President Donald Trump declared, early in his stemwinding and contradictory address to Congress and the American people Tuesday night, that the state of the union was strong. The speech he went on to give seemed to paint the exact opposite picture — calling to mind a nation hobbled by hostile gang members and overrun with sex trafficking and violent crime. It was a speech that began with calls for unity and compromise and went on to feature Trump shifting into something close to his campaign rhetorical style. If his previous speeches before Congress served as something like a denial of himself — tightly controlled and scripted affairs in which Trump’s showman instincts went purposefully dampened — this was, finally, the closest official Washington has gotten to the road-show that has been a fixture of cable news for so long.
The speech began and ended with niceties that obviously did not come easily to the President, a pleasant run-through of positive and optimistic ideas that felt meaningless both because of their “Veep”ian cliché (“This is the time to search for the tallest summit and set our sights on the brightest star” and “I am asking you to choose greatness” were among the calls at the end of a speech that had been largely fuelled by resentments) and because of their insincerity. They felt unnatural coming from a leader whose charge, in general and throughout his speech, comes from his eagerness to find an opponent. A shift, early on, came when Trump responded, off-the-cuff, to a group of Congressmen chanting “USA! USA!” with “That sounds so good” — a meaningless little remark that only caught the ear by dint of how unlike Trump’s past speeches before Congress it had been. Through the speech, they were everywhere, Trumpisms studding the address (none, perhaps, quite as meaningless as the seeming ad-lib “the radical regime in Iran — it is a radical regime, they do bad, bad things”). Apparent divergences from the script, seeming to cast some phrases from fact to error, were signaled by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, seated behind Trump, reading through the prepared script.
Perhaps Trump’s comfort came from the fact that he’s grown accustomed to the job, and has bent it to his will. His first address before Congress, in 2017, was marked by such a tight-lipped emphasis on control that Trump’s lack of resemblance to himself was deemed by some observers “presidential”; by now, though, Trump’s impact has been so great and has become so clear that the presidential question has become irrelevant. Whatever it is Trump does or says is presidential, because the president is the one doing or saying it.
And this speech was that of a person with little to prove and no one to impress. Various stories threaded through the speech — including that of a soldier who helped liberate Dachau, for instance — didn’t solely provide him plausible deniability as a divisive leader who can technically say he called for unity. They harkened back to an era in which choices were, or at least seem in retrospect to have been, clear and easily made. The inclusion of stories of crystalline moral ease in a speech that made fresh and evidently divisive demands likely looked to Trump’s eyes like one continuous story: Just as Americans, say, stormed the beaches at Normandy, so too must America now build a wall along its southern border. (The recent government shutdown over Trump’s intransigence on this issue went significantly unmentioned.) To other eyes, these references to stories from America’s past and heroes of its present fell short even of enough imagination as to be worth calling exploitative; they were simply bits of writerly hackwork, upon which Trump put as much topspin as he ever has in a serious setting.
Similarly, Trump’s closing argument — that America is a place that is special, with people from all over congregating to share their visions and work together — fell significantly short of any vision, let alone Trump’s own. Any impression left by Trump’s vague, diffident optimism is overshadowed, in memory, by his allowing himself to grow impatient even with his own speech and shouting “The proper wall never got built — I will get it built!” One found the open display of emotion, at least, refreshingly honest. If Trump looks out and sees a nation in as bad disrepair as both his radical actions and his rhetoric, more unguarded before Congress than ever, suggests, then the time for Peggy Noonanesque platitudes really is over. One doesn’t need to agree, but Trump’s sliding into the cant that has, in the past, gotten him praise for seeming “presidential” is neither noteworthy nor, really, believable anymore.
Perhaps, too, Trump’s increasingly sharp tone during the State of the Union came from the presence of that most invigorating thing: A real adversary. Pelosi, behind Trump, made her own kind of television spectacle; so, too, did the substantial segment of the audience seated before him in suffragette white, the newly-seated women elected to Congress in the wave election last year. It seemed directed at them that Trump made the sort of announcements one makes when one is against the ropes, not when one is the president — declaring he would never allow ICE to be abolished or for America to become a socialist nation. Tuesday night, in front of his vast national audience, Trump was the first one speaking without anyone present having actually brought these issues up, other than by their mere presence. His raising the issues, like his decrying the investigations against him when he might have been better advised to skip the topic, showed an anxiety unfamiliar from a president who coasted to election gleefully slaying opponents.
But, then again, these new opponents are actually putting up a fight. The stony silence Trump, so dependent on applause and on laughter from the audience, faced down from the new women of Congress represented the second-greatest challenge to his rhetorical style; the greatest challenge was their stealing his moment, as they cheered and celebrated his attempt to brag about his creating new jobs for women. It wasn’t what he’d meant, and he tried to build on their seizing the spotlight by jokily segueing into a scripted mention of the Congresswomen. But, in a signal of just how much energy Trump’s opposition thrums with, Trump had, for once, lost the moment — something that, for this President, at least, is very unpresidential indeed.