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This couldn’t have been what the Framers had in mind when they cooked up the State of the Union.
President Donald Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday was like a jaw-dropping mash-up of Oprah-style giveaways, tear-jerking network soap operas, and awkward wedding proposals delivered on Jumbotrons.
Trump gave Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom during the speech. He set up grieving parents, siblings, and spouses to weep before the cameras. He staged a surprise reunion of a military family. All while making a jaw-dropping play for black voters and a dark, extended, hatred-stoking riff on undocumented immigrants.
The unresolved question for Democrats was how to react to it.
Strategy A: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who ended the broadcast with an indelible TV moment of her own: tearing up her paper copy of the speech, in a move destined to be GIF’d and meme’d and replayed ad infinitum on cable news.
Strategy B: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who delivered a standard-issue Democratic response from a high school gym in Michigan that might as well have been an alternate universe. Whitmer was typical American politics, warm smiles and earnest words and bids for unity, reason, and facts.
But are nice people with facts going to win the 2020 election? Or is it only possible to beat Donald Trump with theatrics, disgust, and an entertaining edge?
In the hours after the speech, that debate raged on — with some predicting that Pelosi’s big gesture would create a backlash, or worse. “Pelosi's act dishonored the institution and destroyed even the pretense of civility and decorum in the House,” tweeted George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, an anti-impeachment witness before the House Judiciary Committee. (His tweet didn’t mention the part where Trump blew off a Pelosi handshake.)
“The president’s kryptonite is substance and reason. You cannot beat him at stagecraft and emotion,” tweeted Politico writer Tim Alberta.
But some Trump haters weren’t buying it.
“What exactly have substance and reason gotten the Democrats so far?” someone tweeted at Alberta in response.
The frustration is understandable; over the past three years, a cascade of presidential falsehoods, about everything from crowd size to phone calls with foreign presidents, has gone unpunished. An impeachment proceeding built on substance and reason has gone nowhere. On Tuesday, as Republicans hooted and cheered and led chants of “four more years,” the pool cameras occasionally cut to U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler, House managers in the impeachment trial, looking bemused and resigned to defeat.
Pelosi, too, looked stunned during some of the president’s speech — she smiled wanly at points, shook her head, even went slack-jawed as Trump launched into a tirade about sanctuary cities. But she didn’t come across as resigned. Among the Democratic leaders, Pelosi may not be the smoothest talker, but she is the best, hands-down, at nonverbal communication. From her sarcastic-looking, arms-extended clap at last year’s State of the Union to her standing-up-to-power moment at a White House meeting in October, she has managed to craft small moments into lingering symbolism.
... are nice people with facts going to win the 2020 election? Or is it only possible to beat Donald Trump with theatrics, disgust, and an entertaining edge?
Trump’s State of the Union speech wasn’t designed to linger. It was meant to be experienced in real-time, to wash over a crowd of viewers at home and then dissipate into the ether. He hinted that his predecessor had harmed the economy, instead of pulled it out of a recession. He bragged about people lifting themselves off food stamps, when, in fact, his administration has cut back eligibility. He claimed he would “always protect patients with pre-existing conditions” when he has repeatedly pushed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. It didn’t matter what the fact-checkers were going to say. The audience he cared about — loyal Republican partisans and apolitical casual viewers — wouldn’t be searching for confirmation.
The Democrats’ standard response is still to breathlessly correct the record, and there’s nothing wrong with that; facts need to be recorded. But as Democrats eye debates and proxy conversations with Trump, they’ll need more than just facts to win. That won’t necessarily mean joining Trump in the insult-flinging mud. But it will mean understanding how to use theatrics to their advantage.
Whitmer’s speech wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t memorable, like Pelosi’s move. It wasn’t theatrical, at least not in a Trumpian way. It did what a standard opposition response is supposed to do: describe policies, set a respectful tone, systematically made an argument — in this case, that the president couldn’t be trusted. “You can listen to what someone says,” Whitmer said, “but to know the truth, watch what they do.”
On Tuesday, Trump was betting that, in today’s entertainment-driven political arena, the saying matters more. The fact that he was standing at that podium in the first place is reason to believe he might be right.
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