Tuesday night, President Trump will deliver his first State of the Union address. He will read words that he didn’t write off a teleprompter, and because he’s used to being in front of an audience and on TV, he’ll probably do a competent job. It will mean nothing, of course, as Michael Ian Black noted Monday morning on Twitter:
The White House is already trying to write our reactions for us, hinting that we're about to hear “a speech that resonates with our American values and unites us with patriotism.” Now those are some substance-free words! And they won't be the last.
To reiterate: In real-world terms, speeches are empty acts of theater. It's as true with Trump as it was with Obama—they might move or inspire you, but divorced from policy, they're paper-thin. However, the emptiness of Tuesday's exhibition will not deter some pundits from gushing like fanboys at the “tone” the president strikes. They will call him presidential, they will marvel at the lack of insults, and they will anoint him a worthy commander-in-chief…regardless of what might have transpired in the unfortunate year that just passed.
And I'm not talking about the right-wing media ghouls at Fox News or InfoWars or Breitbart—we know they'll be over the moon, because that's the only bullet in their chamber. I'm talking about the allegedly “objective” types who think of D.C. politics as one massive game, are blind to its effects on real people, and are desperate to return to a fantasy world where their professional beat is more like a Victorian parlour drama than a dystopian nightmare. And these pundits belong to a special class of credulous nitwits—they are like lapdogs, panting breathlessly, eager to ignore reality and be fooled by stagecraft.
Expect a lot of this:
Here are the ten pundits most likely to fall for the spectacle coming our way Tuesday night, based on their reactions to Trump's past speeches and actions.
Yeahhhh! You knew it was coming. Cillizza is the king of getting fooled by pageantry. Here he is after Trump spoke at a rally in Pennsylvania earlier this month, nominally to tout his economic message but actually to promote a local House candidate:
One helpful Twitter user, in response to this tweet, compiled a list of Cillizza's greatest “Trump is presidential!” hits. It's incredible:
He's also routinely writing stories with headlines like “Why Donald Trump's boring speech at Davos was a win for him,” which are somehow both craven and meaningless.
Chris Cillizza is the absolute worst.
Van Jones seemed like he might be an important figure in the hashtag resistance after his decent performance on election night. Then, just a couple months after inauguration day, when Trump ordered an ill-fated and pointless attack in Yemen that went fubar from the start and cost the lives of 20 civilians and one Navy SEAL (over dinner, no less!), refused to accept any blame as he passed the buck to Obama and his generals, and then “honored” that SEAL's wife in a speech to Congress that doubled as a cynical attempt to wrap himself in the flag, even though the SEAL's dad (another veteran) was so pissed off he wouldn't even meet with Trump…well, here's what Van Jones had to say about all that:
“He became president of the United States in that moment. Period.”
“That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics. Period.”
It's still nauseating to watch. It should not be this easy to manipulate someone. Period.
After that same meaningless speech to Congress:
For what it's worth, as Jacob Weindling pointed out at the time, Trump had spent the early part of the day wondering if a series of vandalism incidents in Jewish cemeteries might be false flag operations undertaken by Jewish people themselves. Capital-P presidential!
Going back to the well, post-Yemen speech:
Is there any clearer indication than this tweet that the guy thinks empty theater is on par with policy?
By the way, I have to feature Cillizza’s tweet from the day after that speech: “Why can’t Trump be praised for delivering a good speech full stop?”
BECAUSE A SPEECH DOESN’T MATTER. That would be true even if the speech wasn’t a cynical ploy.
All it took for Trump to “become president” in Zakaria’s mind was bombing an empty air field in Syria:
Oh yeah, he’s ripe for the picking tonight.
A controversial inclusion, because Fox News, but Wallace sometimes seems like the most reasonable mind at that station. A low bar, but an important distinction, since he can even sometimes be a bit critical. Anyway, here he was after the Yemen speech:
“I feel like tonight, Donald Trump became president of the United States.”
And here he was after the inauguration speech:
The man loves speeches!
She cried on election night because the prospect of Trump was so bad, but after the Yemen speech, she could barely contain her enthusiasm:
“You know what I saw tonight with Donald Trump? Not only was he more presidential, he was a politician. That was a dirty word to Donald Trump, it was a dirty word to a lot of his supporters, but tonight, he was a politician. He reached out to both sides, he reached out to Democrats, he reached out to Republicans, he reached out to people who may not have supported him.”
God, read some of this, also from the joint address to congress.
President Trump pushed the reset button after a rocky first month in office, delivering an on-message joint address to Congress that outlined his vision for America…
It was a remarkably different tone than the president’s usual speeches, including his inaugural address when he promised to stop “American carnage” and painted a gloomy view of the country. There were no campaign-like riffs, no boasting of his electoral victory, no bashing of the media or taunts or jeers at his opponents…
But Trump looked to silence any criticism by putting the spotlight solely on the deeply emotional widow. Owens received a sustained standing ovation from across the chamber, her eyes looking toward the sky and arms stretched upward as tears rolled across her grief-stricken face…
It was that action that had even some of Trump’s fiercest critics praising him after the speech, showing why it could be one of the most enduring moments from the critical address.
This was before the big debate feud, but in April 2016, Megyn Kelly literally called Trump more presidential because he said “Senator Cruz” instead of “Lyin’ Ted”:
And you heard Donald Trump tonight sounding, you tell me, more presidential? Senator Cruz, not “Lyin’ Ted,” did you notice that? Back with us now, Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, and Monica Crowley, Fox News contributor and host of The Monica Crowley Show on radio. Monica, what do you think? I don’t know if I’ve ever heard Donald Trump call Ted Cruz “Senator Cruz.”
Back to the Yemen speech one last time:
You’re hearing people say it’s been 40 days and 40 nights since he’s been in the White House, and dare we say that for the first time I’m hearing people say he looked and sounded presidential. I thought even his delivery was very different.
Look, I could go on…interminably. It’s that prevalent in mainstream journalism. Read Media Matters for more. But here’s a little shorthand for knowing when a pundit is more concerned with “optics” bs: Do they use the phrase “became president”? Do they say words like “presidential,” “pivot,” “tone,” “delivery,” or even “optics” itself? Do they react to a speech not by analyzing its content, but by vomiting a bunch of adjectives that describe the style of the speech? If the answer is yes, then you have a superficial smoke-blower on your hands. And no matter what they say tonight, remember that all Trump will accomplish is to read words off a teleprompter. It doesn’t matter, at all, ever, in any way. The pundits are old hands at fooling themselves, but don’t let them fool you.