For those concerned about presidential decorum, the good news is that Donald Trump gave one of his more restrained rally speeches on Tuesday night. The bad news is that he did it in the chamber of the House of Representatives.
Giving his third official State of the Union address, Trump went relatively light on “American carnage” and skipped derisive nicknames for political opponents. Instead, he transformed the event into a reality show-style spectacle, doing everything short of calling up a random member of Congress to play a round of Plinko.
A blue-star wife was reunited with her husband, an inner-city student got a scholarship, and controversial radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the chamber, drawing audible gasps of shock and disgust among Democrats.
The speech was intermixed with partisan jabs at the Democrats and factually tenuous claims: “We will protect patients with preexisting conditions,” Trump stated. Meanwhile, his administration supports a lawsuit to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, which ends protections for those with preexisting conditions.
The result was that roughly a dozen Democrats walked out and Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped her copy of Trump’s speech in half when he finished. Democrats loudly rebutted Trump from the floor with boos, groans, and gestures, including a mass demonstration to support H.R. 3 — the prescription drug bill passed by House Democrats. There was even an allusion to impeachment from the floor as Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey held a Ukrainian flag from his seat. Pascrell eventually walked out on the speech; Trump, though, did not reference the ongoing trial in the Senate.
Some Democrats were so alienated that they declined to stand even during the most nominally bipartisan and unifying parts of the address, like when Trump introduced former Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee, who recently turned 100 years old. Even when positive economic data was touted from the dais, the most enthusiasm that he received from Democrats was scattered golf claps from members who represent swing districts.
In contrast, Republicans stood and offered standing ovations at most every opportunity, a normal occurrence during the State of the Union. More unusual was Trump being greeted in the chamber with chants of “four more years.” Typically members tend to refrain from campaign rally–style cheers while sitting in the chamber of the House of Representatives.
The evening had started like a normal State of the Union. Members mixed and mingled on the floor. There was a group picture of all the Democratic women who all wore white while others, like Max Rose of New York, seemed to take selfies from the floor.
Then Trump walked in the room.
Even before he started speaking, the president appeared to ignore an outstretched hand from Pelosi. Once the address began, the evening took on a different tone. It felt entirely discordant from a traditional State of the Union and more like a Trump rally from late in the 2016 campaign, when the then-embattled Republican front-runner made a concerted effort to stick to the teleprompter and minimize the ad libs but still reveled in a boisterous crowd.
Like at a Trump rally, there was even a protester. Fred Guttenberg, the father of a student murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was ejected from the gallery after yelling when the president hailed his support for the Second Amendment. After this happened, a number of Democrats stood up and turned their backs on Trump to applaud Guttenberg as he was escorted out of the chamber.
At the end of the speech, when Trump recited the familiar refrain of American heroes, one name from the past seemed out of place in his pantheon. Along with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Neil Armstrong, Trump mentioned Annie Oakley to some confused murmurs on the floor of the House. Oakley was famous for her marksmanship ability and toured the world with promoter Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. In other words, she was a glorified circus performer. And, on the night of the first reality-show State of the Union in American history, it was an entirely appropriate historical reference.