When Donald Trump took the rostrum Tuesday night, the federal government was ten days away from collapsing into paralysis for the second time in three weeks, and humanity was 12 years away from irrevocably spoiling the only home it has ever known.
When the president punctuated the phrase “my fellow Americans” with his signature nasal inhalations, America’s child mortality rate was the highest of any wealthy nation’s, while its life expectancy had just declined for the third consecutive year, amid an epidemic of drug overdoses and suicides. As Americans gawked at their leader’s crooked tie, thousands of Central American children were still living without their parents — as a result of a White House policy that blatantly contravened international law — and the Trump administration was refusing to do anything to reunite the families it had separated because doing so would require “significant increases in appropriations from Congress.”
When the president basked in his first round of obligatory applause, his approval rating was hovering near historic lows. More than half the country said that they would “definitely not” vote for his reelection. Much of his campaign team had been convicted of crimes, and multiple federal investigations into him and his family were still ongoing. A member of the president’s administration had just leaked private schedules showing that, over the preceding three months, the commander-in-chief had spent 60 percent of his work days doing nothing in particular. Since his inauguration, White House aides had been likening him to a toddler in conversations with reporters on a near-daily basis; one senior administration official had written an op-ed in the New York Times assuring the country that unelected bureaucrats like himself were subverting the president’s wishes, so as to spare the world from his mindless “amorality”; and a Republican senator had likened the White House to an adult daycare center, warned that Trump’s recklessness was a threat to global security, and insisted that most of his colleagues secretly agreed.
Almost everyone in the House of Representatives Tuesday night knew almost all of this. Almost all acted as though they did not. There was nothing exceptional in the mendacity of Trump’s State of the Union address. By now, we are quite used to the lies. But the spectacle of a shoddy con man stiltedly rehearsing a combination of his own willful delusions, and our nation’s — while a chamber of respectables hooted and hollered — proved that this president hasn’t lost the power to unnerve.
On Tuesday night, the president who had just shuttered the federal government for more than a month — in a fruitless bid to coerce a coequal branch of government into passing unpopular legislation — expressed his hope that America’s leaders would “govern not as TWO PARTIES but as ONE NATION.” He accused the Democratic Party of pursuing “the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution,” moments before threatening that there would be no “peace and legislation” if Nancy Pelosi’s caucus continued conducting oversight of his administration. He conjured an “American people” unified behind his agenda, hours after proudly tweeting a poll that showed his approval rating at 48 percent. At one point, Trump got so caught up in his own fantastical performance, the man whose signature immigration bill called for nearly halving legal admissions announced, “I want people to come into our country, IN THE LARGEST NUMBERS EVER, but they have to come in legally.”
Trump didn’t say the word “climate” once. But he did triumphantly declare the United States the world’s number-one exporter of the fuels that threaten to render human civilization unsustainable on this planet. The Republican lawmakers who call him an imbecile behind his back cheered, and chanted our country’s name. And when the president told them our union was strong, they pretended to believe him.