Every now and then, as we approach the ritualistic agony of yet another State of the Union Address, voices are raised describing the absurdity and offensiveness of the tradition. In 2006, presidential historian Lewis Gould anticipated with dread George W. Bush’s sixth SOTU address, deploring the degeneration of the speech from a rare presidential communication with Congress “into a semi-imperial speech from the throne.” The trauma of Barack Obama’s reelection led to an effusion of conservative hostility to SOTU addresses, though none could compare to Kevin Williamson’s jeremiad in 2014:
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.
Through such protests we are often reminded that nothing in the Constitution actually requires an annual personal speech by the president to a joint session of Congress, and that our third president, Thomas Jefferson, deliberately abandoned the precedent of annual speeches set by Washington and Adams because he disliked its monarchical pretensions. More than a century later, Woodrow Wilson revived the older practice, which was more or less followed by his successors until it became a highly stylized infomercial for presidents who had no need of such a spectacle to communicate either with Congress or with the public.
And now SOTU addresses have become encrusted with stupid traditions:
• The members of Congress jockeying for aisle positions so they can be seen shaking hands with or embracing POTUS
• The procession of military leaders and Supreme Court justices into the House chamber, signifying the great leader’s universal power
• The puppet-like reaction of members to nearly every phrase of the speech, as they stand, sit, cheer, and don’t cheer, as dictated by partisan signals
• The Real People in the galleries to illustrate this or that presidential talking point, whose value is calibrated according to their proximity to the First Lady’s seat
• The opposing party’s “response” to the address, typically canned before the address itself, and thus usually a model of bland generality
• The snap polls and focus groups conducted by media outlets seeking to reinforce the event’s awesome political significance (which usually fades within hours).
Rarely do SOTU addresses make actual news in the sense of an unanticipated departure from an administration’s prior agenda or message, though perhaps they help get the basics across to the lowest of low-information voters (probably less each year as the networks carrying the speech no longer dominate viewership).
And most of all, the whole spectacle is vastly redundant, particularly at a time when the president can command massive coverage of an Oval Office address or a “major speech” whenever he wants. Now that we have a president who communicates with the country at all hours of the day or night via social media, it’s especially strange to set aside an evening of prime-time television to let him share his pithy views on the “state of the union.”
But for that very reason, you might expect that Donald Trump could be the president to put an end to the tradition and the misery that accompanies it.
Yes, he enjoys pomp and media attention and the trappings of imperial splendor. But he also by all accounts dislikes set-piece speeches and has trouble sticking to scripts. It’s hard to imagine him preferring SOTU to such alternatives as reviewing a huge military parade or getting to devote an entire evening to his Twitter account.
Still, given the opportunity to flush the whole thing this year when Nancy Pelosi disinvited him from the usual venue of the House chamber, Trump instead looked around for a different staging area. And it’s even possible that the desire to give his speech was one of several factors that led the president to cave to Pelosi and end the government shutdown.
Perhaps Trump thinks one more reiteration of his rap on the existential importance of border barriers is going to flip public opinion and finally give him the upper hand against the Democrats, who were regularly thrashing him during the shutdown. Or maybe he will finally go over the brink and deliver a full-on campaign-rally speech with the trappings of more dignified address.
Like everyone in the chattering classes, I will watch this year’s SOTU address, though with more fear and loathing than those who are new to its idiotic features or who, God forbid, actually enjoy the show. I will not applaud the speech unless it ends with the vow: “This is my last State of the Union address.” Any way you interpret it, that would be good news.
Editor’s note: This piece originally ran on January 29, 2018. It has been updated and republished.