Donald Trump is undoubtedly one of the most openly hated presidents in U.S. history. Yet, a mere nine months before the 2020 presidential election, he’s somehow surging. If winning the 2016 election did not demonstrate that Trump is a serious political force, then the events of this past week should remove all doubt.
Donald Trump may very well be re-elected.
Dismissing Trump is not an option, and disliking him is not enough. So, how do we begin to understand Trump’s impact on our political moment? We have to look at two factors: his performance and his politics. We can see both in this week’s State of the Union.
Trump has momentum. After all, he currently has the highest approval rating of his presidency at 49%. The Russia investigation collapsed. Impeachment imploded. This context served as the backdrop to Trump delivering a State of the Union that was perhaps unprecedented in the history of the office of the presidency.
Ordinarily, the State of the Union is a stuffy affair. It’s like a political parent-teacher conference where all branches of government gather in the hallowed hall of Congress to check in on how America is doing. There are uniformed military officials and Supreme Court Justices. They don’t smile; their presence reinforces the overall subdued tone expected of the evening. Trump’s performance broke with the reserved tone typical of these events. It was Made-For-TV.
America has had TV presidents before. Reagan came from Hollywood, bringing its drama and gravitas with him. Kennedy leveraged TV image to create the Camelot mystique of his presidency. But Trump is America’s first reality TV president.
Trump invited no less than nine special guests to the State of the Union. It’s normal for presidents to bring honored guests, even regular people whose stories are examples of a greater political point.
But Trump took this well-worn custom to emotional levels more commonly seen during the laying of hands at the climax of a televangelist broadcast or when Oprah gave all those cars away to an unsuspecting studio audience on her show. These emotionally intense moments left audience members weeping no less than five times as he honored various guests. Trump turned the State of the Union into reality TV, all in service of his political agenda.
In the art of persuasion, often the best practice is to show, don’t tell. Trump’s State of the Union leaned hard towards showing over telling.
Trump wants to limit the number of troops in Afghanistan, and redirect military resources. He didn’t just speechify his reasoning, he performed it. In his address he defended this policy by enacting it in real time before our very eyes as he brought a soldier back from Afghanistan and reunited him with his military family as a surprise on live TV.
This rhythm of showing rather than just telling his politics was repeated throughout Trump’s address. Each special guest represented a different element of his political program, ranging from immigration to welfare reform to anti-abortion and so forth.
For example, Trump’s central racial appeal to Black voters is that the Democratic Party doesn’t deliver for Black people, but he will. Two of the three Black guests Trump honored during the address also received surprise gifts. A Tuskegee airman was granted an honorary promotion to brigadier general. A little Black schoolgirl, who had previously missed an opportunity to win the lottery for a school choice voucher, received one as a surprise live on TV.
Trump wasn’t the only one playing for the cameras. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi did her best “Love & Hip-Hop” impression as she dramatically tore up and tossed Trump’s speech with all the flair of a champagne splash to the face.
Simply getting caught up in appearances and intrigue, or as my mother used to say, the “Joanie Loves Chachi,” is no analysis. Certainly Pelosi and the Democratic Party establishment are at odds with Trump. But not all conflicts are equal. There’s a difference between conflict within the same team, and conflict with opponents. Not all rivals are opponents. When it comes to Democrats and Republicans it’s far more politically telling to observe where they align rather than get bogged down in where they appear to differ.
The greatest moment of alignment the whole night came when President Trump introduced Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to stand as an honored guest, presenting Guaido as “the true and legitimate president of Venezuela.”
This was another of Trump’s show, don’t tell moves. Trump wants the overthrow of the Venezuelan government. So, in his speech he acted as if it were a done deal. This time, Pelosi and nearly all the other Democrats in the chamber, in one of the few moments of enthusiastic agreement, stood with the Republicans and clapped in full approval.
Trump is a political force, and not all conflict with him is created equal. We need to look beyond general attitudes about Trump and find the politics. Our lives are not reality TV. We can’t be passive. We need to know what is real and what we are for; being anti-Trump isn’t enough.
Robert Stephens, II is an essayist and commentary writer based in Chicago, Illinois.