Try as I might last night I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t focus on the matter at hand – the president of the United States delivering his first State of the Union message.
Soon after the president was done speaking and the pundits began their obligatory commentary it became clear that the president had done reasonably well. “Reasonably well” defined as having stuck to his script, which was sane in the vein of American conservatism rather than somehow off the wall.
But last night was not about the speech, the details of which 24 hours from now will be largely forgotten. Rather it was about the contexts within which the speech was delivered. Last night was not, in other words, about leadership. Rather it was about the leadership system in which leaders, followers, and contexts each get equal billing.
I could, for example, write about the apparently slavish devotion of President Donald Trump’s most faithful followers. Say the two men who sat behind him as he spoke last night, Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Both are in the president’s hip pocket, though not so long ago Ryan was Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate.
Mitt Romney’s running mate! Can it be? Is it possible that the same man who ran with Romney – Romney, who in 2012 correctly identified Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe” – now supports a president who supports Russia? Who, to take a single case in point, refuses to implement the sanctions against Russia that Congress legislated only recently with overwhelming bipartisan support?
But… I won’t go on about Trump’s followers. At least not here, not now. What I will go on about is the context within which the president’s State of the Union speech was delivered. For what transpired last night was nothing other than an alternate reality. The obvious reality had a veneer of normality. An American president delivering a State of the Union speech in late January in the halls of Congress.
But the other reality was abnormal altogether. For this particular State of the Union speech was delivered as the country moved, seemingly inexorably, toward a constitutional crisis. A constitutional crisis that threatens, moreover, to be unlike any other that preceded it, even Watergate. Watergate entailed a threat from within; but not one from without. The current threat involves nothing short of our “number one geopolitical foe” first tampering with and then derailing American democracy – America’s political norms and its political system.
Let me put it this way. I am worried about the legitimacy of the 2018 congressional elections. No wonder I could not get into a State of the Union state of mind.