The State of the Union Is Unknown

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Trump shakes hands with Vice Presidenet Pence and Speaker of the House Ryan as he arrives to deliver the State of the Union address on January 30, 2018.

If you watched Tuesday’s State of the Union address on cable television, you were likely treated afterward to the results of instant polls measuring how well the speech was received. Pundits parsed the rhetoric and what it portended. Others evaluated the quality of the speechwriting, or how strongly the special guests highlighted in the president’s remarks plucked at viewers’ heartstrings.

This is how State of the Union addresses are routinely treated, which is why we should not entertain such treatment. We are in a new time, a time in which the president of the United States defies the norms of civilized society, not to mention democracy. To use the normal instruments of evaluation to assess an event presided over by the face of the right wing’s Plunder Project™ is to take part in the normalization of a president, administration, and congressional majority who are dismantling the institutions of the republic, whether to shield the president from reaping the consequences of his alleged misdeeds, or to enable the looting of the commons.

It is not enough to note all the coded racism and nativism in the address, dubbing it “red meat for the base.”

It is not enough to remark in passing that the president mentioned neither the #MeToo movement nor the Russia investigation. Of course he didn’t. Duh.

If there’s anything worth noting in Trump’s endless valedictory, it’s his promise to make it easier for government managers to fire members of the civil service, for breaking government serves his greater goals.

Here’s what we witnessed in the last 24 hours. A man who assumed the White House through a quirk of the U.S. electoral system and with the aid of a hostile foreign power gave a speech to both houses of Congress on the same day that the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation resigned under pressure, just two months before his expected retirement date. The pressure was exerted, at the very least, by the tiny tweeting fingers of the man who assumed the podium on Tuesday night.  

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had led, under former Director James Comey, the investigations of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Republican candidate Donald J. Trump, and of the use of a private email server for government work by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton during her tenure as secretary of state. Having contempt for the outcome of the latter probe, and fear for the potential of the former, Trump had it in for McCabe from the get-go.

A day before Trump strode the halls of the Capitol building and up the center aisle of the House chamber, Andrew McCabe left the FBI building for the last time.

Just a week ago, we learned that Trump had given an order in June to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to oversee the Russia-election-meddling investigation, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was shown to have lied during his confirmation hearing about having met with agents of the Russian Federation (or maybe he just forgot). White House Counsel Don McGahn reportedly threatened to resign rather than execute the order, which Trump issued just weeks after having fired FBI Director James Comey of whom, Comey says, Trump demanded a loyalty pledge that Comey refused to give.

And for the last several days, your nation’s capital is abuzz with speculation that Trump may fire Rosenstein in order to bring someone into his spot in the Justice Department more willing to fire Mueller. (Trump can’t directly fire Mueller; the order has to come from the leadership of the DoJ.)

In other words, the elements of a constitutional crisis are in play, and we’re talking about how a speech given by a charlatan, delivered to his lofty post with the aid of the kleptocratic authoritarian leader of a hostile foreign power, dial-tested among a group of voters somewhere in the heartland.  

So while it matters that the president is a racist who incites the racism of his base, it’s important to remember the purpose to which he’s put his racism: theft of the nation’s resources from all but his cronies. Scapegoated people have died at the hands of mobs to feed greed such as this. Trump’s own mob will suffer death and degradation with the satisfaction of having maimed a health-care program that bore the colloquial name of the nation’s only black president. And the billionaires will have their tax cut. They’ll have the deregulation that threatens the health of everyone’s children but their own. And the president will have his hotel, housed in a building owned by the American people, where foreign dignitaries and other favor-seekers plunk down their thousands, which go straight to the president’s company.

Spare me your approval ratings and smarty-pants analysis of whether the speech hit the mark, or parsing the message it sent. Those are measurements reserved for the political activity in a functioning democracy, not a fledging authoritarian kleptocracy. The only question worth pondering is, how do we stop this?

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