The word that came to mind most often as I watched Donald Trump deliver his first State of the Union address was “pretend.”
He pretends to be a statesman, and we’re supposed to pretend that hundreds of vulgar and recklessly divisive moments before this – thousands, if we’re adding tweets – don’t negate that claim.
We’re supposed to pretend he gives a fig about decorum, though it disappears almost as soon as the teleprompter does. Above all, we’re supposed to pretend that what he says today has any bearing on what he’ll say tomorrow, when what he said yesterday contradicted it.
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Our president lives in a world of sand and wind and make-believe, where the merest gust can alter the shape of everything, and Tuesday night’s remarks – especially his appeal for “common ground,” his vision of “all of us together” as “one American family” – should be seen in that shifting, swirling, fantastical context.
To be fair, most State of the Union addresses are wishes. George W. Bush gave us gauzy spins on where he was going and where he had been. Barack Obama set markers (preschool and community college for all!) that he’d never reach. The State of the Union traffics in the sublime – and thus in the ridiculous.
But Trump is a ridiculous breed apart, his moods more erratic, his poses more ephemeral, his pledges emptier.
Last February, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, he used his opening minutes to exalt civil rights, decry anti-Semitism and proclaim that “we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.”
Later came the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his insistence that there were “some very fine people” among the white nationalists and neo-Nazis there.
Early this month he invited television cameras into the White House so we could behold his placid demeanor as Democrats made their pitch for Dreamers and he recommended a “bill of love.” Within 48 hours, he was ranting about “shithole countries” whose human effluvium befouls our shores.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the leader of his chamber’s Democratic minority, said that negotiating with Trump was like negotiating with Jell-O. Food-wise, he gave the president the benefit of the doubt. Trump is squishier, and far less innocuous. Negotiating with him must be like negotiating with sour cream.
On Tuesday night, Trump dwelled boastfully on certain economic indicators – unemployment figures, the stock market – to portray America as a newly industrious land, dizzy with sudden riches. But we Americans aren’t that dizzy: We still expect more from our country and president than a Dow above 25,000, and that’s why Trump’s approval rating is below 40 percent.
He took starkly partisan positions on regulations, gun rights, foreign aid, “religious liberty” and more, then dared to pretend that he was extending an “open hand” to Democrats. He did this serenely, no trace of the volcanic temper his aides have come to fear.
There were howlers aplenty in his address. “Americans love their country, and they deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return,” he said. How does minimizing Russian interference in the 2016 election – and thwarting the investigation into what happened – accomplish that?
There were fictions galore. “For the last year,” he asserted, “we have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government.” No. He, his brood, Steven Mnuchin, Louise Linton and Tom Price (remember him?) swanned around on the government’s dime, their self-promotion and self-celebration extraordinary even by Washington’s standards.
Trump on Tuesday night identified priorities: immigration reform, infrastructure. But we can’t trust his commitment to either, because he doesn’t know his own mind.
Whether the issue is health care, tax cuts or his beloved border wall, he holds several different positions simultaneously or in rapid succession, saying one thing at a microphone only to tweet something else entirely. His aides occasionally try to sell this as a master deal-maker’s way of keeping everybody guessing, when it’s really an amateur policymaker’s way of revealing that he’s just bumbling around.
The distance between Trump when he’s controlled and Trump when he’s unbound makes a speech like Tuesday night’s an especially hollow charade. And the orchestrated news in it can’t erase the messier developments beforehand, including the escalation of his assault on the FBI and reports of his lawyers’ panic about his offer to be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. Jonathan Swan wrote in Axios that one of Trump’s intimates “believes the president would be incapable of avoiding perjuring himself. ‘Trump doesn’t deal in reality,’ the source said. ‘He creates his own reality.’”
His speech was such a creation, and to treat it any other way is to launder his entire political history and see a leader who has never been there.
I’m not that good at pretend.