White House

Night of the Peacock

President Trump after his first address to a joint session of Congress in February 2017. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Reuters)
Against the State of the Union pageant

Washington loves its initialisms, its acronyms and pseudo-acronyms: the PATRIOT Act, the Opportunity KNOCKS Act (ye gods: the Opportunity Kindling New Options for Career and Knowledge Seekers Act), and POTUS with its dog-Latin suggestion of virile power. And tonight is the State of the Union address — inevitably, the “SOTU.”

I’d prefer a little STFU.

It’s rare for a writer of journalism (which literally means writing daily, from the Acta Diurna) to confess that he’s actually said all he has to say about a subject, but I think I said all I have to say about the State of the Union itself — its detestable un-American pageantry — a few years ago, if only because I exhausted my vocabulary of denunciation:

The annual State of the Union pageant is a hideous, dispiriting, ugly, monotonous, un-American, un-republican, anti-democratic, dreary, backward, monarchical, retch-inducing, depressing, shameful, crypto-imperial display of official self-aggrandizement and piteous toadying, a black Mass during which every unholy order of teacup totalitarian and cringing courtier gathers under the towering dome of a faux-Roman temple to listen to a speech with no content given by a man with no content, to rise and to be seated as is called for by the order of worship — it is a wonder they have not started genuflecting — with one wretched representative of their number squirreled away in some well-upholstered Washington hidey-hole in order to preserve the illusion that those gathered constitute a special class of humanity without whom we could not live. It’s the most nauseating display in American public life — and I write that as someone who has just returned from a pornographers’ convention.

The first State of the Union address was delivered with befitting republican modesty by George Washington. Thomas Jefferson, forever guarded against royalist temptations, did the republic the great favor of replacing Washington’s speech with a letter to Congress, and for a wonderful century there was silence, with the State of the Union letter arriving in Congress with no more pomp and circumstance than IBM’s annual report to its shareholders. Woodrow Wilson, the closest thing this country has ever had to a genuine fascist in the presidency, reinstated the address, one of the many disfiguring scars he left on our body politic. In 2014, I wrote of my hope that “the next Republican president should remember why his party is called the Republican party and put a stop to this.”

I had not considered the possibility of the golden toilet.

Trump’s genius, if he has any, is in marketing. He understands the power of ritual and the human need for it. Because he gives the impression of being only barely literate, Trump isn’t very good at making speeches, but he excels at presiding over rallies. He had the wit to give his movement a uniform, an order of worship, and a hymnal. In classical literature, an “epithet” isn’t an insult but a description of a particular god or hero’s attributes: Athena Parthenos is Athena the maiden, Athena Polias is Athena the guardian of the city named for her. Trump revived the epithet in both senses of the word: Low-Energy Jeb, Crooked Hillary, the Failing New York Times. He is the bouncing ball that his audience sings along with — he is a wave, he’s not the water.

Trump has a sense of style — specifically, he has Liberace’s sense of style, all that phony gilding and those imitation Louis XV fauteuils and that hideous Alva Vanderbilt–style Fifth Avenue Bourbon pretense. But it is a style. In a political world full of men whose very souls wear blue blazers, Trump is cheerfully shrugging off revelations about hush money paid to porn stars: The world is grown so bad that peacocks make prey where eagles dare not perch.

The Republican party has come a long way from Calvin Coolidge — a long way down. The GOP always has had its share of big talkers — Lincoln, Reagan — but it has become the Party That Won’t Shut Up, the party of Lewis Prothero and Lonesome Rhodes, Elmer Gantry denouncing those smart-aleck college professors, Donald Trump seething about the losers and haters and preening about his ratings. What will Donald Trump make of the State of the Union address? It’s worth considering that the man was in the literal pageant business.

“The trouble with us is that we talk about Jefferson but do not follow him,” Coolidge once said.

Maybe the trouble with us is that we talk, and talk and talk and talk . . . 


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