Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The State of the Union

The Constitution directs that the president “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” There is no requirement that he do so in person, but for over a century now our presidents have routinely done so. It is one of the presidency's more monarchical rituals - and hence one which most presidents delight in. President Trump, delivering his first State of the Union, would seem to be no exception.

George Washington started the tradition, undoubtedly attracted to its monarchical resonance as a way to invest his office - and by extension his infant country - with some semblance of seriousness and dignity. Offended by its transparently monarchical resonance, however, Thomas Jefferson then abandoned the practice. It remained abandoned until Woodrow Wilson, who undoubtedly fancied himself as some sort of crypto-monarch happily restored it. However, in comparison with Throne Speeches at the Opening of Parliament in modern European monarchies, the State of the Union is at best a modestly successful imitation. Meanwhile our civic dignity has eroded and become increasingly corrupted, while the presidency has evolved into a Napoleonic, imperial institution almost without parallel. The result is an event that, while it aspires to suggest lofty dignity and civic sensibility, has turned into a vulgar celebration of the depths to which our civic culture and political institutions have descended, as rival camps of politicians jump up and down on cue (or sit still) to be seen by their "base" to make their point.

It was President Ronald Reagan who 1982 started the strange custom of calling attention to guests in the balcony, when he praised a hero from a recent Potomac River plane crash. This stunt has now become standard State of the Union fare, as if the President's Annual Message were a politicized version of the old Ed Sullivan Show. (In that Sunday evening variety show from TV's early years, host Ed Sullivan routinely invited prominent people in his audience to stand up and be recognized.) It could, of course, be argued that this custom has added a "populist" component to an otherwise elitist event - recognizing and invoking the example of heroic or otherwise worthy ordinary citizens. Whatever one thinks of this practice, however, President Trump seemed to take it to a new level. There were so many balcony appearances that the speech itself seemed almost secondary interludes between the balcony appearances - one reason it was one of the longest State of the Union speeches ever (longest not in words but in length of time).. On the other hand, focusing on so many people in the balcony lessened the focus on the President himself, not necessariiy what one would have been expecting.

The speech lacked the flamboyance of much of Trump's campaign oratory. In this it was more like his last address to Congress, and in this era of lowered expectations may have come across as "presidential." Even so, it seems striking how even the President's calmer, more measured language still expresses what I suspect is his authentic view  - a depressingly grim, fearful conception of American life and of the world beyond. That frightened - and frightening - world view is a key component of the President's destructive hostility to immigrants and almost anyone who seems in some way different from the ethnic composition of his narrow "base."

In the nature of the case, a televised State of the Union is an appeal over the heads of the political elite to a larger national audience. Its impact on the latter is what may matter most and in turn influence the politicians robotically jumping up and down inside the House Chamber. It remains to be seen what actual effective congressional actions will result from this sorry spectacle.

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