President Trump's speech was not the point of his State of the Union performance on Tuesday. This SOTU was about deeds more than words. It was, most basically, a display of power — and his supporters loved it.
By deeds, I don't mean his record in office, the "launch[ing of] the great American comeback" for which he claimed (often counterfactual) credit. Rather, I mean the deeds Trump did during the SOTU itself: his award of a scholarship to a Philadelphia girl, his conferral of the Medal of Freedom to radio host Rush Limbaugh, his recognition of the "true legitimate president of Venezuela," opposition leader Juan Guaidó, his surprise reunification of a military family separated by the war in Afghanistan.
"The SOTU is perhaps the greatest example of a meeting that could have been an email," tweeted a former colleague of mine, Zuri Davis, on Tuesday night. She's right about the address itself, little more than a formal iteration of the president's stump speech. But the spectacle Trump wanted, the dispensation of largesse to a lucky few, indeed the whole pageant of glorification of his authority all required the live event.
This was not lost on Trump's fans, whose responses tended to focus on what Trump did at least as much as what he said. Only three of Breitbart's "top 10 moments" of the address were statements Trump made; the other seven were these staged vignettes with the audience. The Federalist's "13 key takeaways" were more policy-focused but similarly included plenty of revelry in Trump's use of his prop guests to manipulate attendant lawmakers and the American public. "By the time [Democrats] were refusing to clap for 100-year-old heroes such as Tuskegee Airman Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, the oppositional stance looked downright absurd," exulted author Mollie Hemingway, who concluded the speech left Democrats, fresh off a "humiliating" Iowa caucus, looking "small and petty" compared to the powerful Trump.
Nothing about this production was meant to communicate new information or ideas. And while it's not unusual for SOTUs to offer little in the way of fresh policy content, this year had a "very different type of stagecraft" from States of the Union past, argued University of Maine communications professor Michael Socolow. It was an active, real-time demonstration of presidential power. "It was the implicit message that the presidency bestows a kind of magic upon its holder," Socolow mused. "[Trump] demonstrated how he can literally change people's lives, and he did it live on TV."
Socolow is right, I think, about the central priority of the exercise of power. But Tuesday's stagecraft is not such an anomaly. It's a logical next step of the development of the imperial presidency. Trump's TV instincts can be blamed for the introduction of prizes — cash, a trip, public plaudits — to this annual television event, but he was only adding to the subtler changes of his predecessors.
Future presidents may lack Trump's personal theatricality, but they're unlikely to jettison these elements of exhibitionism, just as presidents after Harry Truman didn't take SOTU off TV and those after Ronald Reagan copied his innovation of prop guests. It isn't difficult to imagine a President Elizabeth Warren, frustrated with opposition from Congress or the courts to a college debt relief program, announcing the cancelation of a recent graduate's loans mid-SOTU 2022. Or we could see a President Bernie Sanders, as-yet unsuccessful in implementing Medicare-for-all, gruffly granting a gift of thousands of dollars for medical expenses to a cancer patient while railing against its necessity.
As the line between entertainment and politics thus blurs, it is increasingly worthwhile to refuse to watch these performances. That's not to say we shouldn't pay attention to them. It's simply, as I proposed a few years ago about Trump specifically, that we literally should not watch. The quick availability of transcripts in the internet age enables us to easily read presidential remarks, like the State of the Union and campaign rally speeches, instead of viewing them in video.
This is tedious but necessary if we want to fairly consider the content of politicians' claims and plans without being unduly swayed by the emotive manipulation of their presentation. Refusing to watch a president's melodramatics is one small way to detract from presidential power.