The on again, off again 2019 State of the Union has finally come and gone. In the age of Trump, nothing about the presidency is normal and we should probably not be surprised that there was controversy surrounding a routine ritual in American politics.
State of the Union speeches are usually boring and predictable events, anticipated more than they are remembered. But occasionally presidents have used them as an opportunity to say things of lasting importance. In a State of the Union, President Monroe announced the doctrine that bears his name; George W. Bush introduced us to “the Axis of Evil;” and Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed “the four freedoms.”
What are the odds that what Trump said in his second State of the Union will give us language that lasts longer than a single news cycle?
Make no mistake, Donald Trump as a political communicator has real talent. No one is better at inventing insults or selecting slogans. Everyone remembers: Lock Her Up; Build the Wall; and Drain the Swamp. Chants at rallies aren’t easily converted into public policy—particularly the one about the Wall—but good bumper sticker language helps candidates the way clever ad copy sells soap. And Trump has always been a good salesman.
Moreover, Trump communicates directly with the American people, in his own words, more often than other presidents. He tweets in bed, riffs at rallies and rambles at unscheduled press encounters. Trump shares his thoughts, whatever they may be, on a regular basis. This is unusual in presidential communication.
Most presidents hide some of what they think about controversial subjects. Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush kept White House diaries with candid commentary that no one read until after they left office. Harry Truman wrote angry letters to his critics that were rarely mailed. His honest opinions were mostly filed in the bottom drawer of his desk and seen years later. Richard Nixon ranted and raged behind closed doors in the White House. But the only people who could have known about those presidential words when they were spoken were the secret taping system technicians and the political cronies who met with the president.
Trump’s thoughts and words are more readily available. But there’s a caveat to his candor. A large number of his tweets and public pronouncements are demonstrably false. He tells lies, or makes unsubstantiated statements, then repeats them in the apparent hope that repetition will take the place of evidence. This means that when we learn what Trump thinks, we often learn things that are not true.
There’s an old, and probably unfair, political joke: “How do you know when a politician is lying? You can see that his lips are moving.” That joke hits close to home for Trump, except that he also lies when his thumbs are moving.
Both Trump’s tweets and troubles with the truth are norm shattering presidential behaviors. This is because the norm in presidential communication, up until now, has been control. Prepared remarks are just that—prepared. A Washington wit once observed that it took half a day to get the elder President Bush ready to make an off-the-cuff remark. All the recent administrations have had established procedures and professional assistants to craft political messages.
Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, had talented senior advisers and a highly skilled staff to draft speeches, manage press relations and plan favorable photo opportunities. Reagan participated in all of these activities because he understood that words, and pictures, matter.
In the Trump administration, there is very little orchestration of presidential speech and many of the president’s public appearances are unplugged. Trump’s style of communication, once praised as authentic, increasingly comes across as incoherent and incompetent. After two years in the White House, there are no notable Trump quotes longer than a rally chant.
Some of what happened during the recent State of the Union has made news. There were conciliatory words and thinly veiled threats. There were celebrations of women elected to Congress, tributes to worthy Americans and repetitions of the claim that immigrants are mostly criminals. But did anyone hear the kind of ringing rhetoric likely to stand the test of time? Most Americans are still waiting for the quote that will long be linked to the Trump presidency.
Imagine an elementary school on President’s Day in the not too distant future. The little Lincolns will recite the Gettysburg Address. The young JFKs will ask not what their country can do for them. The would-be Reagans will challenge the “evil empire” and ask Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. What will the Trump tots do? The best guess, at this point, is that they will stand in front of the class, tell the teacher where women can be grabbed if you are a celebrity, and scream “WITCH HUNT” and “NO COLLUSION” in loud capital letter voices.
A version of this essay was published by NBC Think on February 5, 2019.