Makes no difference what you think about Donald Trump, last night’s State of the Union address stands as a stellar example of brilliant political speech. For his purposes—mainly to keep but especially expand his political base looking to the midterms and to November 2020—the speech (but not necessarily the delivery in its entirety) was nearly flawless.
To understand why and how, you must first realize that crafting political language in all its many forms—of which the art of conceiving, writing, and delivering a speech is but one—is not a didactic exercise. It is an excursion in impression management or, if you like a rawer term, manipulation. As I invariably tell audiences and students when I am speaking from my book Political Writing: A Guide to the Essentials, in political writing—and in speechwriting especially—one should never “commit a truth.” This language is deliberately chosen to gather attention in order to suggest that saying something just because it’s true amounts to a crime in the “dark arts” of impression management. Truth has to serve an impression management function or it doesn’t belong there.
This is hard for a lot of academics and intellectuals to accept—so hard, in fact, that it rarely even occurs to them, leading many to misjudge the power of political language on account of a category error. This is perhaps one of the reasons why virtually no American political scientist took Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency, seriously.
This doesn’t mean that a political actor making a speech should go out of his or her way to lie, but it does mean that manicuring the truth, let’s put it, is not always off limits if it serves a noble purpose. And of course it is very easy for a political actor, whatever his or her views, to be persuaded of noble purpose, or at least a purpose nobler than the other guy’s, because it’s baked into the very nature of open political competition. Donald Trump served up 18 lies or misleading statements last night, as calculated—fairly accurately, it seems to me—by the Washington Post’s fact-checkers. That’s a lot for a speech of just more than 5,000 words, maybe even a record for State of the Union addresses if one is trying to count lies as a proportion of the entire text.
Did Trump or his speechwriters know they were peddling lies and varyingly misleading statements? Hard to say, but that’s not what matters in the assessment of an effective political speech. What matters is that the lies, misstatements, and over-the-line exaggerations need be of a certain kind to work in an impression-management exercise. They must be of a sort that refuting them takes at least three times as many words as it took to fire off the original fib. That means, in turn, that the fibs have to nest in a context ambiguous enough to sound plausible without being actually true. When that’s the case, wordy and didactic refutation after the fact comes way too late to erase the impression left by the original “story,” in which each fib is part of a tapestry of impression management that makes its mark as a whole, not as a mere assemblage of sentences and phrases.
If the refutation involves numbers, or what passes for an actual, factual explanation, the effort is doomed before it begins. As Mark Twain put it in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, “There, there, never mind, don’t explain, I hate explanations; they fog a thing up so that you can’t tell anything about it.” That was true for politics in Twain’s time and remains true in ours when you realize that roughly three-quarters of the electorate has not graduated from a four-year college. The number quickly gets a lot larger when you factor in those who have graduated from a second- or third-tier college and those whose chosen majors put little or no premium on critical thinking or dealing with abstractions. In short, dear reader, if you’re reading this in The American Interest you may need to be reminded that, no, you are not a modal voter, and your infosphere differs in significant ways from the modal audience Trump was addressing last night. If that shocks you, it means you need to get out more.
Let us count the ways that last evening’s State of the Union address was brilliant.
It started with a skein of talk about natural disasters and tragedies such as the Las Vegas shootings. Why is this brilliant? Not just because of its emotive character, and not just because these are uncontroversial issues—no one, after all, outside of a psychiatric institution roots for a hurricane or a madman shooting at innocent people from a hotel window. It’s brilliant because dwelling on these kinds of tragedies create an instantaneous community of souls. It enables the rest of the speech to proceed on the tacit basis of “we” instead of “him and me.” It works that way because everyone is a part of the story: Everyone experiences the weather; it’s small-talk, and most ordinary quotidian speech is small talk.
Note the speech’s structure, too: simple vocabulary, short sentences, short paragraphs. (Yes, it’s true that Trump stumbled trying to pronounce the monosyllabic “scourge,” but hey, that’s a tough one for someone who doesn’t read much and is proud of it.) Even the most complex issues raised, like immigration or taxes, took up only a few sentences. There was absolutely nothing didactic about the speech, no words in it that did not point the listener’s emotions in the right direction.
Contrast that, if you feel like taking the time, with any of the State of the Union addresses delivered by Barack Obama, or for that matter, by George W. Bush or Bill Clinton before him. The difference is obvious, and large. Trump can pull off this level of simplicity in part because no one really expects more from him. But pull it off he did.
Note also that there are no real numbers in the speech, only symbolic/iconic numbers, most of which turn out literally to be either false or yanked out of context. Doesn’t matter: Audiences like to hear some numbers because it lends an air of gravitas to the speaker, but they don’t like to be victims of statistical shrapnel—and if you lose your audience once in a political speech, you’ve emotionally lost them for the duration. You’ve broken the spell.
Trump appealed to a fine balance of fear and nostalgia in the speech. But even the fear is managed so as to convey the idea that the source of the fear is being overcome, being bested. This is Reaganesque “morning in America” territory, and it works. Most voters do not like to hear doom and gloom about threats to America or about their own circumstances; if they did, then Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech would have been recognized, at the time and since, as one of the most profound and philosophically challenging speeches delivered by an American President since the Civil War—which is of course the reason it flopped so badly and hobbled him politically. Most people like happy endings, and they especially like to be able to visualize themselves as being included in those happy endings. It’s a June Allyson film, adapted to politics. You may find this sort of thing cloying and simpleminded, just as I laughed hysterically through much of Love Story years ago and nearly got thrown out of the theater. But most people don’t find this sort of thing cloying or simpleminded, and anyway, as Max Frankel once wrote, “Simplemindedness is not a handicap in the competition of social ideas.” To the contrary.
This State of the Union speech was not different in essence from Trump’s wild campaign rhetoric, but last night all the campaign wildness was toned down. We heard nothing about “carnage.” We heard instead about “MS-13.” This language carried exactly the same message, of course, but without the sharper edge; that’s what you do when you want not just to reassure your base but also to expand it.
Meanwhile, remember how the Democrats looked when the camera panned across them during the speech? They all looked like they were in a dentist’s chair with their thumbs firmly up their butts. They did not applaud, they did not smile, they barely moved at all, not even to blink. And what impression did this make on viewers? That the Democrats are downers, no fun, barely human at best. From a political image point of view, Trump boxed their ears last night, and there was nothing they could do about it but glumly play their part.
Above all, this was a television performance speech. I have already made the point that Trump’s is a quintessential television presidency. Last night’s speech illustrated the point in spades. We have grown used to the soap opera interludes in State of the Union performances, in which Joe Hero and Jill Heroine stand in the balcony, to be lauded and applauded by those present beneath the Capitol dome, but more importantly also by those sitting in front of their television screens across the land.
This has been going on for years, and the reason is clear. Once the psych-sharp consultants got hold of these political guys, they persuaded them that concretizing their points in personal narratives, with images of real people broadcast far and wide, was vastly more persuasive than making general points using non-visualized abstract language. But last night Trump smashed the soap-opera record into smithereens. I counted twenty Joe Hero-type name droppings, and that doesn’t even include the image-evoking language about the “Cajun Navy,” doctors, soldiers, policeman, and so on.
This is the Oprah model. The model’s unbreakable iron rule is that no abstract thought is permitted unless attended by human images that concretize the message the dark artist wishes to convey. This is, just by the way, how much of the programming “content” of television came fairly quickly to imitate the commercials, which is where the production money really goes, and where the manipulation is thickest, for obvious reasons.
And it works. It sells razor blades, bacon, toilet paper, and politicians alike. It works for politicians because modal Americans do not feel comfortable listening to general discussions about which they lack thick personal experience, but they like and (think they) understand stories. So that’s what a smart political engineer provides for them.
What about the policy substance in the speech? A lot of it consisted of gimmes. Who thinks the VA hospital system works well and doesn’t need improvement? No one who’s been paying attention. Who thinks the FDA has done a good job in allowing very ill Americans to try experimental therapies as a last resort? No one. Who thinks the Federal bureaucracy isn’t bloated, ponderous, and self-serving? Only people who are part of it—and, frankly, not even that many of them.
Plenty of people, too—some of them Democrats, independents, or Whigs like me—think that sequestration has harmed national security and that the defense budget needs boosting. Plenty of Never Trumpers also think that the individual mandate within Obamacare was unconstitutional, notwithstanding the weird, convoluted reasoning of the Supreme Court, and that there were and still are much better ways to stabilize the health care insurance pool.
Beyond the gimmes and the mini-points, the speech had three real deliverables, as we speechwriters, current and “recovering,” call them: taxes, immigration, and infrastructure. The discussions of the opioid problem, drug prices, the individual mandate repeal of Obamacare, and the whole short and non-specific foreign policy/national security pieces were sprinkled nicely, along with the gimmes, around these three main areas. The sprinkling works like a door-to-door salesman’s ability to make eye contact and get people nodding by themselves subtly nodding, so that when they ask a question that needs a “yes” answer, they often get it because most people find it hard to say “no” when they’re nodding their heads up and down. Same basic idea here: Sprinkling lines that get the “yes” gestures coming predisposes the viewer to keep nodding “yes” even when a more controversial issue is set before them. Clever, huh?
So now let’s look at the three big items. As to taxes, the new law is a plutocratic heist of the highest order. But those aspects are opaque to most people, and deliberately so. But it does contain elements that suffice to cheer fairly large numbers of middle and lower-middle class voters. A lot of these elements are deceptive, and many of the promises proffered are either false or won’t be kept. No matter; a lot of people will focus on what provides up-front gratification, and when the other shoe drops—if they ever hear it—it will make a noise too complicated for most taxpayers to care about.
As to immigration, what Trump outlined last night actually makes good sense to a lot of Americans, even those who do not especially like The Donald. It does not differ very much from what George W. Bush proposed back in January 2004. That proposal made sense to me, in what was perhaps the only case in which Bush got sideways from his base on a domestic policy issue. But the Bush White House screwed up the sale, unfortunately; if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t be stuck in the mess we’re in now.
I think most Americans in the sane center believe in a path to citizenship for many undocumented aliens, believe in the need for better border security if not some idiotic physical wall, believe in reconfiguring immigration to aid the economy, and know that the family reunification aspects of the law have long been out of control. Many people who have devoted some time and effort to studying the problem also understand that, for all the many benefits immigration brings both economically and culturally to the United States, it has hurt many lower-income citizens, and that too much immigration too fast has exacted a toll on social trust.
These are not radical views, and they bespeak no racism or xenophobia; those on the Left who claim otherwise should join the demagogy sweepstakes along with a lot of lately loony Republicans. No, they are ideas that the Trump White House may be able to use to successfully triangulate a legislative success, much as Bill Clinton did with welfare reform. Democrats may boast now that they will never defect in sufficient numbers to help Trump pass an immigration bill that looks like the one he described last night, but that’s what many Republicans said about welfare reform back in the day, too. We’ll see.
As to infrastructure, it’s foolish to throw money at fixing legacy infrastructure arrangements when so many opportunities exist to make them so much better. The problem here is not the technology but the mis-organization of government all at levels for thinking, planning, building, and maintaining new ways of doing things. Nowhere in government at any level is there a place to do that. The same problem afflicted the Obama Administration’s so-called shovel-ready projects. It still hasn’t been solved, and it won’t be solved until we have the kind of leadership capable of understanding both the potential of new infrastructure designs and the “software” organizational obstacles we face in implementing them.
That said, no one I know thinks that the current, constipated, NIMBY-propelled way we do infrastructure is anything but catastrophic. The chairman of TAI’s own editorial board, Francis Fukuyama, is no more a fan of Donald Trump than I am, but his analysis of the “vetocracy” we all labor under cannot but at least grudgingly give Trump’s language its due. Just because Trump says something doesn’t ipso facto make it wrong. It’s not like everything in American public policy was so peachy before November 2016; if it had been, Donald Trump would never have gotten anywhere within belching range of the Oval Office. When Trump said last night, “is it not a disgrace that it can now take ten years just to get a permit to build a simple road?” it positively galled me to have to agree. But I had no choice.
That doesn’t mean that I will ever vote for this man or anyone he goes out of his way to endorse for office. I agree with Philip Roth’s recent remark (notwithstanding my general distaste for him and his oeuvre) that Trump is an “ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon” and “the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.” But most voters have never heard of Philip Roth, don’t know what a commedia dell’arte figure is, and, most important, don’t give a shit.
Trump may be all these things and worse. But what Roth and so many others seem not to appreciate is that this deeply insecure man has managed to deploy a range of coping mechanisms over the years in a way that has primed him for political success in the current dislocated American context. Head-spinning technology-driven changes that spite many of our cherished inherited beliefs about ourselves are the vanguard of that dislocation, a dislocation whose consequent institutional dysfunctions have overtaken the skills and imaginations of a self-satisfied and insular hollow elite from both major parties as though they were standing still in a forced sprint for relevance.
Into the vacuum Trump has come, having done, almost certainly without knowing it, what many character actors have been known to do—people who come alive when in character, but who deflate to a personality-deficient blob when they are not. He has managed to export his demons into a television persona that, in the current American cultural environment, has hit the celebrity political jackpot—with last night’s State of the Union address the apex, so far, of his success. He is truly a man of his times but, alas, his times are poor in virtue and much real national political talent. That, at least, is not his fault.