President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address...

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 4, 2020. Credit: AP/Leah Millis

There was little President Donald Trump could have said or done in his third State of the Union speech to surprise Americans. We have come to expect the unexpected, a fire hose of the unprecedented that has dulled the nation’s capacity for astonishment or outrage.

And the trappings of Tuesday night’s speech were indeed unprecedented. Trump’s remarks came amid an impeachment trial poised to deliver his acquittal by the Republican Senate majority on Wednesday, in the very chamber where the Democratic majority House voted to impeach him less than two months ago. And he was introduced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, his principal congressional foil and the person who signed the impeachment papers, and with whom Trump has not spoken in months.

So perhaps it was not surprising that partisan combat was evident from the start, when Trump ignored Pelosi’s proffered hand after giving her a copy of his speech, when Pelosi omitted the traditional words “high privilege and distinct honor” when introducing him, when Republicans began chanting, “Four more years!” and when Pelosi tore up pages of his speech when it was over. The displays were unfortunate.

Nor was it unexpected that in touting his achievements — what he called “the great American comeback” — he cast them in full 2020 campaign mode, demonizing Democrats and attacking the previous administration. The speech was vintage Trump — a swirl of truths and falsehoods. He effectively listed his accomplishments — a strong economy with falling unemployment and rising wages, ramped-up energy production, a reduction in regulations, new trade deals.

But he also talked about building the world’s most inclusive society, at odds with his administration’s exclusionary policies. He lauded the recently signed trade deal with Mexico and Canada as an example of keeping his promise, without crediting House Democrats who forged the final deal by working with Trump’s trade representative to pull it off. And he said he would always protect patients with preexisting conditions, when his administration is in court right now arguing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and its protection of preexisting conditions.

The contrasts in the chamber — one side repeatedly erupting in applause, the other mostly sitting in silence — mirrored divisions outside the Capitol. Trump’s approval rating has hit an all-time high at 49%, while the other half of the nation simmers at Trump’s conduct and assaults on the machinery of democracy. The circumstances were awkward, but Trump thrives on awkward. Giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, one of the most notoriously partisan operatives in our nation’s history, was inappropriate. Acknowledging sacrifices made by Americans in service to the country was admirable, but the stagecraft veered into schmaltzy TV reality show territory. And he never even went through the pretense of asking Democrats to work with him for the nation’s benefit.

If you were seeking balm in Trump’s talk, you found it. If you were prepared to seethe, you did. That perhaps was the least surprising thing of all.

— The editorial board 


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