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The Big Subtext

There was something for President Trump to talk about Tuesday night. Something big and current and pertinent to the state of the union. No, not the Iowa Caucus vote debacle, although that might have been referenced. Something...else.

A Reagan or Obama would have cracked a tension-deflating self-deprecating oh look at the situation I’m in joke.

A Clinton (well, Bill, if not Hillary) would have looked directly at the House managers and the Democratic women in white and said, I’m sorry, my bad, but we have a government to run so let’s get on with it.

The Trump we hear at his rallies and see via Twitter and the many media outlets that pass along his tweets as news would have been defiant: this is a hoax! That phone call was perfect! Etc.

Instead, what we got was a riot of presidential gestures. And counter-gestures from the Democrats, Speaker Pelosi on down. The opposition did not want to talk about the big topic either, having learned in the 2016 elections they lost and the 2018 elections they won that they are better off talking about health care, tax cuts for the wealthy, climate change, and other conventional issues than the defects of Donald Trump’s presidential character.

So while there were lots of words and reaction shots Tuesday night, the norm for a State of the Union Address, what really came across thanks to the unmentionable subtext were a rejected handshake offer, pursed lips, chin thrusts (à la Benito Mussolini by way of Alec Baldwin), grimaces, sneers, eyerolls, preens, head shakes (smh’s), chants, salutes, walkouts and, to top off the human emoji posturing, in what stands as the most defiant and perhaps the most memorable response to a State of the Union Address ever, a demonstrative, gif-ready, four-stage tearing up of the speech text. Rip. Rip. Rip. Rip. Stack. Glare. It’s a wonder the Speaker did not throw the pieces into the air.

The president had stuck to that text. There were no digressions Tuesday night devoted to the utility of windmills or toilets.  But the highlights of the prepared SOTU Address did not flow from the customary list of issue positions, accomplishments, and proposals. Instead, they consisted of a series of video-ready reveals featuring heroic Americans, Lenny Skutnick types occasionally rewarded with a benevolent gesture from the president as the surprise climax to the recitation of their tales. A veteran and former drug addict now on his own two feet thanks to opportunity zones got nothing, apparently, beyond the recognition. But then Trump gave a young girl and her single mom a scholarship to demonstrate the value of school choice. A grisly tale of the dead and wounded at the hands of an “illegal alien” culminated in a shot of a victim’s weeping relative; he got nothing. But Rush Limbaugh, the man of a million mostly un-PC words on radio, pantomimed his gratitude for a Medal of Freedom the First Lady draped around his neck. A young man who aspired to join the Space Force turned out to be the great-grandson of a 100-year old veteran who flew in WWII as a Tuskegee Airman and won a promotion to Brigadier General. A mom and her two small children were presented with an appearance by the military father, brought back from overseas just for this. And Juan Guaidó was proclaimed to the approval of all present as the rightful president of Venezuela.

“Look,” each of these tear-jerking targeted tableaux said. “Look at what I, the president, do for people with my presidential power.” The power some claim I have abused, went the implicit claim. “Be impressed and moved by my gifts!”

Thus ran the gestural subtext.

The overt speech theme was “The Great American Comeback.” The subtextual example of a great comeback would be fulfilled the next day with the Senate votes to acquit, as all present and watching knew. The intent was to braid the president’s own comeback to those of his countrymen and women. Yet while Trump opened with the line it vanished thereafter. None of the mini-melodrama moments fit the comeback narrative except possibly the former drug addict, who did not get a prize. Nor was the laundry list well threaded into the theme. Trump did say he “inherited a mess” by way of framing his recitation of economic brags, many of which were exaggerations. He declared “the mentality of American decline” shattered. But the issue set pieces on the terrorist assassinations he had ordered, the moves to blunt illegal immigration, and the call for a bill capping prescription drug costs did not really fit. The latter stimulated a protest among Democrats, who raised three fingers and chanted “HR 3,” the bill number of the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, passed by the House and shelved by the Senate.

On Monday of this Hell Week USA, in non-Iowa news, the government of China had blamed the US for spreading fear about the coronavirus. Trump continued to be restrained and, dare it be said, diplomatic in his one sentence comment.

Former Republican White House speechwriter and now Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson predicted that Trump would use his words on Tuesday night not to try to persuade the assembled but rather to assert dominance over them. That he did in word, gesture, and reward. 

Pelosi’s acrimonious coda to the speech won a lot of headlines and met the dominance stance straight on. But Trump’s act remains unchallenged effectively on the campaign trail or within his party. He will address the nation today (Thursday), unconstrained by the House setting, the SOTU format, and the prospective verdict. The sole dissenting vote on Wednesday came from Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, already feeling the arrows of ostracism. And the Democrats have yet to settle on a person who can meet Trump on the campaign battlefield or demonstrate that they are capable of running fair debates (the next one is set for Friday) and accurate elections.

Enjoy the remainder of the week.

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