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Trump's State of the Union performance: He divides to conquer

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)

Too long and not conciliatory — that was the general consensus of the TV talking heads following President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night. “The White House sold it as a bipartisan speech, [one] that would try to create unity,” said Chris Wallace on Fox News, concluding, “I didn’t hear that.” On MSNBC, Chris Matthews said the speech was not one aimed at his famous “base” of rabid supporters — no, said Matthews, it was “aimed at the Dancing With the Stars audience that doesn’t watch politics.” (Was that a slur against DWTS fans?) Over on NBC, new network arrival Megyn Kelly made her debut as an NBC News analyst by shrugging and saying that Trump “is gonna tweet something tomorrow and we’ll forget about this speech.” All righty then: That wasn’t much of a reason to keep watching NBC’s coverage, was it?

From where I sat at home, it looked as though President Trump read his speech slowly and carefully, like the guy who is subbing for the company CEO who was suddenly stricken with food poisoning. He seemed familiar with the gist of what he was called upon to recite, even if it was not phrased the way he would normally speak. Certainly, the speech contained some trademark Trump black holes of knowledge, as when he suggested that solving the nation’s opioid crisis is a matter of policing “drug dealers and pushers.” What did this mean? Jailing doctors? Arresting prescription pads?

The night’s drama was provided by the guests Trump had invited, people who had suffered some horrible pain or loss, who were now being rewarded by serving as living illustrations of one triumph or another of Trump’s first year. Every president does this; it’s always simultaneously moving and discomfiting — generous and manipulative in equal parts. Trump being Trump, he could not help but give it a nasty spin. After saluting Preston Sharp, a young man in the audience who has a very nice project placing American flags on the graves of veterans, Trump insisted that “Preston reminds us why we salute our flag, put out hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for our national anthem.” His voice hit the word stand hard, with a bit of a growl. This was pure dog whistling: So much for young Sharp’s nice gesture — let’s make sure to stoke hatred for some NFL players going into Super Bowl weekend!

As Trump spoke, the camera would occasionally cut to a sullen Democrat seated here and there. Nancy Pelosi looked more distracted than displeased, her mouth working silently, as though her tongue was trying to figure out which molar was loose. After Trump finished, the Democratic response was delivered by Rep. Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts. Kennedy hit all the proper points, doing his party’s duty to criticize Trump’s divisiveness, saying, “This is not right, this is not what we are.” But if we sometimes look to the opposition-party response as a rehearsal for a new political hope, it was clear after a few minutes that Kennedy was not delivering much of a barn-burner.

U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., takes the stage to deliver the Democratic rebuttal to  President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in Fall River, Mass. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Post-speech, I tried watching Hannity, but Sean Hannity’s idea of an expert witness was to have Donald Trump Jr. come on and praise his daddy. On CNN — sorry, could not watch CNN: All the yelling by Rick Santorum, Van Jones, and Jennifer Granholm, un-moderated by a dozy Anderson Cooper, was unendurable.

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