In President Trump's first State of the Union speech, an address roughly the length of Rashomon, he proved something important: No one, not even the most bizarre, norm-defying commander in chief of modern times, can save us from this annual outdated exercise in mandatory tedium.
I say "mandatory" because it's true that the Constitution does stipulate that the president must, from time to time, "give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." But is it really necessary to do this in the course of a yearly 80-some minute televised speech? Trump gives us information and recommends policies for our due consideration roughly once an hour via his favorite social media platform. I think this is perfectly in keeping with both the spirit and the letter of what the Founding Fathers wrote. He even capitalizes the first letter of nouns the way they did.
Despite his best efforts, Trump did manage to sound vaguely "presidential," which is to say, he spoke in bland language for more than an hour about the greatness of America and Americans doing American things in America. The only thing that kept most of us awake was his wholly singular approach to metaphor, logic, syntax, diction, pronunciation, and rhythm: "pillars" that don't "catch and release," "thousands of MS-13 horrible people," a policy that "protects the nuclear family by ending chain migration," "opioid e-diction," "a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons," "to detain terrorists wherever we chase — them down," "communist and socialistic dictatorships," "and a great student he was" (you feel like you have to put an exclamation point after that).
Whenever Trump strayed from using language inappropriately, he was dull. "Americans are dreamers too," he said at one point in defense of his schizophrenic policy toward the so-called "DREAMers," adults brought to this country as children who were not subject to deportation during the Obama administration. He talked a lot of guff about bipartisanship and the need for unity in the face of division, the sort of stuff every president always says at these things. He also made the same ridiculous assessments of the value and popularity of his own policies. Does he really expect us to believe that the average welder will save enough on taxes to "invest" in anything, much less a college education for his children, a year of which probably costs more than his annual earnings?
At one point during Trump's remarks on North Korea, Ezra Klein got the impression that the president was "demonizing" Kim Jong Un's government — as if it were possible to portray it as anything other than wicked — in an attempt to trick Americans into supporting a war. This was not my reaction. One thing I did half-expect, however, when Trump announced a second guest with experience of the Hermit Kingdom, was the sudden appearance of Dennis Rodman, perhaps amid the strains of "Get Ready For This," that old favorite from the 2016 campaign.
Unfortunately, nothing like that happened. Nor did Trump call out "Lyin' Ted Cruz" or "Lil Bob Corker" by their nicknames. He did not blast "La Donna È mobile" or "You Can't Always Get What You Want" from the congressional sound system or rain down confetti on Justice Neil Gorsuch or even employ a four-letter word.
What is the point of having a president who tweets at two in the morning, pays out six figures to hush up alleged affairs with porn stars, and discusses the size of his anatomy in debates if he's going to treat something as lame and inconsequential as the State of the Union seriously?
The truth is that whatever Democrats wish to suggest on television and in fundraising pitches, Trump is governing as a more or less standard-issue conservative Republican. He is not a would-be dictator or a Russian secret agent subverting our sacrosanct democratic principles. If he were, and the country as they know it were really threatened, they would not have spent hours yesterday waiting in line to shake his hand as he walked towards a podium to read anodyne feel-good rhetoric from a teleprompter. He is a normal politician capable of giving a boring speech.
The sad reality made evident by Trump's first State of the Union is that he just is the president after all.