State of the Union: Trump’s calls for unity can’t hide a presidency built on fear and division

Coming from a man who won power by lying, promises mean nothing.

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A naive observer might say there seem to be two sitting presidents of the United States.

One of them is either a dumbass or a trickster god, a random, scattergun collection of petty biases and vendettas, who will reject a course of action simply because he has been told it's what he should do; a creature of chaos. This president, the observer might observe, seems to have control of the presidential Twitter account most of the time.

The other is a bland, uncomfortable-looking machine, spouting party-approved platitudes to TV crowds. When the latter appears, as he did last night at the president's annual State of the Union address to both houses of congress, pundits seem to always say that that time, whatever time it was, Donald Trump “became president,” perhaps out of surprise that he made it through a speech without saying anything monumentally stupid, colossally offensive, or both.

The first, the Trump of chaos is, of course, the real Trump. The other Trump – barely and temporarily tamed, unhappily, and never for long – emerges only and uniquely when he is reading from an autocue, kept from his natural excesses by the concentration required to read for a sustained amount of time.

Autocue Trump was paraded last night, in front of his smugly grinning zookeepers, house speaker Paul Ryan and vice-president Mike Pence, for his first State of the Union address. 

The State of the Union is, aside from the inaugural address, the biggest audience a president can make, and Trump's predecessors have often taken the opportunity of their annual address to congress to inspire or engage with the American people. But Trump's speech last night was like a facsimile of the kind of speech that a proper president might have made, superficially present but devoid of all meaning.  He stuck to his lines, spouting boilerplate like a cold-call salesman on his first day with a new script.

We're getting used to Trump now. Everyone, whether enemy or ally of the administration, has come to understand that the president is not to be taken at his word. His staff have said as much, in no uncertain terms. Trump should be taken “seriously, not literally”, his staff say; reality “doesn't matter”. He doesn't literally mean things.

Here's the problem with that: if everything is meaningless then you can't really make a serious speech like a State of the Union without it descending inevitably into farce. Trump didn't even really try; his speech was full of the kind of barely-sensible stuff that you'd get if you fed a book of Reagan speeches into a computer and had it spit them back at you at random, a tumble of words that sound plausible but mean nothing.

It was largely grammatically correct, and that is about the best that can be said about it. Take this paragraph: “So to every citizen watching at home tonight, no matter where you have been, or where you come from, this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.”

Let's break this down a bit. First, “if you work hard, if you believe in yourself … together we can achieve anything” is mere cliché, there simply because it is the kind of thing a politician says in a speech like this. That's not just Trump, as a society we have reached a point where words like this from politicians flow over us like water or merge into the subconscious like white noise.

“If you believe in America then you can dream anything” somehow manages to be even more meaningless than the cliché that contains it, because at least clichés retain scraps of their original meaning. A cliché is a profound phrase worn down to nothingness by overuse, but this bit is just bizarre, a fundamentally meaningless oddity. What does it mean to believe in America? To believe it exists? Or is this like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, where you have to demonstrate your belief by clapping? Trump certainly seems to think so. No president in living memory has spent so much time in their State of the Union address applauding himself.

So far, so crushingly banal. But while “every citizen” has a nasty specificity, and the speech was peppered with such barbs, there was no way to hear “No matter … where you come from, this is your time” as anything but comedy. Just a few moments later, “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.” 

I mean, come on. Clearly, these words mean nothing to him, but it is impossible to hear them and not laugh at the irony. Is he trolling? Or does he have so little self-awareness as to not know that he sounds ridiculous? Or does he truly think that nothing has any meaning that matters?

Take this line: “To everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else: we are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together.” These are words empty enough to cause vertigo. This is a president who warned Puerto Rico – where more than a million people have been without electricity for months following a storm, where the death toll recently passed a thousand people, where, on American soil, even clean drinking water is scarce – that help would not last “forever”. A man who, when he eventually deigned to visit the disaster-struck island, chastised the victims for “throwing our budget out of whack”. We love you? Please.

Or take the several minutes Trump spent talking about the criminal gang MS-13, which originated in Los Angeles, as an example of the perils of immigration. Or when, a few minutes later, he claimed that “under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives”, which isn't even within shouting-distance of being true. Or when he promised the military his “our amazing veterans as heroes who deserve our total and unwavering support” just months after having bickered with the widow of a fallen soldier.

The problem with someone lying as much as Trump does is that all the platitudes of all modern politics are rendered visibly ridiculous. He is the reductio ad absurdum of humanity. Coming from a man who won power by stoking fear, words of hope mean nothing. Coming from a man who won power by whipping up social division, words of unity mean nothing. And coming from a man who won power by lying, promises mean nothing.

But that's fine for Trump. In his world, nothing means anything anyway.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.