Words carry power, but in Trump’s Pelosi-delayed State of the Union “speech,” the character of the man uttering them destroys their meaning and renders them both pointless and useless.
AMMAN—If you’re looking for a State of the Union summary, or a play-by-play, you can find many of these elsewhere. What I am going to get into here today is the overall meaning of what happened last night, or, rather, the lack thereof.
Aside from the many (and diverse) Democratic women proudly attired in white to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the national success of the suffragette movement getting women the right to vote in America, what stood out to me as a highlight was not anything President Donald Trump said or did, it was Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s so-called “sarcastic point clapback.” To appreciate this moment, we must understand that this State of the Union speech transcended “normal” such speeches (which in recent years have already become increasingly pointless, even with a master orator like President Barack Obama at the helm) into the realm of the theater of the absurd. I say this because Trump made a call for civility and bipartisanship when he has been, more than anyone else in Washington, the destroyer of bipartisanship and civility, even in ways we cannot have conceived of until he went there.
Trump issuing a call on these issues would be like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman giving a joint speech on press freedom or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivering a formal address on limiting civilian casualties in war.
Sure, we can all say “I would never be able to sit through such an absurdity,” but what if you had to? What if a sacred office you held required you to be there?
We don’t have to think about this in the abstract, but can just consider the case of Speaker Pelosi instead.
Throughout the speech, Pelosi showed a level of respect and decorum Trump has more often than not chosen to not show her or her office—with Trump routinely calling the Speaker of the House just “Nancy” in public, absent her title, while she refers to him more respectfully, generally with the word “president” in the mix—and at the slightest hint members of her caucus might have reacted more vocally than is the norm, she batted her hand at them to simmer down and they did. One can recall the wholly unjustified example of Rep. Joe Wilson (R), SC, shouting and interrupting President Barack Obama in a 2009 joint-session of Congress with a scream of “You lie!” (Obama did not lie) and consider that, during Trump’s State of the Union last night, Democrats would have been justified on a factual basis of screaming all throughout his speech the very same at him, even if not on a basis of decorum. I have written before that I am worried the left is allowing itself to be dragged down into the muck of Trumpism and extremism (most notably Bernie Sanders and his Sandernistas), but last night, I can thankfully say that that was not the case with the Democratic Party. And to this warm feeling, we all owe a debt to Speaker Pelosi, who knew some of the more interesting personalities in her caucus would relish a Joe Wilson-type moment and thusly made decorum a central theme for the event for her Democrats.
And yet, here she was, standing right behind Trump as he called for civility and bipartisanship when he has been the largest obstacle to both. On the one level, of course we should all embrace such a call. On another, the messenger does actually matter. So Pelosi clapped in support of the statement, but in such a way that she let it be known that the gross irony of the moment did not escape her. It was the perfect combination of class of subtle snark, one that allowed Pelosi to not be co-opted into the theatrical absurdity but even allowed her to fight it without disruption.
And yes, that is the highlight for me. I could write about Donald Trump’s uninspiring, tired words, and uninspiring, tired delivery. I could write about some of the most obvious lies and deceptions, including the total fantasy about illegal immigration on the southern border, how Trump tried to claim credit for Obama’s energy policy that made the U.S. the world’s number-one producer of both oil and gas before Trump was even elected, or Trump’s ridiculous claim that his election is the only reason we are not at war with North Korea. Yet these topics are well covered by countless copycat articles published in the past hours. Perhaps besides these lies, anyone who was there, who saw or heard him barely manage to deliver a laundry list of overall lies, would have been struck most of all by the unmemorable quality of the whole address, save for moments of absurdity that were not intended effects on the part of speaker. I have expressed privately many a time before the cost of such a lack of great, or even decent, rhetoric coming from Trump as president, an office that more often than not has been essential in transmitting memory and history to new generations of Americans. Sadly, today we live in an era where people are reading less and less, and especially less actual literature. Our critical thinking skills are also sorely lacking and declining, and most Americans don’t even know their nation’s history (and truly, what better way for such a huge portion of Americans to show utter contempt for the societal value of language, thinking, reality, and history—together some of the hallmarks of fascism, I might add—than voting for Trump, a man who makes George W. Bush seem eloquent and intellectually curious in relative retrospect?). Regrettably, for far too many Americans, one of the only times they will hear any of the words or stories of our Founding Fathers, past presidents, and other great American historical figures is when a current presidents quotes them or tells their tales. Trump did none of this in his State of the Union speech: not once in his entire long speech did he quote one of the great Americans of the past, and apart from brief mentions of WWII, he did not discuss history.
Obviously, Trump’s damage is hardly confined to the rhetorical presidency and historical memory. I have long been quite upfront about the threat Trump is to Western democracy in general and democracy at home in the U.S., so on the one level, there is nothing surprising in this speech being yet another step on the downward-spiraling staircase that is our current era (even if I can certainly imagine worse States of the Union from him in the future). But we must not become immune to these moments and acts of decline, and I write that as much for me as for the audience. But that fact of the matter is that this is no small task, for Trump’s relentless war of attrition on decency and reality wearies the souls of those of us who have souls left and creates a numbing effect that is a common biological survival mechanism for engaging in deadly combat, and make no mistake: we are in deadly combat for the survival of the West, for democracy, for America. As Freedom House just starkly noted the same day of Trump’s big speech, “the current president’s ongoing attacks on the rule of law, fact-based journalism, and other principles and norms of democracy threaten further decline.”
In the end, as much as I am a fan of the oft-ill-covered Nancy Pelosi, I cannot claim the night belongs to her. No, the night was still Trump’s, his meaningless words put together in meaningless sentences in a meaningless speech. The speech—as bad and badly delivered as it was—did not inherently carry the quality of meaninglessness, no; that quality was entirely a result of the man who gave it and the Administration that helped craft it. It was not even the lies that defined this speech. No, more than anything else, the speech carried with it the searing awareness that we are listening to words come from the mouth of a man who keeps few promises or oaths, lies constantly both compulsively and in a deeply premeditated fashion, capriciously changes his mind on any given issue repeatedly in both the short and long-term, reneges on deals even to the point of causing multiple government shutdowns, and that, ultimately, this is all a farce.
As the late and singular Christopher Hitchens noted, “there is some relationship between the hunger for truth and the search for the right words. This struggle may be ultimately indefinable and even undecidable, but one damn well knows it when one sees it.” The problem with Trump is that we can damn well know he is not even engaging in this struggle.
In other words, this speech matters very little because more words from the mouth of that man will come that will surely contradict what was said last night (which contradicted who knows how many previous statements), and still more after that, to a point where we truly get to explore the word meaningless. When the president’s words and actions change so rapidly that one must truly exert effort to keep track of, or define, a “position,” let alone a policy—on everything from the border “wall” to Syria—we really are in Game of Thrones’s Jon Snow trap, when Jon lamented: “When enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies, and lies won’t help us in this fight” (video but big spoilers!). We should lament, too, and, like Nancy Pelosi, solider on as gracefully as possible in dealing with that man, his words, and his actions, the meaning of which at times it seems no one, not even Trump himself, is capable of understanding.
© 2019 Brian E. Frydenborg, all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcomeI
Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer and consultant from the New York City area who has been based in Amman, Jordan, since early 2014. He holds an M.S. in Peace Operations and specializes in a wide range of interrelated topics, including international and U.S. policy/politics, security/conflict/(counter)terrorism, humanitarianism, development, social justice, and history. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981
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