You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More Politics

  • Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke

    Ryan Zinke to Resign as Interior Secretary

    WASHINGTON — Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke will step down at the end of the year, amid a series of investigations that include conflict of interest. “Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years. Ryan [...]

  • Department of Justice

    DOJ: Gray TV-Raycom Media Merger Can Move Forward if Overlapping Stations Are Sold

    WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has given the go ahead to Gray Television’s $3.6 billion merger with Raycom Media on the condition that stations be sold in nine markets. The DOJ’s Antitrust Division said it had reached a settlement in which Gray would sell stations in the markets where they would otherwise own two or [...]

  • Mick Mulvaney Chief of Staff

    Mick Mulvaney Will Serve as Acting Chief of Staff, Trump Says

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Mick Mulvaney will serve as his acting chief of staff after the departure of John Kelly at the end of the year. Mulvaney is currently the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Related CNN Sues White House Over Revocation of Jim Acosta's Press Credentials Trump Vows 'Severe [...]

  • Michael Cohen

    Michael Cohen: Trump Knew Hush Money Payments Were Wrong

    WASHINGTON — Michael Cohen claims that Donald Trump knew that hush money payments made to two women in advance of the 2016 election were wrong. Appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America” for his first interview since being sentenced to three years in prison, Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, said that when payments were being arranged for [...]

  • Trump Jim Acosta CNN White House

    The Gradual Disappearing Act of the White House Daily Press Briefing

    WASHINGTON — The Trump White House has dropped an event that used to be a prized invite for journalists and their families in D.C.: A holiday party for the media. But another tradition has been disappearing from the West Wing agenda as well: the daily press briefing. Related CNN Sues White House Over Revocation of [...]

  • Nexstar Logo

    Nexstar Settles With Justice Department Over Sharing of Ad Information

    WASHINGTON — Nexstar Media Group, which recently announced plans to acquire Tribune Media and become the largest owner of TV stations in the country, has settled with the Justice Department as it investigates broadcasters’ sharing of competitive advertising rate information with rivals. Six other station groups, including Tribune Media, reached a settlement with the DOJ [...]

  • Donald Trump

    National Enquirer Parent Admits to Making Karen McDougal Payments to Help Trump in 2016 Election

    WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors said National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media, admitted that it made a $150,000 payment to ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal “to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations” about Donald Trump in advance of the 2016 presidential election. AMI’s admission could bolster any case prosecutors make against Trump for violating [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content