Donald Trump is entering into Tuesday’s State of the Union address at the weakest moment of his presidency, and nothing, but nothing suggests he can do much of anything to change the dynamic. Their backs up against Trump’s wall, senior administration officials have been working overtime to sell the notion that Trump will seek to inspire during the speech.
“You get to strike the tone and optimism that you think is appropriate in that venue,” said one Trump official. Good luck with that from the commander in chief who set the tone for his tenure by declaring the era of “American carnage” over. What could be more inspiring than that address, which clocked in at a meager 16 minutes. Meanwhile, Trump’s jeremiad tonight will be “60 to 70 unfiltered minutes” (goddess have mercy) in which Trump gets to explain his “whole agenda” (gasp). Really, no one wants to hear it—just give us the top lines and call it a night.
The main problem is that the entire premise of such a speech—that Trump would lay out a vision on anything other than nativism and then execute the policies necessary to deliver—is pure farce. Trump has already proven he isn’t capable of making “the pivot” we’ve been promised for more than three years, ever since he launched his campaign by defaming large swaths of our citizenry as “rapists” and “drug dealers.” In fact, that’s the dark cloud that will follow Trump into the room and hover over his entire speech after he bet the midterms on fanning the flames of racism and then doubled down on it again while prosecuting his failed shutdown strategy. Indeed, Trump is reportedly spending “three hours this afternoon preparing for his speech” with his chief nativist, Stephen Miller. Nothing says optimism like being primed by the guy who made Trump’s very first policy initiative a Muslim ban that proved to be such an affront to our nation’s foundational principles it had to be reworked three times before it could pass constitutional muster.
Once you strip away any veneer of optimism and the notion that Trump even has what it would take to bury his grievances and help heal the very divisions on which his entire presidency is founded, you can really home in on what a losing hand Trump has to play tonight. The optics are already terrible for Trump, with his approvals sagging under the weight of his unpopular shutdown and his administration facing a deluge of subpoenas from House Democrats. And oh so appropriately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be peering over Trump’s shoulder the entire speech as a reminder of all the times he has taken it on the chin since the midterms, and of the grim road that faces him ahead.
Practically speaking, the question on everyone’s mind is whether we’ll be facing another excruciating shutdown by the end of next week. Whether Trump provides an answer to that question or none at all, it’s a loser for him. Not being able to answer it will punctuate the entire address with a question mark. But answering it will either alienate his rabidly racist base if he backs off his $5 billion border wall demand, or drive a wedge through a Republican caucus that’s already deeply divided on Trump’s seeming intention to declare a national emergency. Any way you slice it, Trump ends up getting squeezed by the shutdown vise-grips he’s jammed himself into.
In essence, what the nation is about to be treated to is an hour-long harangue, from a historically unpopular president, that’s rooted in the fallacy that he can even be presidential and is sure to leave the public with more questions than answers. What could possibly go right?