Let me confess to dozing off during President Trump’s interminable State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. The offense is one that I vow never to repeat. To ensure that I keep that vow, henceforth, I’ll just skip the event altogether. In doing so, this much is for certain: I won’t be missing anything.
When I was a kid, the annual calendar included several televised events that we considered mandatory viewing, among them the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, the Miss America Pageant, and the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Watching them was akin to a patriotic duty.
The annual SOTU was similarly classified, its importance unquestioned. We believed—and perhaps back then that belief was not entirely baseless—that the president’s assessment of the nation’s and the world’s condition meant something. It demanded thoughtful consideration. We believed further that his proposed agenda actually had some bearing on the future of American politics.
Credit Trump with exposing the absurdity of such expectations. Granted, I am only able to judge from the speech’s first 30 minutes or so, but what I heard was vapid, cliché-ridden, and embarrassingly devoid of substantive content. Except as fodder for comedians, it was without value. No future compendium of “Great American Speeches,” no matter how inclusive, will incorporate even one sentence of Trump’s 2019 speech to a Joint Session of Congress.
Were those in attendance or those watching at home surprised? I’m guessing not.
What we have here is a good example of political corruption far surpassing in seriousness any of the shenanigans of which Donald Trump and his offspring stand accused. That corruption is endemic. It pervades both political parties, with the endlessly blathering media establishment as willing accomplice.
I’m not taking about bribes or envelopes of money being slipped under doorways in the dead of night. I’m talking about a system mired in dysfunction, dishonesty, and overweening self-regard.
In his remarks, Trump paid tribute to “the majesty of America’s mission, and the power of American pride,” thereby eliciting predictably bipartisan and self-congratulatory applause. A more forthright and useful judgment would have been this one: the transformation of American politics into a game—or, worse, into entertainment—is now an accomplished fact. It is no longer possible to describe government at the national level as a mechanism for translating the will of the people into policies intended to advance the common good. But for those who play it, the game itself is so captivating and the entertainment so grotesquely alluring that few in Washington dare to say otherwise, and those who do find themselves marginalized.
The State of the Union address is part of a charade. It is bad theater. It is a great fraud perpetrated at the expense of the American people. It is pure, unadulterated bullshit.
A very small but not inconsequential step towards reforming our politics would be for the speaker of the House to terminate the tradition of annually inviting the chief executive to report on the State of the Union before a joint session of Congress.
Let the president send a letter, which few will read. So what? Surely, his advisors can find better things to do with their time than spending weeks crafting an instantly forgotten speech. And with the distraction of the SOTU out of the way, Congress might devote its attention to, you know, actually legislating. As for the rest of us, we can surely find better uses for a Tuesday evening in wintertime, perhaps by watching reruns of “Bonanza.”
Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.