Critic's Notebook: Trump's Nine Lives on Full Display in State of the Union Address

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The president sticks to the script for his speech the night before the Senate's impeachment vote, and you could tell it was killing him.

The timing couldn't have been better for Donald Trump's State of the Union address. He's enjoying a 49 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll, the highest since he took office. The Democratic Iowa caucuses were an unmitigated disaster, leaving the party in complete disarray. The impeachment trial couldn't have gone better for him. And the following day, he was due to be acquitted and then crowned King of America by the Senate Republican majority.

The only explanation for Trump's seemingly limitless ability to overcome obstacles that would end the career of any traditional politician is that he's sold his soul to the devil. And the devil clearly took an advance.  

The speech's declared theme was "The Great American Comeback," but I prefer to think of it as "State of the Union: The Impeachment Edition." You could say that it was the kickoff to Trump's election campaign, except he's been running for reelection, rather than governing, since the day he took office.

Everyone was wondering how Trump and Pelosi would handle themselves, especially since they reportedly haven't spoken since their last contentious meeting way back in October. When Trump reached the podium, she tried to shake his hand, but Trump ignored her. Awkward!

The other question was whether Trump would take the opportunity to address his impeachment, about which he seems to have some hard feelings. But he was unusually disciplined this night, sticking to the teleprompter and not riffing like a deranged carnival barker as he does in his rallies. This was the Dr. Jekyll, not Mr. Hyde, version of the president, although you could tell he was soon going to be letting off steam via some tweeting.

"Our country is thriving and highly respected again," Trump announced at the beginning of his speech, as the nation's fact-checkers downed their Red Bulls and began what promised to be a very long night. "We are never, ever, going back," Trump continued, making the promise sound both like a threat and a Taylor Swift song.

The president spent the evening touting his accomplishments, taking care to remind us at every opportunity about the failures of "the previous administration." Apparently, the "American carnage" that afflicted us just three years ago (although, to be fair, those years have felt very, very long) has been transformed into, to quote Lesley Gore, sunshine, lollipops and moonbeams. What once was drab black & white is now color, as in The Wizard of Oz. As long as you don't look behind the curtain.

The problem with Trump getting all positive is that his delivery is so dour and mean-faced that you get the feeling that even he doesn't believe what he's saying. He manages to make economic recovery sound apocalyptic.

As usual, Trump made every effort to turn his annual report to the nation into an entertaining episode of his personally hosted reality show. Naturally, there were special guests, including Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom he described as "the true and legitimate president of Venezuela." Even the Democrats applauded, probably because it's the first time they've encountered a legitimate president in years.

To illustrate his support of school choice, Trump introduced an adorable fourth-grader who's on a long waiting list for an opportunity scholarship in her home city of Philadelphia. Trump then grandiosely announced that such a scholarship had just been awarded to her and that she could now attend the school of her choice. Watching the joy on her and her mother's face made for a lovely moment, but you began to think that Trump would follow it up by shouting "You get a car! You get a car!" He's the only president whose State of the Union addresses come with door prizes.

Another such moment came when he introduced the wife and two young children of a soldier who has spent the last seven months deployed in Afghanistan. No points for guessing that Trump surprised them with the announcement that their long-absent loved one was there tonight, just as the uniform-clad soldier bounded down the steps and greeted his family with big hugs and kisses. There are Hallmark commercials less emotionally manipulative.

And then there was Rush Limbaugh, whose diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer had recently been announced. Trump paid lavish praise to the conservative radio host before announcing that he was awarding Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which, you can imagine, pleased at least roughly one half of the audience. Limbaugh feigned surprise as Melania draped the ribbon around his neck, even though the award had already been made public. You can't say that Trump doesn't return favors. The hosts of Fox & Friends are likely to be the next recipients.

Trump was naturally most Trump-like when talking about the evils of illegal immigration. To make his point, he described a series of murders committed by "criminal aliens" in sanctuary cities (he seemed to have a lot of trouble pronouncing the word "sanctuary"). Trump seemed to particularly relish the horrific details of his accounts, sounding like he was auditioning to narrate a true-crime cable television series.  

To fully describe all the absurd moments would be a gargantuan task, but here's a sample. Trump promised that his new health plan would be "60% less expensive, and better," which is pretty impressive since it hasn't been written yet. He rhapsodized about the creation of the new Space Force, because, well, he just loves saying the words "Space Force." He once again fetishized about his "long, tall and very powerful wall," and then immediately segued into talking about pharmaceutical companies, as if he had accidentally skipped a few paragraphs of his speech.

He promised to promote high-speed internet, especially in rural areas, presumably so the Russians can more efficiently spread false information. He managed to extol both freedom of religion and the right to bear arms in a single sentence, ironically proving Obama's observation that Republicans cling to their "guns and religion." Finally, it's a good thing that those in the audience weren't taking a sip of water when he said the word "infrastructure," since it's basically become a punchline.

Trump should also probably avoid talking about American history, since it usually doesn't work out well for him. During one patriotic section of his speech, he talked about "the beautiful, beautiful Alamo," as if he didn't know that we had actually lost the battle there.

Naturally, he took the opportunity to introduce a beaming Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, his personally selected Supreme Court justices. "And we have many in the pipeline," Trump announced, delivering the most chilling line of the evening.

Trump ended the speech in predictably inspirational fashion, declaring that America is where "the most incredible dreams come true." Unfortunately, as he's made clear over the last three years, it's where the worst nightmares do as well.