President Donald Trump’s 2018 State of the Union was as promised: a reasonably normal speech, read in a reasonably normal way, by a politician for whom the bar is set far, far below “reasonably normal.” And so we can expect the celebration, the hosannas, the cheers that accompany Trump’s occasional forays into acting, just for a moment, like his predecessors.
And yet, watching Trump’s speech, watching him hold back the chaos and energy and fury and strangeness that has defined his political career, I couldn’t help thinking that Donald Trump is the only politician in American history who looks smaller when surrounded by the trappings of the presidency.
Take away Trump’s Twitter account, his feuds, the circus-like atmosphere he brings to politics, and what is left, exactly? A novice politician struggling mightily, visibly, to stay on script. A man play-acting at the role of the presidency, reading lines he does not seem to fully believe or understand, mouthing fealty to an agenda he was meant to disrupt, confined to a cadence he finds unnatural, overwhelmed by the swamp he promised to master, clapping for himself directly into the microphone.
Trump’s speech was a lengthy, cherry-picked tour of his administration’s record. He read the remarks verbatim, though at times it seemed to pain him to bite back the ad libs and meta-commentary that makes his rallies so compulsively watchable. “We have gone forward with a clear vision and a righteous mission,” he said, “to make America great again for all Americans.” He didn’t pick fights, or launch attacks, or lash the media, or complain about “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer.” At times, the speech looked as if it were beamed from Earth 2, where Donald Trump is a normal, if slightly dull, career politician.
It is not that Trump’s first year was devoid of substance. He passed a massive package of tax cuts, though they were both unpopular and, in the estimation of most economists, ill-designed. He repealed a slew of regulations and successfully appointed a Supreme Court justice. He presided over a strong economy and did not embroil us in any new wars. He has thrown the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program into peril.
But this was not the presidency that was promised; it was not the upending of American politics that was expected. During the heady days following Trump’s election, his chief strategist imagined a grand future, a realignment of massive scale:
The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over. If we deliver, we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years. That’s what the Democrats missed. They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about.
But as the year wore on, it became clear that Trump steamrolled the Republican establishment to win the White House only to meekly submit to their agenda once in office. What happened to the candidate who promised to drain the swamp, to give every American free health care, to raise taxes on his fellow billionaires, to speak for the forgotten American, to force multinationals to think first about American workers, to rip up our trade deals and reset our relationship with China and make Mexico pay for the wall?
That Trump was absent tonight, much as he’s been absent from the White House’s official actions throughout the past year. As McKay Coppins wrote in the Atlantic:
For all his anti-establishment bluster, Trump has proven to be a paper tiger as president. Instead of cracking down on Wall Street plutocrats, he’s appointed them to his cabinet and given them tax cuts. Instead of browbeating world leaders, he’s let them flatter him into submission with theatrically obsequious state visits. Instead of locking out the sneering media elites, he’s pantingly courted the approval of New York Times reporters and book-writing dandies from Manhattan. And while he hobnobs in Davos with the globalist glitterati, the ragtag team of loyal lieutenants who set out in 2016 to upturn the established order with Trump has been largely shoved to the sidelines or purged altogether from his White House.
The Trump presidency has not been uneventful. But as I argued earlier this week, its vibrancy, its ferocity, its dominance thrums in Trump’s tweets, in the reality show he is running from the Oval Office, in the daily dramas in which he pits himself against everyone from Hillary Clinton to Jay-Z to the FBI.
The Trump Show owns the national conversation, it obsesses the country, it has won more daily mindshare than almost any political drama in American history, but it is, to a shocking extent, cordoned off from the actual work of the Trump presidency. And Trump seems to like it that way — he is a man who values his “executive time,” his late mornings, his sampling of cable news, and he is happy to leave not just the details but the direction of governance to others.
This is why Trump’s State of the Union was so strange. Watching him try to be the president, and just the president, is watching him be cut off from the source of his power, pretending to do and understand the parts of the job he has clearly left to others. Trump touted a stock and labor market whose record-breaking run began before his administration; he bragged about a tax bill that is the kind of bog-standard conservative plutocracy he promised to end; and every few minutes, the camera cut to one of the many Goldman Sachs alumni advising him, and then back to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence, icons of the GOP establishment, smiling beatifically behind him.
“For the last year we have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government,” Trump said tonight. But his speech was a reminder of how true that isn’t. He promised a populist revolution, but he has governed as a cut-rate Paul Ryan, in large part because the hard work of governing does not interest him. The State of the Union was a reminder that Trump has not grown into this role, that Twitter makes him look bigger but the presidency makes him look smaller.