ll of the blithe, occasionally lethal childishness of American political culture was on display Tuesday night during Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address. Most of what’s wrong with the speech predates the current Administration—you can’t blame Trump for the cowardly game of who claps when, or the emphasis, amid intractable ideological conflict, on “unity,” or the persistent presence of Rick Santorum on CNN, or the tacky, exploitative tradition of dragging, say, sick kids, belatedly emancipated prisoners, and the families of recently murdered Americans onto the balcony of the chamber of the House of Representatives to be mentioned less as people than as momentary props. Each practice is longstanding; nobody deserves credit for noticing their fraudulence only when the guy behind the podium is a racist, and a liar, and a creep. The whole thing feels like a sick game, except for the fact—and here is one of our deepest national paradoxes—that the ideas expressed, no matter how stupid the speaker or silly the venue, are, for many people in America and elsewhere, a matter of life or death.
Trump is certainly not the first President to shape a story by inviting people to be lauded during his State of the Union address. Barack Obama invited twenty-three different people to his last address, in 2016; at least fifteen of them were activists, working on causes including homelessness, opioid addiction, access to education, same-sex marriage, discrimination against Muslims, and more. The stories they embodied were ones of overcoming adversity but also of working with others toward a better future. Trump’s guests, on the other hand, were all survivors.
They survived D Day.
They survived decades in American prisons and, through the study of religion, earned second chances in their late middle age.
They survived unimaginable grief.
They survived immigration.
They survived cancer. (Notably, although one of Trump’s more ambitious promises was to eliminate new H.I.V. infections within ten years, there was no guest with a story of surviving with H.I.V.)
They survived losing a child.
They survived a mass shooting.
And they survived the Holocaust.
The sole exception to this narrative was the astronaut whose achievement was fifty years old.
Living with a sense of danger so profound and so constant, a people would be unable to think of much beyond immediate survival. They could have little ambition for technological or scientific achievement. They could have no vision of organizing their society in a better, more equitable way. With fear as their only political motivator, their only goal could be a united front. If they felt constantly on the brink of extinction, that might help explain why, on the one hand, they armed themselves obsessively, and, on the other, they put people behind bars for decades at a time. And, living in this constant state of dread, they could not have the presence of mind, or the imagination, to tackle the longer-term danger of climate change—which, of course, makes it less likely that a future historian will be looking at Trump’s State of the Union address at all.