In 2004, Donald Trump — whose business career was at that point a long list of bankruptcies, defaults and alleged dalliances with organized crime — was successfully rebranded as a towering tycoon through his reality TV show "The Apprentice." Finally, Trump could be the person he had always pretended to be: a Manhattan behemoth whose decisions were obeyed and feared without question. Despite Trump’s shady past, America played along and enjoyed the show. What was the worst that could happen?
A lot, as it turned out. Trump went on to parlay his newfound celebrity into becoming America’s most unpopular first-year president ever. Last night, Americans watched another reality TV hit from Trump — the president’s highly watched first State of the Union address. While predictably partisan, Trump’s teleprompter-aided performance was notable because it bore little resemblance to Trump’s typical speaking style. It also bore little resemblance to the reality America has endured over the past year.
As Trump spoke of unity, there was no mention of last August’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, for which Trump blamed “both sides” after a neo-Nazi took the life of protester Heather Heyer. (Trump later stated that some white supremacists in attendance were “very fine people.”) As he proclaimed his dedication to hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, Trump said nothing of the decision to remove FEMA from the still struggling island, or that he initially appeared to greet the crisis with a mixture of apathy and disdain as San Juan’s mayor said denial of aid would result in genocide.
Last night, Americans watched another reality TV hit from Trump — the president’s first State of the Union.
As Trump claimed to honor veterans, there was no mention of Myeshia Johnson — the Gold Star widow of slain Sergeant La David Johnson — who wept as Trump coldly dismissed her husband’s death by struggling to remember his name, adding that “he knew what he signed up for.” Perhaps Trump still cannot remember Sgt. Johnson’s name; it was absent from the event.
I could go on and on about the speech’s alternative facts — Trump’s claim that he was not interested in using nuclear weapons despite threatening North Korea for a year with talk of pre-emptive strikes and “fire and fury”; his proclamation that “all Americans deserve accountability and respect” after he spent 2017 attacking private citizens, many of whom are black, while remaining unaccountable to the American public about his own myriad scandals involving everything from his finances to allegations of sexual misconduct.
And that is the main takeaway from Trump’s State of the Union — the fact that he is still here to give it. And, relatedly, the fact that despite steady public condemnation of Trump’s racism, cruelty and incompetence, conservative politicians and some pundits will likely spend the next few days once again proclaiming that the president has miraculously “pivoted” to become “presidential.” (If and when this temporary delusion occurs, ignore it.)
Trump should not be president; he should, at best, be reviving celebrity D-listers on "Celebrity Apprentice" instead of reviving dangerous political D-listers like Jeff Sessions in the White House. But the events that took place in the 24 hours before the State of the Union show his continued ability to consolidate power and disregard the will of the citizens to whom he swore an oath to protect. Worse, he doesn’t care who knows it.
First, Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI and a key figure in the Russian interference case, stepped down earlier than expected after months of being publicly attacked by Trump.
Then it was then announced that Rep. Devin Nunes, himself surrounded by conflict of interest questions related to the Russian investigation, planned to release a memo about FBI and Department of Justice surveillance described as both dishonest and damaging to national security. House Speaker Paul Ryan then said that the GOP wished to “cleanse the FBI” while other Republicans have been quietly investigating the FBI and the DOJ for weeks. Independent investigative bodies that are supposed to serve as a check on executive power — and which have been openly threatened by the chief executive — are now falling prey to the president and his partisans.
Perhaps most disconcertingly, January 29 marked the day on which Russian sanctions Trump reluctantly signed in August were to be implemented. Instead, and ignoring a bipartisan resolution that passed 98-2 in the Senate, the State Department announced that the sanctions would not be fully enacted and would affect primarily “non-Russian entities.”
Politicians will spend the next few days proclaiming that the president has miraculously become “presidential.”
And finally on Tuesday, the Trump administration released a list of targeted oligarchs that was mostly just a reprint of a Forbes list of the richest Russians, an action interpreted by Russia experts like former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul as a trolling of Congress by Trump. (Putin isn’t complaining either.) This blatancy is a departure from Trump’s days of denying that he had nothing to do with Russia.
To top it all off, CIA chief Mike Pompeo announced that the 2018 elections would likely be tampered with by Russia. Shortly after, it was reported that Pompeo himself had met with Russian spies in seeming violation of U.S. sanctions. Russian election interference is a travesty that also went unmentioned in Trump’s speech, which like all well-produced reality TV, was structured on selective truth.
Like his bipartisan address last March, Trump's State of the Union was meant to soothe a frustrated population into a false sense of normalcy — but there is nothing normal about a president who threatens private citizens and American institutions while displaying deference to a hostile state. It is now incumbent on Americans to ignore the presidential play-acting, and confront what is really driving the show.
Sarah Kendzior is a journalist who lives in St. Louis, Missouri and covers politics, the economy and media.