On Tuesday night, President Donald J. Trump will deliver a joint address to Congress. It isn’t technically called a State of the Union—it usually isn’t when a President is new—but it will be a reasonable facsimile of one. Here are seven things to listen and look for.
1. American carnage. In his Inaugural Address, the President presented a picture of a bleak America, its cities crisscrossed by gunfire, its towns under siege, a loser in a world that mocked it. Will he slap a little gold paint on the landscape, now that the Trump name is attached to it, or will he decide that it is still early enough for him to play the great detective, announcing his discovery of more crimes, perpetrators, and fiendish plots? (He revealed this week that “nobody knew” how complicated the health-care system is.) The joint address means that, as in an Agatha Christie story, he’s got the suspects for the crime of making America non-great assembled in one room, which is another reason why one should also look for:
2. An enemies list. The question is less whether Trump will use the speech to point at his enemies than how many people he might accuse and who among them might be his fellow-Americans, including those whom other Presidents, if only out of respect for our constitutional system, would not label enemies at all. Trump has repeatedly called the “fake news” media—by which he means, simply, the media, except for outlets that routinely praise him—the “enemy of the American people.” (George W. Bush on Monday disagreed with that assessment.) Trump has said that congressional Democrats are out to undermine him. Will he accuse Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer by name, and, if so, by their proper names, or by nicknames? (In the past, he has gone with “Fake Tears Chuck Schumer.”) This week, Trump suggested that Barack Obama was conniving against him—will there be more about that, or will he just complain about Hillary Clinton, again? Will he explain, with the California and New Hampshire congressional delegations in front of him, that millions of people in their states voted illegally?
Also of concern is whom he might add to his list. America, of course, has real enemies, including ISIS. It is worth paying attention, however, to how crudely Trump may conflate ISIS with broader populations—Muslims, refugees, possibly Parisians. Moreover, his rhetoric on keeping terrorists out of the country has increasingly converged with his language about immigrants generally, such as undocumented people from Latin America who have, in some cases, lived in the United States for decades. (He blames them for the opioid-addiction epidemic.) There is a new executive order on travel due this week, to either replace or supplement the one that Trump issued on January 27th. The first order has had trouble in the courts, in part because the way that Trump has described, at rallies and in interviews, the idea behind the travel ban seemed to betray a discriminatory intent. It remains to be seen whether Trump’s speechwriters have talked to his lawyers about how to avoid providing more material for legal briefs. The speech to Congress might, however, be another opportunity to rail against another list of enemies, namely:
3. Real and “so-called” judges. Trump has responded to some of his legal setbacks by berating the judges. Is he going to use this event, which, among other things, is supposed to reflect a respect for the balance of powers, for the same purpose? Listen for how Trump talks about the courts, and watch for how whichever of the Supreme Court Justices show up respond to it. The Justices aren’t obliged to attend these affairs, and during Obama’s last years the more conservative ones, including Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, skipped a few. So did Antonin Scalia, before his death. His widow, Maureen Scalia, will be present as a guest of the Trumps, providing an additional reason to direct one’s eyes to:
4. Melania, in the gallery. The First Lady has not been as visible as she might have been this past month, largely because she is staying in New York while her son, Barron, finishes the school year. But she is expected to fulfill the traditional task of sitting in the family box with symbol-laden guests. In addition to Maureen Scalia, there will be the parents of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants, including Jamiel Shaw, Sr., whose son was murdered, and who was a regular presence at Trump’s campaign rallies. (Trump spoke about the younger Shaw so often that he sometimes just reminded the crowds of “Jamiel,” assuming that they knew the details of the story.) The evening may reveal something about the Trump family dynamic—hardly just a matter of gossip, given the policy roles and the unresolved conflicts of interest represented by his adult children. But, beyond that, the selection of people for the First Lady’s box can provide something of a key to the intent of the speech, and about how the Administration might try to market its substance, bringing us to:
5. The numbers. Trump is expected to talk about his budget, which, based on early reports, involves either funny math or no math at all. Military spending and certain popular programs, such as Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and Medicare will supposedly be protected; others, from the sound of it, will be haphazardly gutted. The Trump tax plan seems, to put it politely, nebulous. So far, he has been empowered by congressional Republicans, who believe that they will be paid off with legislation that slashes both taxes and the safety net. Perhaps the speech will add specificity, for better or worse. And it may also provide a view of:
6. Trump toying with Paul Ryan. Or placating or compromising him, or flat-out humiliating him. Ryan, the Speaker of the House, will be seated right behind Trump, next to Vice-President Mike Pence. What will Ryan be willing to cheer for? When might he demur? And how much will he tolerate . . .
7. The lies. They will be there, but how many, and how blatant? That will be documented the morning after the speech, in other, undoubtedly longer, lists.