Editorial – The Guardian
Trump happily applauded his own address to Congress. The rest of us should not
Rituals are designed not merely to embody but preserve and perpetuate a community’s beliefs. One danger is that they are hollowed out, form superseding substance as people forget their meaning. This was the risk Thomas Jefferson identified when he abandoned the State of the Union address as disturbingly monarchical, and judged that the constitutional requirement to inform and make recommendations to Congress could be satisfied in writing. It was not until over a century later that Woodrow Wilson – pursuing a stronger, more forceful presidency, in part via publicity and press controls – would reinstate it.
An event that theoretically focused on accountability became a moment of showmanship: ideal for Donald Trump, who through his years as developer, reality star and now president has projected an image, pocketed proceeds and indulging his whims, while those around him get on with their unsavoury business.
On Tuesday he basked in the limelight. He was applauded (including by himself) merely for being Teleprompter Trump, not Twitter Trump, as the shorthand has it: sticking to a speech that repeated all the platitudes expected of an American president. These occasions rarely prove memorable, let alone groundbreaking; but previous administrations have at least tried to set a course and send a clear message of priorities. Despite its length and grandiosity, the address was mostly self-congratulation, laying out little in the way of plans. The pro-forma calls for bipartisanship and unity, designed to make him more palatable to the wider public, were garnished with winks to his base. It was designed to provide only enough (very minimal) respectability to allow Republicans to continue pursuing their goals without having to oust him. It was a presidential speech in the sense of being “in the style of a president”, rather than in rising to the office. It was a speech that talked of “all of us, together” while furthering the cause of division with the comment that “Americans are dreamers too”; the attack on “disastrous Obamacare”; the announcement that “we have ended the war on clean coal”; the dig that “we proudly stand for the national anthem”.
Alarm bells should ring loud at his call for cabinet secretaries to have the authority “to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people”. This, from a president who has put departments and agencies under the control of people openly hostile to their record and their staff; who fired the FBI director as questions grew about links between his campaign and Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election; reportedly (he denies it) ordered the firing of the man investigating Russian interference, Robert Mueller, only to be thwarted when the White House counsel threatened to resign; and who has attacked the media relentlessly for their attempts to hold him to account and fostered paranoia about the deep state.
Sometimes authoritarianism is imposed by the gun, note the authors of the new book How Democracies Die, but in other cases it develops more subtly, as “democracy’s enemies use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly and even legally – to kill it”. The State of the Union is supposed to be a ritual expression of the president’s duties to the American people. But trappings do not matter if you have no sense of duty; if you regard the people as eminently divisible; if you attack the institutions on which democracy rests; and if your presidency defiles the nation’s supposed ideals instead of upholding them.