Fifty years ago, Buzz Aldrin went to the moon. He was hailed as an American hero. More recently, Buzz Aldrin was eliminated in the second week of Dancing With the Stars season 10, and then he mocked himself on 30 Rock, and then he mocked history in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, revealing that the Space Race was actually caused by Alien Robot Car-People. On Tuesday, Aldrin loaned his brand recognition to another questionable endeavor, waving cheerfully while President Donald Trump celebrated our species’ mooniversary during his State of the Union. History repeats: First as reality show, then as showy reality.
I don’t want to denigrate Aldrin’s achievements as an astronaut. But any sensible person will wonder why, in this State of the Union speech, this President talked more about Apollo 11 than the recent government shutdown or the resurgence of white supremacy. And it might seem strange to praise NASA for its achievements in lunar flag-planting, without once mentioning the creeping horror of climate change, a real global crisis you can read about on NASA’s website. “American astronauts will go back to space on American rockets,” the president promised. Can those rockets do something about our country’s soaring maternal death rate? Or is that not pointlessly awesome enough?
I’m a TV critic, so I hope you’re going somewhere smarter for coherent political analysis. But it struck me that the president’s speech on Tuesday struck a constant note of toxic cultural nostalgia, looking backward to dream a brighter yesterday. We should always honor our heroic veterans, but the president’s chest-beating over D-Day went beyond homage into freakish avoidance. The beaches at Normandy earned more airtime than the opioid epidemic. Here is a president who is very ready to win World War II.
Trump’s American history is a nostalgic history, shorn of political awareness, denying all context but triumph. Easy enough to praise heroic soldiers who fought Nazis in Germany 75 years ago. Trickier, of course, to take on actual Nazis today. Trump paid homage to survivors of the horrific Pittsburgh mass shooting, but only barely addressed the actual perpetrator of that shooting, with his ideology allegedly baked in alt-right social media hubs. No mention of the possibilities of gun control — but Trump did find time to promise that “America will never be a socialist country,” recalling with awe our nation’s “triumph over communism.” Last year, a domestic terrorist sent pipe bombs to multiple American citizens. Say what you will about Cesar Altieri Sayoc, but his problem wasn’t reading too much Marx.
This State of the Union will be remembered, mainly, for the president’s embarrassing attempt to tip his hat towards the ongoing investigation into various 2016 electoral skullduggery. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said, a dumb rhyme spoken with mad pride. Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tried very hard not to play Trump’s onscreen foil, could be seen motioning calm down-looking gestures toward her fellow Democrats. But it was easy to meme-ify her deadpan microexpressions. When the president said that he singlehandedly avoided war with North Korea, you watched the Speaker’s face, wondering if she would laugh or cry.
A conciliatory tone was attempted, with motions towards “the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good.” But Trump has no real vocabulary for optimism. He is like one of those critics who only enjoy writing bad reviews. It’s telling that he orchestrates his heartwarming State of the Union moments around special guests, outsourcing emotion to the people upstairs. Meanwhile, the language became florid when it turned to “our very dangerous southern border,” land of “ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers, and human traffickers.” To this hellscape, add the elites: “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.” And don’t forget about New York, which the president said was celebrating “the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.”
This is not true, but you don’t go to this president for clarity. “All children, born and unborn, are made in the holy image of God,” he said. And how does God feel about the children in detention camps? Fun fact: The detention camps were mentioned less than “the golden beaches of California.”
There was a bit of talk about innovation, though it’s not clear what this president thinks our nation should be innovating, precisely. He mentioned “the cutting edge industries of the future,” and even that phrase “cutting edge” sounds unfrozen from the 1980s. Remember, this is a man who hasn’t properly mastered spellcheck. But that’s part of the pitch, too. Trump got elected on a platform of glorious nostalgia, and he began the second half of his presidency struggling for more examples of the old greatness America once was.
Don’t assume that America’s nostalgia problem is just a Trump thing. So much of popular culture now looks backward longingly, these remnants of childhood reheated toward the future, a glorious past reclaimed. Boomers practically invented the commodified nostalgia, but millennials reinvented it for the internet age, launching untold millions of Facebook posts off with variations of the phrase “Stuff Only ’90s Kids Understand.” Of course, some nostalgia is dumb and clickbait-ish and silly — astronauts dancing badly on television for high ratings! — and then some nostalgia is a political force crushing liberty and separating actual children from their actual parents. There simply has to be a better way to honor where we came from without losing sight of where we are now. But this was a State of the Union that mentioned “the railroads” more than the student debt crisis. The railroads, man. It’s hard to build a better future when you can dream about a better past.