It’s no secret that Donald Trump, just months before he ran for the job of most powerful man in the world, was hosting Season 7 of “The Celebrity Apprentice.” But not all his TV appearances as president have been as reality-fied as one might have expected, especially his sedate, from-the-TelePrompTer State of the Union speeches.
The TV president made up for that Tuesday night with a dumbfounding, stunt-laden spectacle, less a presidential address than an “Apprentice” finale wrapped in an Oprah episode stuffed inside a viral YouTube video and dropped into the middle of a WrestleMania match.
The speech was jammed with more twists and giveaways than a two-hour “Survivor” finale. President Trump awarded a young girl in the audience a scholarship. He had his wife, Melania, drape a Presidential Medal of Freedom around the paleoconservative shock jock Rush Limbaugh. He arranged a reunion between a deployed soldier and his wife, just like the surprise-military-return videos that TV morning shows love.
And all these planned moments may have been overshadowed by a drama-filled, two-part installment of “The Real Politicians of D.C.,” co-starring his antagonist Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House. Before he began his speech, he appeared to refuse her offer of a handshake; after he finished, she ripped up her copy of it on camera.
Neither of them, it seems, came there to make friends.
For the president, the address had obvious political goals, coming amid the impeachment trial and at the beginning of an election year. But it also seemed built to make noise and get lasting attention amid a crazy-busy political news week.
A State of the Union address, even in calmer times, is an evanescent thing. A president strikes a temporary tone, rattles off some aspirational proposals that will probably never materialize and the press polishes it off by noon the next day.
This time, unusually, President Trump found himself sandwiched, like a network public-service announcement, into the space between two bigger political stories.
Since Monday night, network news crews had been searching the haunted cornfield into which the results of the Iowa Democratic caucus had vanished. Hours before the speech, when cable analysts would normally be predigesting State of the Union nuggets, CNN’s John King and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki were speed-swiping through a belated dump of caucus data.
And the day after his address, the president had an appointment with predestination, as the Senate was scheduled for a Wednesday vote that would, barring shocking news or mass hypnosis, acquit him on impeachment charges.
Indeed, if you’ve been following the impeachment saga, the State of the Union was like Washington’s most ambitious crossover event, with not only the senator-jurors present but also Chief Justice John Roberts (whom Mr. Trump chatted up on his way down the aisle) and figures mentioned in the testimony, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The president, however tempted, never mentioned impeachment. Instead, he began with a long string of economic statistics and boasts. Congressional Republicans rose and clapped, sat, rose and clapped again, sentence after sentence, a P90X workout of election-year fealty. (They set a raucous tone early, chanting “Four more years!” in case you weren’t clear on the subtext.)
For well over an hour, Mr. Trump offered a preview of his re-election argument, a long list of superlatives followed by an effort to soften his image for swing voters, followed by rehardening it for his base.
Several times, he spotlighted Americans of color as his guests — the scholarship winner, an elderly former Tuskegee Airman whom he had promoted to brigadier general — continuing an effort to broaden his appeal to minorities, or at least reassure white voters turned off by the demonizing of Mexicans, the insults of Haiti and Africa and the caging of Latin American children at the border.
All this followed a Super Bowl campaign ad featuring an African-American woman that focused on criminal justice reform instead of appealing to his base — which not long ago he stoked with attacks on black football players who knelt in protest during the national anthem.
The speech also took sharp turns from sentimental to ominous, like the negative part of a campaign ad where the music turns scary and the screen shades to black and white. The president continued a long-running theme of connecting immigrants and violent crime, deploring sanctuary city policies for releasing “dangerous criminal aliens.” (Studies in fact show that immigrants commit crime at a lower rate than native-born Americans.)
Over all, this was oddly both the most and the least traditional State of the Union President Trump has given, a comfortable, familiar list of campaign arguments that then veered into sweeps-month theatrics. It took the decades-long tradition of presidential guest stars, which began when Ronald Reagan invited the hero of a plane crash in 1982, and amped it up for the age of reality TV.
The production seemed designed in part to remind Americans of the munificent Donald Trump persona molded by Mark Burnett on “The Apprentice” for a decade. On that show, he was not just the tough-talking “you’re fired” guy, but a dispenser of treats, rewards and mercy, who presided over celebrity challenges for charity and swept contestants off for trips to Mar-a-Lago and rides in his personal helicopter, like a pinstriped Santa.
We can wonder what Mr. Trump’s presidency would have been like if he had leaned into that side of his TV character from the beginning, rather than the shark from the “Apprentice” boardroom who fomented conflict, browbeat losers and relished fights. He certainly seemed more comfortable Tuesday in the mode of expansive, backslapping master of ceremonies than he ever has reciting his staffers’ text from the prompter.
But now, every stage-managed segment arrives in a context. His overtures to minority Americans come with his presidential history on race. Mr. Trump knows how this works; once upon a time, “The Apprentice” had a higher Q Score popularity rating with Hispanic and African-American than white audiences — until he embraced the birther conspiracy against Barack Obama, whose legacy his address also worked hard to undermine.
In a way, the structure of this State of the Union was a battle against context. It didn’t construct a sweeping arc so much as try to generate clips to use online, in ads, on Fox News. Like much of President Trump’s rhetoric, it was more movie trailer than movie, a series of blowups each of which sought to Etch-a-Sketch the memory of the last.
But it may have itself been Etch-a-Sketched. It’s possible that nothing in the speech will get more attention than the Great Pelosi Rip, custom-made to be transmuted into memes and draw cheers and jeers from partisans and inspire arguments among the agonizing-over-civility class.
This is America’s political style now, a product of the Trump administration as visible as a segment of border wall. Donald Trump argued that he has delivered America a lot of things — and one of them, as the speech ratified, was the transformation of the presidency and public life into a 24-hour reality show.
Tuesday night, he asked the country whether it wanted to renew this production for four more seasons.