The mind-warping weirdness of the Trump era is never more apparent than when the president attempts to enact one of the highly formal, choreographed events in the theater of American democracy. And aside from an inaugural address, no event is more formal and choreographed than the State of the Union.
So it was on Tuesday night that the man who furiously tweets bitter, petty attacks at his enemies in the press, the Democratic Party, and federal law enforcement; who demonizes racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; and who demands personal loyalty from civil servants who swear an oath to uphold the Constitution above all else — this man stood before Congress and the nation and spoke, like all presidents do, of wanting to unite the country.
With his every utterance Tuesday night, President Trump demonstrated just how hollow these gestures toward unity have become.
At the level of rhetoric, the speech mostly hit the right notes. The president talked about the country coming together after natural disasters. He repeatedly pointed to guests in the gallery who exemplified American virtue. He spoke of how the country's political class needed to find common ground in order to serve "the people." As references to church, family, the police, soldiers, entrepreneurs, and factory workers piled up, it was almost possible to forget that Trump has undercut such rhetorical gestures toward national unity nearly every day of his presidency — and even did within the speech itself, when he made a dig at people who fail to stand during the national anthem and spent several bizarre minutes denouncing the street gang MS-13 as a prelude to discussing immigration policy.
But such moments were (for Trump) relatively rare on Tuesday night. When reading from a teleprompter, he can almost sound like a unifying force in American life. But in the polarizing divisiveness of his words and actions as president, he shows constantly that his greatest political skill by far is the capacity to divide and conquer through rank demagoguery.
In this, the Trump presidency stands poles apart from the way the American constitutional framers, including the country's first president, conceived of the office. No, the president isn't a king. But the office is undeniably monarchical. In an episode from the second season of Netflix's The Crown, Lord Altrincham, a character who's critical of the way young Queen Elizabeth II comports herself in office, explains the most elevated ideal of monarchy:
Monarchy provides clarity. A symbolic head of state transcending the self-serving interest of the ego-centric and self-motivated politicians who go in and out of office — who, as King Lear wonderfully says, "ebb and flow by the moon." When working at its best, monarchy can rise above such matters and unify a society, and can set the tone and become the embodiment of the nation. [The Crown]
In some ways — the security, the entourage, the terrifying powers of foreign and domestic surveillance — the American presidency is more monarchical than ever. But in the crucial sense elaborated by Lord Altrincham, the presidency has been locked in a downward spiral for decades — one that finally reached a nose dive with the election of Donald Trump.
As political scientist Jeffrey Tulis argues in his enduringly illuminating book The Rhetorical Presidency, presidents from George Washington on down to Woodrow Wilson took for granted that they were expected to try and rise higher above the political fray than members of Congress or the Senate would ever be able to do. The forms and formalities of the office, reinforced by strict norms of speech and deed, were designed to elevate the man who served, and in so doing to bring the country together. Even during the horrible bloodletting of the Civil War, this expectation helped inspire Abraham Lincoln to rise above the warring armies in his Second Inaugural Address, gazing down on both sides from a loftier, nobler, and more timeless perspective.
That's the presidency at its best, most unifying, and most monarchical.
For much of the past century the presidency has been hollowed out, as the head of the executive branch has sought to become closer to the people, more partisan, more the mobilizer of the masses. And now that the parties have so completely sorted themselves ideologically, the president has begun to speak to and for merely the part of the country that supports him and his party. Most of us find ourselves stirred when a politician adopts the old lofty rhetoric; Barack Obama launched his national career in politics with a speech that was shot through with such transcendent ideals. But it becomes more challenging with each passing year.
With President Trump, the old words get spoken, but the meaning has been vacated. When he talks about "the people," he means only those Americans who voted for him or who find his tribalistic vision of the country appealing. The rest? They're welcome to join in making America great again (as he defines greatness). But if they refuse, preferring a different vision of greatness? One always suspects the president would prefer to consign them to the category of the losers and the haters. We all know he might very well do exactly that in an early morning tweet.
So President Trump gave a passably presidential speech. Just don't for a minute think that, when measured against the aspirations of his most exalted predecessors, he'll ever be a passable president.