The Clothes Have No Emperor

I don’t usually watch the State of the Union speech–I usually read the speech afterwards (though I have ‘twitter watched’, largely for the comedy). These speeches have far too much pomp and ceremony and usually don’t amount to much either politically or policy-wise. Most of the criticism is bad theater criticism, though occasionally there is good theater criticism. But Charles Pierce made an observation that is worth noting about Il Trumpe’s State of the Union speech (boldface mine):

It was the most elaborate of charades, the most sophisticated of masquerades, that played itself out in the chamber of the House of Representatives on Tuesday night. The amount of pretense required to keep all sensible people—which is to say, any person who was not a Republican—in their chairs must have been heroic.

All involved had to pretend that Donald Trump makes sense as a president, that his administration makes sense as a government, and that his first State of the Union address made sense as either a description of national policy, or as a rhetorical summons to national unity. All involved had to pretend that his thoughts were coherent, that his words made sense, and that the complete and universal collapse of civic responsibility that propelled him onto the podium was not the most singularly destructive event in the history of American democracy since the Civil War. Everyone had to pretend that a freak show was Shakespeare, and that a rumbling, stumbling geek was Lincoln, and that the whole tableau unfolding before the Congress was somehow made noble despite the obvious fact that the whole event was an endless procession of lies and half-truths, and that the only truly remarkable thing about the speech was that it was such a perfectly round and complete crock of shit.

I don’t know how long the institutions of the republic can sustain this much pretense. Over my lifetime, the American presidency has tested what were believed to be the outer limits of counterfeit grandeur, but now we see that there is a vast universe of untruth and malignant fantasy of which we were painfully unaware. It is a burden to maintain the masquerade. It is beyond the strength even of the sturdiest democracy to be led by such a vanguard of unreality. Why anyone showed up on Tuesday night is a mystery to me.

Yes, Il Trumpe’s speech, when not being jingoistic or flat-out white nationalist (“Americans are dreamers too“), was incredibly nonsensical (e.g., celebrating a North Korean dissident’s attempt to bring his entire family to the U.S. The racist term of art for this is chain migration, a rightwing trope).

But what’s so astounding is that Trump is still treated like a real president. Very little he said in the speech will become policy, or even attempted policy. Why? Because his words, except for his ‘best words’–which is to say, his bigotry–have no meaning. He lies and dissembles as a matter of course. Why would this speech be any different from all the other speeches? Why would this set of policy proposals have any more meaning, simply for having been uttered during a spectacle? Yet we are supposed to act as if this speech was a serious political, perhaps even policy event, even as he has beclowned himself time and time again. As the lefty joke goes, “This is when Donald Trump became president” (after the dozens of other times Very Serious Pundits decreed previous moments where when he became president).

The only thing worse than finding out that the emperor has no clothes is realizing that the clothes have no emperor.

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1 Response to The Clothes Have No Emperor

  1. John Magoun says:

    Nicely put. I do find that the NY Times, for all its faults, runs constant corrections including headlines that highlight the president’s lies and incompetence. These are stories I’ve never seen before in a newspaper: “Trump’s Lies vs. Obama’s” (12/14/17) is typical.
    I’m guessing they’re trying to do penance for blowing the 2016 election for their readers – and to try to retain their journalistic credentials against a future restored to sanity. Likewise I suspect that a large number of the 56-odd percent of people who have consistently disapproved of his performance since Day 1 do not regard him as “president” in any sense except his mailing address and ability to sign laws and wage war. I certainly don’t, but I try not to let the anger and bitterness eat away at the rest of my soul, by ignoring as much of the newstream about him as possible.
    But that’s not enough, as you say; and of course much of the screen media couldn’t stay away from this hollow pageantry on any terms, given his one undisputed talent is offering media-style entertainment for potential marks. Ditto for Congress and the American establishment: for them to boycott or ignore the president now, after 18 months of going along with it all, is to risk either the unwelcome controversy that comes from breaking character in a farce, or the question as to whether they aren’t naked – or a bunch of hollow suits – as well by now.

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