ChrisWeigant.com

My Snap Reactions To The State Of The Union

[ Posted Tuesday, February 5th, 2019 – 23:21 UTC ]

As usual, what follows are my own snap reactions to President Donald Trump's second State Of The Union speech (he's actually now given three such addresses to Congress, but the first one doesn't technically count as a State Of The Union speech). I write all of this before hearing or reading what other pundits thought, so I won't be influenced by any sort of groupthink about the speech.

My usual caveat: all of the quotes I'm using come from my own hastily-jotted notes taken during the speech, and occasionally I will get a word or two wrong. But I don't think I've ever mischaracterized a quote altogether, as I strive to reproduce the essence of what was said. However, when I check these later against the actual transcript, there are always a few minor mistakes, just to warn everyone in advance.

 

General impressions

It was said beforehand that Trump practiced this speech more than he had the other two he has given. I'm not sure if this was true or not, but if so it did seem to help. Trump has always been rather stilted (if not robotic) reading someone else's words off a TelePrompTer, and the contrast to how he speaks at rallies was obvious.

This time around, he still didn't sound like he was speaking to a rally, but he also sounded a lot more at ease about what he was saying. If practice is the reason why, I would suggest he practice all his big speeches in the same fashion, because it seemed to work for him. He was still a bit stiff in places, but overall he sounded a lot more natural than he has in the past.

Trump's speech lasted over 80 minutes, which was about 15-20 minutes too long. Personally, I blame Bill Clinton, who made it acceptable for presidents to run over an hour, so I can't really lay that one at Trump's feet. At least during the "laundry list" phase of the speech, he didn't dwell on any one issue for very long and whipped through his list a lot faster than most State Of The Union laundry lists, I will give him that.

Overall, the speech seemed to kind of fall flat (at least in the less-notable parts) with the audience. More on the notable parts in a moment, but during the meat of the speech it seemed like even the Republicans in the audience weren't all that excited about having to pop up every minute or two for the obligatory standing ovation. The applause from their side of the aisle (where most of the applause came from) was kind of muted. Maybe that's just me, or maybe it was just the microphones in the room not picking it up or something, I don't know.

Of course, the room was a very different one, and the biggest change was Speaker Nancy Pelosi sitting right behind Trump. For most of the speech, she looked like she was either sucking a lemon or biting her own tongue to keep from doing anything more noticeable (such as wildly rolling her eyes). There was some eye-rolling seen, but only from the clips of the Democrats sitting in the audience (the most notable I saw came from Kirsten Gillibrand).

As he did last year, Trump's speech was very heavy on the callouts to specific people he had invited to watch. I lost count, personally, of how many people he gave a big nod to -- D-Day survivors, Holocaust survivors, a child who survived brain cancer, an astronaut, crime victims, former imprisoned felons, etc. -- but then as mentioned, he has done this before. He knows that it is impossible for Democrats to sit on their hands for such compelling and uplifting stories, so he knows that each visitor he names will get a big standing ovation. Maybe that's just me being cynical, but that's how it seemed after the eighth or ninth such shoutout.

The biggest and strangest thing about tonight's speech, though, was the wide range of audience participation, both pro and con. There were chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" (which always sound jarringly Jingoistic to my ears during such an important speech, but whatever...). There were audible groans from the Democratic side while Trump was tossing some "all immigrants are going to kill Americans" red meat out to his base (the loudest one came when Trump was demonizing "the caravans"). But two moments in particular stood out.

Have we ever heard a State Of The Union audience spontaneously break into song before? I seriously doubt it. That's got to be a first. It was a heartfelt moment after Trump had introduced a survivor of both the synagogue attack in Pittsburgh and the Holocaust, and noted that today was his 81st birthday. I'm not sure who started it (it sounded like the Democratic side of the aisle, but I could easily be wrong), but all of a sudden the whole crowd sang "Happy Birthday To You" to the man. It was a genuine and unplanned moment and will likely long be remembered. Trump handled it perfectly, as well, first grinning and then saying to the man: "They wouldn't do that for me, Judah!" He's probably right, but this ad-libbed line got the only big -- and downright unified -- laugh of the whole night, and Trump delivered it well, to his credit.

The second bizarre audience-participation moment came when Trump was bragging about how many jobs he had created for women. The section on the Democratic side of the aisle where all the women in suffragette white were sitting first started applauding, and then one (or more) of them started pointing to themselves -- a clear message to Trump: "You helped get me hired because you helped get me elected, as we took back the House." This led to a big round of laughter from Democrats, as they stole Trump's spotlight so effectively. Who would have thought the "protest moment" during Trump's speech wouldn't be someone angrily yelling back at the president, but hilariously turning his own words against him? This entirely stole Trump's thunder, because his next line was the one they were actually supposed to applaud. Trump tried to recover, first saying: "You weren't supposed to do that," and then, when things quieted down and everyone was taking their seats again, prompted: "Don't sit yet, you're going to like this." He then gave his line, about it being 100 years since women got the vote and how the new Congress had more women in it than ever before. Poor Trump -- he actually designed a line for the Democratic women to cheer, and they jumped the gun on him and cheered the buildup line instead.

Trump finished well, although it did take a long time for him to get there. The last few minutes of his speech were the most poetic and uplifting moments of any speech I've ever seen Trump give, in fact. The rhetoric soared, Trump hit some notes he has never even attempted before, and the whole thing sounded like any president for the past 50 years could have given it. For Trump, this is extraordinary, of course. But I don't want to get too snarky, because he really did wrap things up well at the end.

 

Specific impressions

The speech was billed as one of "unity." Trump was going to reach out to the Democrats and attempt to lay out an agenda they might actually work together on. He would face the new reality of a divided Congress by showing that he could meet them in the middle on certain issues.

For once, the speech actually did almost live up to this billing. In the past two big speeches Trump gave, the White House also teased togetherness, but neither one really lived up to the billing. This one almost did, at least in certain parts. However, Trump has yet to learn that just using the language of unity is not the same thing as actually unifying anyone.

It was a nice speech (again, other than for a few specific parts), and was much better written than his previous two. But I don't expect things to change in Washington one iota, because I don't expect Trump to follow through on any of what he loftily called for tonight.

It has been said that tonight's speech was really the launch of Trump's 2020 campaign. Seen through that lens, it's easy to classify the speech as an attempt to reach out to certain voters who have turned away from Trump in droves (see: the midterms). But, again, lofty rhetoric in one speech simply does not equate to actually caring about any of these groups' concerns in any meaningful way, so I doubt this is going to help him much politically over the course of the next year.

Trump stumbled in his very first call to unity, although it is such a common thing these days that few will likely notice it. He spoke of a "moment of unlimited potential" and hoped that "we will govern not as two parties but as one nation," and that his own agenda was "not a Republican or Democrat agenda."

Right in the middle of attempting to reach out for unity, Trump repeated an intentional slur that Republicans have been using for years (a New Yorker article about this ran in 2006, for instance: "The -Ic Factor"). When anyone using standard English grammar would say "the Democratic Party" or "the Democratic agenda" or any other use of the party's name as a modifier; the proper word is, of course, "Democratic." It's right there in the name of the party, after all. But Republicans, in a sophomoric "Snerk, snerk, aren't we cute" sort of way, have been using "the Democrat Party" for years, for some unfathomable reason. Why it would be a more negative way to put it is beyond me, and it always just sounds like the speaker is a little stupid when it comes to grammar. And that's what Trump used -- right in the middle of his big speech's first call for unity. I'd love to see the speech text "as prepared for delivery" that they hand out to journalists beforehand, in order to see whether this was the speechwriter's intent or just a Trump ad lib, personally. It's not a big deal, to be sure, but it was jarring nonetheless. When is some stalwart Democrat going to correct this idiotic slur and say: "We're the Democratic Party, so please use the correct name," after all?

Personal bugaboos aside, the most hilarious line of the night (to me, at least) came next, after some uplifting gauzy bits about liberating Europe in World War II and putting a man on the moon. Trump then spent some time getting back to his unity theme, saying Democrats needed to "reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution," so they could embrace compromise for the common good. Democrats had the choice: "greatness or gridlock." Trump digressed into some back-patting here to lead up to the traditional "The state of the Union is strong" line (which bizarrely prompted the first of the U-S-A! chants), but then stopped dancing around the subject and told the Democratic House what he expected of them. Democrats, Trump warned, would kill any chance of unity if they decided to engage in "foolish political wars and ridiculous partisan investigations." In case anybody didn't get the point, he laid it out even more plainly: "There cannot be war and investigations. It just doesn't work that way." There was no applause for these lines, from either side of the aisle.

I, however, was rolling on the floor laughing. How funny -- Trump wants so badly to unify Congress and get things done that there simply won't be any time left for them to investigate him. BWAH hah hah hah! Man, talk about some wishful thinking!

This is a man who has called for more partisan investigations than I can even count. How many times (and how recently, for that matter) has he called for further investigations into Hillary Clinton? Hundreds? Thousands? One of his signature rally lines was "Lock her up!" after all (a line that is getting more ironic with every Trump stooge that goes to prison, by the way). Trump seems to think the Justice Department should really be his own legal firm that goes after his political enemies like a pit bill, and now he's warning against "ridiculous partisan investigations"?!? Man, that is amusing!

Let's see, what else do my notes say... Trump took one story -- the one about sentencing reform -- during a shoutout to an invited guest and turned it into being all about him ("I knew I did something right" he said, after watching her family greet her at the prison gates), but that's pretty much just par for Trump's course.

Then Trump got animated, as he shifted to demonizing immigrants and begging for money for his precious wall. The language was just as frightening as ever. The caravan of Central American refugees was a "tremendous onslaught." Shutting down the border should somehow (?) be an act of "love and devotion." I don't know the exact context, but I wrote down one particularly interesting quote (I missed something in the middle of it, admittedly): "Tolerance... is very cruel." There were the usual scare stories of sex traffickers (although, thankfully, he didn't start talking about fictional duct tape), modern-day slavery, drugs, gangs, MS-13, and being "murdered by criminal aliens." It was a "very dangerous border," and Trump would "never abolish our heroes from ICE."

Of course, everyone expected this, but nonetheless it pretty much negated all of Trump's other calls for unity. When he takes ten minutes of his big speech to do nothing more than shovel red-meat xenophobia to his right-wing media enablers, it's hard to square that with some wonderful dawn of bipartisanship, after all.

After the scarefest was over, Trump launched into his laundry list: build the wall, lotsa jobs for everyone (women, African-Americans, etc.), trade deals with China and to replace NAFTA, more tariffs, infrastructure, prescription drug prices, eliminating HIV and AIDS in ten years, cancer research, school choice, paid family leave, a national ban on late-term abortions, bragging about NATO, missile defense, more missiles in general, a date for his second North Korea summit, Socialism is bad, Jerusalem embassy is good, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State, the Taliban, and probably a few things I didn't have time to jot down. The list, for the most part, went extremely fast, mostly (I supposed) because he crammed so many individual items into it. Some were curve balls no one saw coming. Some were standard Trump talking points. Much of it was patting himself on the back, once again.

Trump finally began wrapping up by introducing yet another few guests, the father of a serviceman killed in the U.S.S. Cole attack and the Holocaust survivor who had the United States Congress sing "Happy Birthday" to him. The timing of this was really perfect for Trump, because this was the point of the speech where he really entered the home stretch.

As mentioned previously, this was the most soaring bit of oratory that I've ever heard Trump utter, so kudos to whichever speechwriter was in charge of the closing bits. He sounded like he was channelling his inner Woody Guthrie when he started talking about all the various places in America (starting with the rocky coast of Maine). One line in particular stood out for me: "We have not yet begun to dream." That's a great line for any politician to use, really, so again some brownie points for the speechwriter. Even his last lines -- designed to get his campaign slogans in -- were much better than ever before: "We must choose greatness. We must keep American first in our hearts." So Trump ended on about as high a note as he could have possibly managed.

 

The Democratic response

Stacey Abrams had a challenging task, because as always, she had no idea what Trump was actually going to say. She prepared her speech ahead of time, as usual. So there was nothing in her speech that directly responded to anything Trump said. Again, this is not unique, as all opposition responders face the same challenge.

Abrams chose to present her speech in an unnamed venue in Atlanta, with supporters standing on risers behind her. They did not applaud or engage with the speech in any way, which meant that Abrams got no feedback at all from what she was saying. This, again, is usual, and is why the response speeches are always at a disadvantage to the presidential speech (with all the regular overly-enthusiastic standing ovations).

When Abrams began, her cadence was a little too speedy, I thought. By the end, however, she had found a natural pace and it didn't seem as rushed. She began by introducing herself with a story of growing up and her father giving his only coat away. She used this to make the point that "we're not alone" because we've all got to be pulling for each other to make things better. She then briefly told of handing out food to furloughed federal workers during the shutdown, taking her first clear shot at Trump: "The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States."

She moved on to her own bipartisan political experience, then decried the White House's "timid response" to school shootings. Kindergarteners going through active-shooter training is morally wrong, in other words.

She hit Republicans for "just not understanding" the middle class, and what ordinary working Americans go through on a daily basis, and hit the Trump tax cuts for being targeted at the wealthy. She hit Trump for "farmers caught in a trade war" who were hurting, and for caging children at the border. She got off one of her best lines on immigration, in fact: "America is made stronger by immigrants, not walls." She made the case that Democrats stood strongly for Obamacare and for expanding Medicaid to save lives (Georgia has refused to do so, to date).

She really hit her stride on something that has always been a key issue for her -- made more acute by her close loss and all the shenanigans engineered by her opponent. She spoke at length about preserving and strengthening the right to vote, and charged: "Voter suppression is real. We can no longer ignore these threats to democracy." She called fighting for voting rights the "next battle for democracy," and took direct aim at Mitch McConnell, scorning him for calling efforts to make voting easier some sort of Democratic "power grab." However, this point would have been a lot stronger if she had called for something some other Democrats have proposed: a "Right To Vote" constitutional amendment. I was personally disappointed that she didn't mention this effort, because I strongly support it.

She then whipped through her own list of things Democrats fought for, moving even faster than Trump did during his laundry list: abortion rights, LGBTQ, and "calling racism what it is -- wrong."

She ended on her own call to unity, finishing with: "the state of our Union will always be strong."

Overall, it was a decent speech, and well-delivered. She took some clear shots at Trump and the Republicans while never getting overly negative. She laid out how Democrats see many issues in stark contrast to the Republican vision. She hit a lot of high points. And she's an excellent public speaker with a lot of experience, which should have been obvious to all.

But I must confess that I missed some of her high points because she was talking fast and because my hand was cramping up from writing so much, so fast, for so long (I'm not used to two hours of uninterrupted note-taking, in other words). This is to my discredit, and not to hers, which I freely admit.

Was the speech memorable? Will it help launch her into the next phase of her political career? I'm not sure, personally. It's hard to be all that memorable in a ten-minute speech, after all, and most State Of The Union responses are quickly forgotten (except for the gaffe moments like Marco Rubio drinking from a tiny bottle of water).

Stacey Abrams didn't stumble once, or suffer any gaffes at all. Her speech made many excellent points, very succinctly. She clearly showed the difference between the parties' outlook. It did what it was supposed to do, in other words. But I'm not sure if I'll remember any of it a year from now. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to name who gave last year's response, come to think of it.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

24 Comments on “My Snap Reactions To The State Of The Union”

  1. [1] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    OK, gremlins fixed from yesterday.

    I've posted a long comment on yesterday's article apologizing for the lost comments...

    Mea culpa.

    -CW

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    What struck me was the gaping holes in donald's logic. Yes, we already have physical barriers, and they are largely successful. To paraphrase Obama, Democrats don't oppose all walls. We oppose a dumb wall. A rash wall. A wall based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    On another tangent, the failure to use the word 'democratic' is not just some random person needlessly ragging on canadians by misspelling 'about' - it's a cultural offshoot of conservative media. It's one of the ways you can tell who watches fox news.

  4. [4] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Poet [3]

    You may have a valid point there. I talk about "democratics" with some regularity, as in "Most democratics aren't smart enough to figure out how to empty piss out of a boot if they have the instructions written on the heel", and I get my TV off an old-fashioned roof-top antenna, so I've never had the opportunitu to watch Fox News!

  5. [5] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    poet [2]

    Actually, physical barriers are monumentally INeffective. People can easily go over/under/around them anywhere where they don't have full-time guards, and Trump's idiot wall wouldn't be a damn bit more effective..

    Democratics SHOULD "oppose all walls"!

  6. [6] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    CW

    Anybody who made it clear through that SOTU ordeal, start to finish, is either a masochist at heart, or a political junkie with no sensible hobbies or interests.

  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    @crs,
    Israel's border fence ended the second intifada. Walls are effective at helping to control borders if well planned and well maintained, they're just not a good investment when there are other options.

  8. [8] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    poet

    Walls can indeed be effective if they're short and well guarded, but ours would be thousands of miles long and incapable of being guarded.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Did Trump talk about either of the two existential threats facing the US and the rest of the planet.

    A State of the Planet address, anyone!?

  10. [10] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Trump gave that address like a third grader giving a book report on a subject matter he didn’t fully understand, and had no interest in learning more about it, as well. He spoke as one who was saying the words that he knew he was required to repeat, but words that meant nothing to him, personally.

    My favorite moment in Trump’s speech was when he paused for applause after saying:

    “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way! We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad.”...

    But there was no applause to be heard! Not even the VP, who is usually so far up Trump’s arse that he is often mistaken for a tapeworm these days, bothered to cheer for that line!

  11. [11] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Hey C.W.,

    Just curious as to why you don’t listen to the speeches fully before going back and replaying it in order to take notes? I can only speak to my own experiences, but I realized long ago that my take on what I heard was often more critical when I tried to take notes in real time. Focusing on what I was writing, I missed out on the non-verbal clues I might have gained by watching the person as they gave the speech. Do you ever fear not hearing the symphony as a whole by focusing your attention so closely on individual notes?

  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    ListenWhenYouHear [11] -

    Actually, I do have this problem, you're right. I tape the speeches, but going back over them would take so much time that I'd be posting at midnight -- and that's midnight my time (Pacific). So it's just not really workable.

    I do miss stuff, too. My wife had to point out when Pelosi made the calm down motions with her hands when Democrats started groaning, at one point. I missed Pelosi's sarcastic clap at Trump too.

    But hey, it's just one man's experience watching the speech. I pretty much write without looking much at it while still trying to watch the screen (this leads to very messy notes). So, hopefully, I still catch most of what's going on...

    But thanks for asking -- I think in all the times I've done post-speech columns this is the first time someone pointed it out!

    :-)

    -CW

  13. [13] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    C. R. Stucki [6] -

    Hey! I resemble that remark!

    Heh. Although I do have a stamp collection, does that count?

    :-)

    -CW

  14. [14] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    As for the "-ic" thing, check out that NYer article, it's really good. Goes into the whole where it came from thing. I have also long wanted to see some Democrat answer the slur back with "well, we're better than the Republic Party" just to see what would happen...

    But maybe that's just me...

    Anyway, check out the article, unless it's behind a paywall (forgot to check when I posted that link, didn't have time).

    -CW

  15. [15] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    New column is now up...

    -CW

  16. [16] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i guess i just thought someone who went to grammar school might have learned to use grammar.

  17. [17] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    CW

    Re the "ic" thing, that NYer article is utter nonsnense.

    I have no personal feelings or opinions on 'Democrat' vs 'Democratic', nor would I see any reason to consider either one to be a 'slur', or to be denigrating. I just advocate for some reasonable consistency in the system.

    I'm perfectly happy for you guys to belong to the DemocratIC party, provided you are willing and happy to designate yourselves individiually as DemocratICS. Then in the name of consistency, members of the Republican party would naturally need to be referred to or to call themselves Republicans.

    However, if you want to belong to the DemocratIC party but designate yourselves as Democrats, then, in the name of consistency, the members of the Republican party need to be called Republics, right?

    Of course, the obvious problem with that is, it makes no grammatical sense. The normal definition/understanding of the noun 'Republic' does not allow for it to be defined as an individual person.

  18. [18] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    the english language, being a mongrel cross-breed of latin, germanic, greek and god knows how many other roots, has many, many irregularities. that's just how we americas roll.

  19. [19] 
    Kick wrote:

    JL
    3

    On another tangent, the failure to use the word 'democratic' is not just some random person needlessly ragging on canadians by misspelling 'about' - it's a cultural offshoot of conservative media.

    Random person!? *too funny* I must admit that although I sincerely considered it, I decided that I couldn't not say something about how much I love this. :)

    It's one of the ways you can tell who watches fox news.

    Yes! That and their totally nonsensical belief that they're somehow an "insider" to the "facts" and a "true patriot" while everyone else who doesn't suckle at the Fox teat or worship at the alter of the Trump cult of personality is somehow "less than" they are.

    One of my Fox-watching brainwashed cousins kept telling me how any moron knows that those people who oppose their president aren't "true patriots" and are "un-American"... so I sent her 200 enumerated links to video clips/tweets of those "America haters" and "traitors" by the name of Trump, Hannity, Limbaugh, etcetera, and her opposing their president... told her there were plenty more where that came from and to let me know if she needed more. The cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, complete and utter lack of self-awareness, and willful ignorance requires that you sometimes must connect the dots for the Fox minions. :)

  20. [20] 
    Kick wrote:

    CRS
    4

    I talk about "democratics" with some regularity, as in "Most democratics aren't smart enough to figure out how to empty piss out of a boot if they have the instructions written on the heel", and I get my TV off an old-fashioned roof-top antenna, so I've never had the opportunitu to watch Fox News!

    Since you're without question on the Internet, then you've obviously had ample "opportunitu to watch Fox News." Since you demonstrably "aren't smart enough to figure out how," perhaps you could have somebody come out to Podunk and have the instructions written down for you on the heel of that "old-fashioned" boot y'all are using "with some regularity" as a toilet. :)

  21. [21] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Kick

    Internet or not, I've never seen a FOX News broadcast in my life. But why would I need to or want to? Hannety and all those guys call me on the phone (believe it or not, an old fashioned 'landline'), and ask me every morning what they should say about the Democratics on their daily broadcast!

  22. [22] 
    Kick wrote:

    CRS
    21

    Why would anyone not believe that a guy who pisses into a boot with instructions on the heel makes phone calls on two tin cans and a long piece of string? :)

  23. [23] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    But not just any old generic cans - gotta be Campbell's Soup cans!

  24. [24] 
    Kick wrote:

    CRS
    23

    But not just any old generic cans - gotta be Campbell's Soup cans!

    As you wish:

    https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79809?

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