitting construction projects. He claimed credit for rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey in Houston and even touted “beautiful clean coal.”

But, of course, even cursory fact-checking eviscerates most of these claims. Puerto Rico is still suffering due to Maria. The deadly gang MS-13, which Trump lay at the feet of immigrants, in fact originated in Los Angeles. Most Americans will eventually see their tax burden increase thanks to the Trump tax law. More nuclear weaponry does not make us safer. Clean coal does not exist.

And outside of those purported triumphs, Trump’s speech was a cruel cavalcade of rehashed tragedies and convenient lies — wrapped so shamelessly in the American flag that I felt alienated from my own country, which is exactly how Trump and his band of speechwriters want problematic citizens like myself to feel. The emphasis on “faith and family” was quite clearly about one kind of faith, and one kind of family. The repeated invocation of “Americans” was, undoubtedly, about a specific kind of American. Cheekily, and horrifyingly, Trump ended a paragraph about “extending an open hand to work with members of both parties” with the line “Americans are dreamers, too” — an insulting repudiation of DREAMers, the immigrants who crossed the border as children and have lived in America since. Naturally, white supremacists — including David Duke — jumped on the line. Trump also inserted an “America First” into his speech, in another not-so-subtle shill to white nationalism.

Trump’s entire speech was quintessentially what a dictator says to his followers. It was saturated with a condescending, holier-than-thou paternalism that, with a honeyed voice, promised to gut everyone who didn’t get in line with his plan. (I was reminded of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s prescient “Bitch Planet,” in which a regressively patriarchal world is ruled by a corporatist minister named Father Josephson. He, too, is obsessed with ratings.) There was the nationalism, and the jingoism, and the bizarre beating drum of God and family — from a man who cheated on his third wife with a porn star, and paid her off during his campaign. The demonizing of immigrants, which took up about a third of the speech in various forms, and called upon the bereaved parents of two girls killed by MS-13 to stand and be stared at by thousands of people. (This was exceptional, because the four parents — the only black people called upon by Trump — were also the only he explicitly ordered to stand.) At various points, instead of simply berating like he usually does, Trump took on a scolding attitude towards Americans who weren’t signing onto his vision. He wasn’t mad; he was disappointed — and defensive — and, it was implied, holds all the punitive power. With all the false dignity of a regional manager, he invoked low African-American and Hispanic unemployment to suggest that these minority groups ought to be grateful, and then leaned hard into a line that described true Americans as standing for the national anthem. And maybe most disturbing of all, he repeatedly used the word “love,” in ways that have nothing to do with love. “Americans love their country,” he said early on. “And they deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return.”

That’s not love; that’s a threat.

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