President Donald Trump is never very good when he speaks from a teleprompter, but his State of the Union address Tuesday night was one of the worst performances of his presidency on a number of levels.
The speech was a study in contrasts, contradictions and such jumbled structuring that it had him jumping with no apparent connection, from praising World War II heroism to vowing support for parental leave to accusing Democrats of infanticide.
Even as he insisted he was calling for unity, he went hard-core, red-meat, race-baiting divisive in describing the caravans of allegedly murderous, drug-dealing immigrants headed for the Southern border. And then he further tried to up the ante by stoking class warfare with a bogus argument saying working-class Americans were the ones who suffered when immigrants entered the country illegally, while members of the “political class” who want “open borders” live behind walls and have private police protection. That would be Democrats, according to Trump, in case anyone was wondering.
The president’s lip service to unity was further betrayed by his body language. His body was turned throughout the speech toward the Republican side of the room, which resulted when he paused for applause in him striking a profile pose with his chin jutting out and up. (It reminds me of the late Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, but I am willing to admit there might be some subjectivity in that impression.)
But Trump literally looked away from the Democrats all night, except for a few moments after he made a statement about more jobs for women during his presidency.
His statement was seized upon by new female members of the House of Representatives who were dressed in white and sitting together. After having spent much of the night sitting and not applauding, they rose and clapped enthusiastically for one another, making Trump’s remarks into something he had not intended: a reminder that they earned their places in the House by unseating Republican men and women in big midterm victories. Their new jobs were in part a repudiation by voters of the man at the podium.
It took him a couple of beats, but Trump got the joke. In what was his best moment of the night, he smiled and congratulated the women on their new jobs before moving on.
He didn’t have much choice. In terms of optics, that group in white was the dominant image of the night. And it was a powerful one: a Greek chorus — or maybe an army of avenging angels — come to bear witness against the aging patriarch who no longer had the power to keep them out of the castle.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who has become a Trump nemesis since regaining that title, was wise enough to let her young colleagues in white play that leading role.
I was fascinated going into the night by the power dynamic of the Trump-Pelosi imagery, with her standing and then sitting above and behind him with the gavel as symbol of authority. And there was a sense of her judging him as she sat there through the speech.
But she mainly seemed to be biting her lip from time to time, except for an occasional wince when he went red meat as he did on the caravan. But just her posed in a seat of judgment on Trump was a good enough visual for me given the optic energy of the women in white also sitting in judgment on the president.
Trump’s delivery of the speech was stunningly poor as well. Maybe lethargic is too strong a word, but he certainly seemed profoundly “low energy” by his usual standards.
He also seemed regularly out of sync with the words he was saying — stopping before a thought or sentence was finished, and then starting up again to finish the thought. Awkward only starts to describe him reading a speech for over an hour and never finding a rhythm for his delivery.
I once described him as King Lear on Twitter. This was King Lear on a teleprompter reading a speech that veered between the words of conciliation he knows he needs to be saying these days and the dark passions, vitriol and enmity raging in his heart against those Democrats who by his reckoning are out to kill babies and keep him from building his wall, while calling for “ridiculous partisan investigations.”
Trump’s attempt at lyricism and a big ending would be laughable if we were not long past the point where we can afford to laugh at anything this dangerous man does.
But hearing him say, “We have not yet begun to dream” and that it is “time to rekindle the American imagination and the bonds of love and loyalty,” is so outrageous given his record, that you can either laugh or cry.
In his closing, Trump laid down the challenge, “How will we be remembered?”
In his case, I am pretty sure it is not going to be pretty.
This is a president on a fast train to infamy, and it felt Tuesday night, like even he no longer believes in the words he is saying.
David Zurawik wrote this piece for The Baltimore Sun.