Jared Yates Sexton is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University. He is the author of The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage.
Above all, the State of the Union is a spectacle. Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, there are the requisite shots: the president leaving the White House, the president entering the chamber, the standing ovations, the executive in front of the vice-president and the speaker of the house. These are traditions, but they’re also symbols of the normal state of affairs. But with Donald Trump as president, the presentation has a particularly gilded affectation. When he enters the presidential limo, he acknowledges the cameras. When he tells you the state of the union is strong, it’s with a wink.
In his own words: Read Trump’s State of the Union address
On Tuesday, President Trump stood in front of the country and began his address: He framed his agenda as non-partisan, promising it wasn’t Republican or Democrat. And then he proceeded to present a narrative that was both distorted and entirely partisan. He credited himself with an economic turn that has been both profitable for the wealthy and disastrous for the majority of the American people. He lauded economic success, while the majority of the country suffered even as they watched.
The America he painted in his speech was dire, a state that was failing despite its economic advances – those failings a result of dangers both near and far. At the border, there were bloodthirsty individuals who, if left unchecked, could overthrow the country itself and endanger every single American within the range of his voice. Around the world, there were arms races to be won and threats to be met. Within the country, there was a political party in opposition that both enabled foreign threats and opposed the sanctity of life.
The imagined solution? A wall that could never exist, a state of internal war without end, an agenda with no basis in reality. The roll out of 3,750 troops for a problem that isn’t real.
This was a speech that existed in a place that has no relationship with the facts of the moment or the lives and affairs of the people of the United States of America. At no point did Mr. Trump even approach a realistic portrait of the state of things. Not when he claimed that he had launched a “boom” with the economy or that “America is winning every day.”
And, especially, not when he made the argument that the well-being of the country would be undermined if Democrats were to examine his alleged crimes or interactions with a hostile foreign power.
“If there’s going to be peace and legislation,” Mr. Trump said, “there cannot be war and investigation.”
The lie here is astounding, the breadth of his attempt to manipulate simply shocking. Mr. Trump was binding his political survival to the well-being of the country itself, his endurance to the persistence of the country’s business.
He gave a call back to his fictional treaty with North Korea, where Kim Jong-un has continued his nuclear program, a fact supported by intelligence despite Mr. Trump’s insistence that their relationship is special and enduring.
The speech enjoyed only a tenuous connection to reality. From thin air, Mr. Trump created a crisis at the border that could only be handled by a wall that will never exist and wouldn’t handle the problem even if it did. He cited a “lawless state” where caravans only appear when politically advantageous and the situation is the chief “moral issue,” even while children separated from their families are being denied their rights to be returned to their families and loved ones. Perhaps the most notable leap from reality: when Holocaust survivors, being asked to stand and receive applause, are lauded by a President who shamelessly defended Neo-Nazis as they marched through an American city, chanted slogans of the National Socialist Party and murdered an American citizen.
This divide between reality and fiction reached a boiling point as the President urged Americans to “reignite the American imagination,” a choice rhetorical appeal considering his campaign slogans have all revolved around the call to “Make America Great Again,” a call to return to a past that never existed, a plea to imagine a time of imagination and myth. Tonight he advocated love and loyalty despite pursuing an agenda of hate, intolerance and infidelity.
The address wasn’t just spectacle: it was fiction, a live stream from an alternate reality with which most of us are unfamiliar. It’s an invitation to join Mr. Trump inside a world where up is down and right is left, a universe where even the most basic laws of logic are upended. A place where the President offers a wink and a wave, and the truth is, above all else, a malleable and pliable thing.