In other, more normal circumstances, President Trump might be expected to give tonight's State of the Union address as a somewhat humbled man. He was, after all, forced to delay the speech by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the government shutdown he instigated — and then ended the shutdown when it became apparent he was losing support from Republicans in Congress. The event also comes as newly empowered House Democrats are feeling their oats after reclaiming power in the November midterm elections. By any objective measure, the president is on a losing streak.
But Trump doesn't really do humility, so we're unlikely to see much in the way of conciliatory gestures in tonight's speech. He does, however, disdain the usual political conventions which means things could get a little weird. What is the state of our Union, Mr. President? Here are a few ways Trump might spin it:
The state of the Union is … terrifying. Trumpism has always relied on a fair amount of scaremongering, and tonight's address looks like the last chance to make his case for a wall on the United States' southern border. Both of these factors combined means Trump can be expected, again, to paint a picture of America as a dangerous place, beset by immigrants who murder our citizens, furnish them with life-killing drugs, and engage in human trafficking. Seem extreme? Consider the president's guest list for tonight.
Trump SOTU guests include: family of couple killed by unauthorized immigrant; human trafficking investigator; survivors of Pittsburgh massacre; Alice Johnson; recovering opioid addict; re-hired sawmill employee; child cancer survivor; kid bullied for being named Joshua Trump.
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) February 5, 2019
Trump has long argued that a wall is the only way to prevent these evils. So far, few Americans are buying it. His last grasp at making the sale, then, is to put a human face on his version of the issue.
The state of the Union is … awesome. Despite the aforementioned losing streak, Trump does indeed have good news to share: Job growth in America is strong, and wage growth seems to be bubbling up, too. Still, most Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Nearly as many disapprove of the president's job performance. A growing number of Republicans are ready to see him face primary competition in 2020.
The president hasn't given up on trying to sell a good-news version of his administration, though. He answers questions about racial divisions by pointing to the low unemployment rate among African Americans. He celebrates every time the Dow rises above 25,000. He desperately wants credit.
That means the president is likely to attempt a delicate balancing act in his speech. He wants Americans to believe two things about his administration: America has never been better. And only he can fix it. There's a good chance it will all seem entirely incoherent.
The state of the Union is … boring. Despite the drama, though, there's a real possibility this speech — like so many before it — will quickly fade into oblivion. In the last 40 years or so, there has been precisely one memorable moment at a State of the Union: President Clinton's 1996 declaration that "the era of big government is over." (He was wrong.) The speeches — and the responses — tend to be snoozers, notable only for the occasional gaffes and breaches of decorum. President Trump, so far, has not proven the exception to the rule.
For that reason, the near-cancellation of this year's speech proved surprisingly popular, at least among pundits. It's a political exercise that absorbs a lot of energy every year, but which produces little in the way of actual change or progress.
Whatever ends up in the speech, though, we know one true thing about the state of our Union: It feels fractured. You're not likely to hear that from the president. But it'll be easy to see in the way Pelosi manages her facial expressions as she sits behind Trump, as well as in the way Democrats — and maybe even a Republican or two — sit on their hands during the speech's obvious applause lines.
Such partisanship is always on display at these events, of course, but Trump has built his career on deepening the divides, not bridging them. We can expect more of that from tonight's speech, which gives us our final verdict on the state of the Union: These days, it's kind of a mess.