The State of the Union, and how late night TV annihilated it: EW review
Beautiful wars, strong dreams, gleaming waterways, heroes, warriors, a great wall. “Unmatched power is the surest means to our true and great defense,” said President Donald Trump. And: “We have no choice but to annihilate them.” All is great in a beautiful strong America, and abandon all hope ye who doubt it. In his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Trump spoke of Muslim terrorists and Mexican gangs, and he couldn’t find a moment in 81 minutes to mention white supremacist terrorist gangs. It was a long speech the way Transformers movies are long: heavy on incident, light on content, too much incoherent backstory. “A new tide of optimism is sweeping our nation,” he declared. And it is true that 2020 has never been closer than it is now.
He praised the heroism of North Korean refugee Ji Seong-ho, and curiously didn’t mention his travel ban on high-risk countries like North Korea. He mentioned Russia, but not the Russia investigation. Fellow residents of the Western Seaboard, have you recently found yourself worrying about the threat that a mushroom cloud will finally bring down coastal real estate prices? “Perhaps someday, in the future,” the president mused, “There will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet, sadly.” He did not mention his big and powerful button. But after he said “sadly,” he paused. Someone applauded. What were they clapping for? Nuclear paranoia?
He read slowly off a teleprompter. The Trump who gives these official speeches feels so distant from the Trump who tweets, but no one is ever themselves on social media, really. (Some people believe they are more themselves on social media, and they are insane, or pioneers for the world that’s coming.) I think you wanted red meat from this State of the Union, whoever you were, whether you tuned in for snark or gratification or gratifying rage. Call out the fake news, pick a fight with beloved cultural icons, castigate anyone currently investigating a Trump princeling.
I’ll have to ask Uncle [Name Redacted] if President Trump spoke to him the way Candidate Trump once could. I only heard the dog whistle. No direct mention of Colin Kaepernick, but what a great American flag, how about this young man who plants flags, “we proudly stand for the national anthem!” No mention of any ongoing investigations, but a warning “to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” No mention of JAY-Z, but a near direct quote from his recent tweet directed at the 4:44 rapper, “African-American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded.” So he was saying these things without quite saying them, the courageous rhetoric of a brave strong big warrior hero.
I’m loathe to review the pageantry of the State of the Union much further. There were real tragedies involved. I know less about politics than the legitimate news sources you’ve already consulted. But Trump is a creature of television, uncannily modern in his performance and his consumption. He tweets about Fox News the way some people tweet about CW superheroes. He takes Saturday Night Live too seriously, a cultural condition known as the Twentysomething’s Dilemma. Reports allege that he watches as much television per day as the average TV critic, a dangerous habit guaranteed to drive anyone mad. The possibility that our president is a TV addict has been somewhat discussed, little understood. It’s not entirely clear what the long-term effects of TV addiction are. There’s not enough research, or maybe the whole country’s been addicted for half a century.
Certainly, in Trump’s speech, you noted the nuclear residue from years of soaking in Roger Ailes’ radiation. The American stories Trump chose to tell were almost uniformly violent, soaked in death and danger, requiring swift and immediate action. Even the story about the cute kid involved dead soldiers. And there was Ailes-ian “War” on all fronts, “war on American energy,” “war on beautiful, clean coal.”
Ji Seong-ho’s story is a fantastic one, the sort of great journey that could make even the laziest narcissist realize that sometimes refugees have a crisis. And Trump could say he was not anti-immigrant, of course, only anti-so-many-immigrants, anti-the-wrong-kind-of-immigrant. We need, he explained, “a merit-based immigration system.” Like, let’s say, immigrants should only have been involved in no more than a thousand lawsuits. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” he didn’t mention. “As long as we are proud of who we are, and what we are fighting for, there is nothing we cannot achieve,” he said, oddly not describing who we are fighting, or why.
He ended on a history lesson, the story of an incredible people with a revolutionary idea, no mention of where they came from, why they came here, whether anyone who happened to live here or happened to be brought here in chains was ever hurt along the way. Context is the friend of history, the enemy of myth. “The people dreamed this country, the people built this country,” the president said. “Together, they could light up the entire world,” said the man with the big button. Let there be light: Kaboom!
The Trump Content Industrial Complex fired up. (Consider this post the dying ember.) While I waited for Stephen Colbert’s Late Show to go live, I watched Congressman Joseph Kennedy III deliver the Democratic Response. He talked about top CEOs making three hundred times what their average worker did, imagined a world where coal miners and single moms could all get along. His vision of history was a tradition of progress, of suffragettes and freedom riders. He never used the word “annihilate.” I must admit that I hate Nazis and believe immigrant parents shouldn’t be forcefully separated from their children, so fair to say certain elements of this speech spoke to me.
There was a visual snafu, a glow around Kennedy’s mouth. I assume this was a lighting problem, too much makeup applied, or not enough. Don’t they teach this stuff in Kennedy Kindergarten? When his great-uncle debated in 1960 Richard Nixon, popular legend holds that image was everything: tan young JFK (with possibly a touch of makeup), sickly unshaven Tricky Dick.
It didn’t seem like it should matter. It looked a little bit like drool, but it obviously wasn’t drool, and so social media lit up with jokes about Kennedy’s drool. I assume that at least one person on Kennedy’s media team is already trying to decide how best to address #Droolgate in a funny way. Late night or viral video? Own it, or pretend it never happened?
Colbert didn’t have time to work a drool reference into his show, though he did say that Kennedy looks like Conan O’Brien. Somehow, even though his show went on live, that joke still felt tired, a meteor that already hit the chatosphere. And many of the gags had the geometric rhythm of punchlines prepared ahead of time, wedged into actual State of the Union quotes. There were broad (and accurate) jokes about Puerto Rico’s lack of electricity, about the Trumps’ rather climactic marital status. Colbert’s been to this rodeo before and was ready to make fun of any Mitch McConnell cutaways. But he did fixate marvelously on Trump’s fascination with the American flag. “Down in Charlottesville I saw your supporters carrying two other flags,” he deadpanned.
The Trump that Colbert conjured was a man of extremes. This is the nature of comedy, you could say, or the nature of broad comedy on the hunt for laughing applause. In Colbert’s telling, the president is almost divorced, almost imprisoned, a Putin toadie, and also golf. Accurate or not, this is as cartoonish a version of Trump as the cartoon Trump conjures himself into on Twitter. (Colbert’s vision is getting an expanded universe: There was an advertisement for Colbert’s Our Cartoon President.)
His first guests were Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor, currently of Pod Save America, previously of Keepin’ It 1600. The latter show was a back-slapping, never-ending victory lap, with the Samuel Beckett-ish lack of an actual victory. Then and now, their irrepressible act depends on being in the know enough to explain why the Big Thing everyone’s talking about doesn’t really matter, but then also talking about that thing anyway, since after all, it is trending. They’re pundits for people who don’t like pundits, but who secretly do like pundits.
So Colbert asked them what they generally thought about the State of the Union speech as a format. They all practiced a mode of cool disinterest while they talked about the subject they were brought on The Late Show to describe. “It’s very boring,” said the one with red pants, before launching into a rant of pure punditry which was probably more fun to say than it was to watch. Then the 2 Dope Queens came on, so the show wasn’t a complete wash.
Cartoonish antics invite cartoonish comedy. A problem for our times, maybe, though cheap comedy isn’t a federal offense, and there may soon be a boom in cheap comedy about federal offenses. But Jimmy Kimmel Live! aimed for something more clever.
Is it wrong to compare Kimmel and Colbert as post-SOTU comedians? The ABC host’s show wasn’t quite live, though it apparently filmed late enough to include a few references to the State of the Union. But where Colbert went for broadsides, Kimmel’s humor was up to something trickier. After footage of the president paying very close attention to his teleprompter, Kimmel rolled a montage of old footage of Candidate Trump declaring that he doesn’t use teleprompters, “I don’t believe in teleprompters,” etc. Kimmel mentioned how many attendees to the State of the Union brought immigrants as guests, and how “The president brought an immigrant as his guest, too.” He didn’t just cut to Melania Trump, he made sure to note the first lady’s Clintonian white pantsuit.
Kimmel approached Trump from several directions, exploring the interior egomania and the exterior grasping desire for affection. In a short sketch, he played a fantastical version of the president’s SOTU introduction, a deadpan federal functionary introducing Trump as “the most stable person in the history of the world, his excellency…and, like, really smart person.” This was a joke about hyperbole, which is different from a hyperbolic joke, and Kimmel became more meticulous as the night proceeded.
In response to conservative commentators deploring his interview with adult film star Stormy Daniels, who had an alleged affair with Trump in 2006, Kimmel simply noted that Trump himself made a grand show of Bill Clinton’s infidelities during a debate with Hillary Clinton. “Whether you like it or not, Stormy is here,” he said.
But Daniels’ interview wound up being the least interesting part of the episode. She was cheerfully blank, hiding behind either a nondisclosure agreement or the possibility of a nondisclosure agreement. She seemed to be working from some sort of script, trying to describe herself as a victim of the internet. And she was ready with some laughlines. When Kimmel described the alleged encounter with Trump, as presented in a somewhat-disputed In Touch interview, she deadpanned: “It’s an unpleasant picture you’re painting.” There were puppets and near-winks. Here was someone else trying very hard to say something without quite saying anything.
You worry this is all a little contagious. If what Black Mirror tells us is true, a virtual world beckons, where everyone — billionaire or not — can have their own textbook generic sex with porn stars. Who is the symptom, and who is the disease? Trump didn’t invent a world where politicos become pundits, where what a person says matters less than how the camera makes them look, where not enough people remember that the “frontier” was already populated before anyone dreamed up America. “Define ‘true,'” said Stormy Daniels, speaking for too many people, the willfully confused and the willfully confusing.
Credit Kimmel, then, for taking the conversation in a different direction. In a segment called “MAGA vs. DACA,” he sought to put a human face on the trending-est of topics. He gathered some people on the street who claimed to be in favor of shipping the Dreamers home. They covered the spectrum, from conversational conservatism to “I wanna start deporting Dreamers even before MS-13.” (MS-13 is, coincidentally, the Mexican gang Trump referenced throughout his State of the Union.)
Kimmel brought the MAGA crew into a room, and introduced them to a family. Esmerelda was a Dreamer, brought to America when she was 2. She has a young daughter, Rose, an American citizen. And a fiancé, Michael, born in Kansas, serves in the Army National Guard. This story seems too good to be true, if you’re on the hunt for a Complicated Dreamer narrative. But this is a big country, and no story is as simple as a hashtag.
There was an actual conversation, and not one that flowed in any particularly hopeful direction. The two MAGA men wearing red hats stayed on point, “She can be deported,” “Work on fixing her own country,” “You’re here illegally.” Some others suggested getting an immigration lawyer. (One woman seemed mainly upset that DACA offered participants healthcare.) There was an attempt toward catharsis, an avowed conservative woman who seemed to decide that this family should not be broken up.
But you didn’t get the sense that much had been resolved. This was not feel-good television, not the way that the State of the Union or The Late Show wanted to be, not the stuff of standing ovations. But the rawness of this segment was refreshing. This was the open hand, extended. At one point in the segment, Kimmel looked close to tears. “I think this country has become cruel,” he said. The sincerity was refreshing, coming so so late in a long night.
Kimmel’s other guest was plainspoken, too. “I am very, very upset with the state of our union,” said Kerry Washington. I’m with her. Time to dream something better.