The State of the Union address is an American institution, like Amtrak. So it doesn’t really work any more. This year, it didn’t even happen on time. The record-breaking government shutdown deferred a set-piece so bitter that observers of a delicate constitution ran the risk of digesting themselves in their own gall.
Nobody has more gall than Donald Trump. He was the star turn, but he also did a turn lower down the bill. Kellyanne Conway, in the role of old-time showbiz manager, had promised the media that Trump’s big comeback would call for “c-o-m-i-t-y”. Did she spell it out because the journalists might not know what it meant, or because they might hear “comedy”?
Trump himself heard “comedy”, judging from his routine at a lunch with television anchors earlier on Tuesday. It’s not clear what was on the menu, but Trump turned the lunch into a roast:
“Biden was never very smart… When Biden says something dumb, it’s because he’s dumb!”
“Schumer can be a nasty son of a bitch!”
Trump’s quip about Elizabeth Warren was comedy gold: “I hope I haven’t wounded Pocahontas too badly. I’d like to run against her!”
The Democrats issued their rejoinders early, before Trump had said a word, but timing is the secret of comity. Trump now has to deal with a belligerently Democratic House. His best hope is that the Democrats steer hard left, and knock themselves out with their own punchline. Their greatest fear is that they will be contaminated by collaboration with a president they have demonised.
On Tuesday night, Trump first goaded them into both unpatriotic displays of pique, then suckered them into acting like guests at his party. Especially Nancy Pelosi, who was next to Mike Pence in the hot seats behind the president. Pelosi forced out a respectful rictus when Trump entered, and bantered icily with Pence as Trump, chin extended in simian fashion, worked the aisles like an early Seventies’ Elvis. But then Pelosi signalled her disapproval by appearing to dislodge spinach from her teeth with her tongue. She did it again with an added grimace as she stood for the ovation for Melania Trump. It looked petty and partisan. Pence kept his usual straight face, staring at the back of Trump’s right ear in wonderment.
On the dias, Trump lifted an eyebrow like Sinatra before he said, “How’d all these people get into my room?”
The patriotic preliminaries honored D-Day veterans and the Apollo XI moon shot. Buzz Aldrin, who used to be a hero, but is now going to be reviled on Twitter as a Trumpist, bounced to his feet and saluted both the uniform and the man. When Trump received a standing ovation for promising to send Americans back into space, Pelosi looked like she would prefer Trump to go first.
When Trump called for “compromise and the common good”, Pelosi leapt up and clapped in his left ear. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, resplendent in white, stayed seated, didn’t clap, and looked personally hurt. The Democrats looked like a mime troupe, acting the script of a party divided. By the time Trump was boasting about rising wages, falling food-stamp numbers, and record-low unemployment for minorities, Pelosi looked like she was going to be sick. She didn’t stand, and many of the Democrats didn’t clap either. They all looked positively nauseated by the patriotic thought of the United States as energy independent, and a net exporter of energy.
Pence, meanwhile, had sprung into dynamic life, and was gently rocking his head like the nodding dog on the back shelf of the presidential limo. The Republican benches were jumping up and down, and rewarded themselves with a chant of “USA! USA!”
“That sounded so good,” Trump ad libbed. Pence laughed and looked moistly at the beautifully combed DA on the back of the president’s head. Pelosi grimaced and sucked her lips. Chuck Schumer smiled like Dracula.
Trump pivoted to criminal justice reform, and parole for non-violent criminals. The camera zoomed in on Matthew Charles of Tennessee, reformed drug offender and recent beneficiary of the law, standing next to Jared Kushner, reformed property developer and potential future beneficiary of the law.
“Thank you, Matthew,” Trump said, then delivered the kicker. “Welcome home.”
Pelosi shook her head in disbelief, either at Trump’s effrontery or the idea of an ex-con feeling at home in Congress, two ideas she should be used to by now.
Trump switched to immigration. When he called on Congress to put “coyotes, cartels and human traffickers out of business”, the camera cut to Schumer smirking and Kamala Harris shaking her head in disapproval.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” Trump continued, though Schumer and Harris had already illustrated it. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
Trump offered the Democrats the chance to look like they want to give human traffickers, drug smugglers and MS-13 a second chance. Pelosi took it, shuffling her papers while Trump described the murder of an elderly couple in Reno, Nevada by an illegal immigrant, and praised an ICE agent whose team has rescued more than 300 young women from the traffickers. Ocasio-Cortez, as a feminist, stood up for his ovation. But she didn’t clap. Perhaps the women he saved have become Republicans.
Pelosi chewed her own tongue as Trump proposed a compromise border deal and then promised a “proper wall”: “I will get it built.” When Lyin’ Ted Cruz and his new beard jumped to their feet to applaud, Pelosi tried to look like she was about to laugh. When Trump said that El Paso, with a wall, was “one of the safest cities in our country”, hardly any of the Democrats clapped. Schumer gave another sub-Machiavellian grimace.
Trump then claimed record female representation in the workforce. The Democratic Women in White jumped and danced, claiming responsibility for Obama-era policies. He had them where he wanted them. Complicit.
“You weren’t supposed to do that,” Trump quipped. The camera caught Ilhan and Rashida chuckling, as if in on the joke. But the joke was on them.
“Don’t sit yet, you’re gonna like this!,” he went on, announcing that more women were serving in Congress than at any time before. The Democratic Women in White jumped up again and started hi-fiving and whooping in statesmanlike fashion.
“USA! USA” the Republican men shouted in fraternal support.
“USA! USA” the Women in White joined in. Ocasio-Cortez boogied a bit, just like in her student dance video.
“That’s great,” said the president as if he couldn’t believe how stupid the Democrats are. “That’s great.”
Then he said he’d prohibit late-term abortion and withholding care from newly-born babies. The Women in White shook their heads in disapproval. He said he’d increase the military budget and make Nato members pay their share. Kamala Harris looked appalled. He accused Russia of breaking its nuclear obligations and announced the US’s withdrawal from the INF treaty. Pelosi appeared to be holding back a gag reflex, and rolled her eyes like a teenager told to honour her obligation to tidy her room.
When Trump promised that “America will never be a socialist country”, Pelosi smiled wryly, forced a clap, and appeared to laugh. The camera cut away to Bernie Sanders, who appeared to have been woken from a nap by his safe word. When Trump then reminded everyone that he’d moved the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and was in talks with the Taliban on a negotiated withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pelosi moved her hands towards each other without making contact. The Women in White didn’t clap.
When a chorus of “Happy Birthday” broke out for an 81 year-old Holocaust survivor who had also survived the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Pelosi had to join in. “They don’t do that for me,” Trump quipped in his best Henny Youngman. Pelosi sucked her teeth extra hard after that one. Several Democratic Women in White did not applaud or stand for a survivor of Dachau and an American veteran who had been among the liberators of the camp.
The Democrats looked petty, divided and distant from ordinary Americans, and that made Trump, who is also petty, divisive and distant, sound thoughtful, moderate and reasonable. If he is able to pull off this unlikely act, and joke his way into an impersonation of a witty statesman, it’s because the Democrats are determined to keep feeding him the lines. And he is nothing if not a comedian. To paraphrase Sammy Davis, Jnr., it’s Trump’s world. We just live in it.
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