Analyzing Trump’s State of the Union shenanigans
President Donald Trump gave his final State of the Union speech before his re-election campaign kicks into full gear, but you might not have even realized it. With Trump’s acquittal on all charges of impeachment and the chaos of the bungled Iowa Democratic caucus completely dominating the airwaves, comparatively little ink was spilled on Trump’s address to the nation. If you’re nonplussed, you’re not alone, as congressional Democrats seemed downright bored during the proceedings.
Judiciary Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) passed the time by reading his pocket copy of the Constitution. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) walked out. Several other representatives, including heavy hitters like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Maxime Waters (D-CA), didn’t even bother to show up. At the very end of Trump’s polemic, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) ripped up her copy of Trump’s speech.
Pelosi’s middle-school esque stunt, much like her sarcastic clapping last year, will provide ample fodder for center-left #resistance Facebook pages and laptop stickers. If she were really committed to stopping Trump’s agenda, she’d stop voting for his massively overinflated military budgets, but we can only expect so much from a speaker afraid of her own shadow.
As for the other Democrats, the anger and boos made sense, but the visible boredom did not. Trump’s speech was a lot of things, but boring was hardly one of them. State of the Union addresses in recent years have featured a barrage of special guests and highlight spots, and this year was no different. Clearly intent on making his mark in the wake of a brutish impeachment defense and a looming re-election effort, Trump held nothing back. The address felt less like a tone-setting agenda piece and more like a long, Trump-hosted daytime talk show.
Showing commitment to veterans by surprising a military family with their father freshly returned from Iraq waiting in the crowd for them! A tirade about the evils of socialism punctuated by the wild appearance of Venezuela's self-appointed President Juan Guaido! Announcing the launch of the Space Force by pointing out the little boy who will become the first member of the Space Force, right in front of a Tuskegee Airman! Promises of a trade deal with a post-Brexit United Kingdom made in person to Mr. Brexit himself, Nigel Farage! Promoting a scholarship program by plucking a fourth grader out of the crowd and giving her one on the spot!
Imagine you’re in the crowd on “Oprah” in 2004 when she announces she will be giving you a car, but the car is just Nigel Farage sitting uncomfortably close to you, and Donald Trump is going on an unhinged rant about how Democrats are trying to sneak into old people’s homes and steal their Medicare checks to pay for a giant mural of Karl Marx. Point is, none of these surprise introductions were terribly salient, nor terribly inspiring.
The inclusion of failed figurehead Guaido as a shot at democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez became even odder when he admitted in an interview with the New Yorker he had never heard of her until recently, and after a quick brush-up on her agenda, he came to the conclusion that the New York Congresswoman was in fact more in line with his vision of social democracy than anything put forth by his rival Nicholas Maduro. Farage’s presence belies the fact that the now-independent UK is likely going to get its clock cleaned by Trump’s own trade negotiators.
With apologies to the Space Force kid, when Trump sends him to die in space trying to shoot down a Chinese satellite, getting to meet that Tuskegee Airman will have counted for very little.
But the biggest surprise of all was how Trump pivoted to his promotion of increased funding for cancer and AIDS patients, taking time to highlight a cancer patient near and dear to his base: talk radio host and conservative lodestone Rush Limbaugh, who was attending the address as a personal guest of the First Lady.
Limbaugh, a longtime cigar smoker, had announced his Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis earlier that week. If there was any time for the Republican establishment to honor one of their most devoted foot soldiers, it was now. In Trump’s own words, “Rush, in recognition of all that you have done for our nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire, and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity, I am proud to announce tonight that you will be receiving our country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Now, the Presidential Medal of Freedom isn’t exactly the Nobel Prize, and Trump’s prior picks for the award haven’t exactly been the stuff dreams are made of. Limbaugh joins disgraced economist Arthur Laffer, arch-Republican donor Miriam Adelson, and the very dead Babe Ruth in Trump’s Medal of Freedom selections. Yet of all of these duds, Limbaugh might very well be the single least worthy recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the history of the award. While his impact on American politics and culture might be outsized, Limbaugh’s contributions to American political discourse are uniquely negative.
The man who once responded to Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke’s moving testimony about her struggle to win even basic reproductive services with “Can you imagine if you're her parents how proud of [Fluke] you would be? Your daughter goes up to a congressional hearing conducted by the Botox-filled Nancy Pelosi and testifies she's having so much sex she can't afford her own birth control pills and she agrees that Obama should provide them, or the Pope.”
On one hand, an award used to honor modern titans like Nelson Mandela, Norman Bourlag and Dolores Huerta shouldn’t go to a radio shock jock who calls his ideological opponents “Feminazis,” “Young skulls full of mush” and “Long-haired, dope-smoking, maggot-infested, good time rock 'n roll plastic banana FM-types.”
Then again, any club containing Margaret Thatcher, Donald Rumsfeld and Strom Thurmond is one that no American should aspire to be in, but at least those awful people had a veneer of respectability. Limbaugh has spent his entire career breaking down the last vestiges of the kind of conservative civility that the likes of William F. Buckley — a Medal of Freedom winner himself — spent their entire careers trying to drag back in the post-war years.
The latest product of that regrettable style, with its crass treatment of anyone outside the white ruling class and willingness to let millions suffer merely to “own the libs,” is of course Trump himself. Perhaps honoring Limbaugh at such a toxic and brazenly self-congratulatory State of the Union address was poetic, in a way. If you’re going to reveal the moral depths that America’s right-of-center politics have descended to, you might as well give one last gift to the guy who helped dig that hole.