Why I, a politics nerd, will never watch a Trump State of the UnionOn January 31, 2018 by Maybell
Tonight, Donald Trump gives his first State of the Union address — a moment in history, a milestone in America’s most bizarre presidency. And the only way I will watch this, or any future State of the Union that Trump may give, is if a goon squad straps me down and pull my eyelids open, Clockwork Orange-style.
I will peruse the transcript, both the one he’s supposed to deliver and the one he actually delivers. I will gladly read a dozen commentaries; I’ll even give a few minutes to the first dummy to get roped in by the grandeur and patriotism of the occasion and proclaim that here, finally, is the presidential pivot.
I will do this because I am a politics geek; I love the messy marketplace of ideas. I follow the way those ideas are sold to the public, and/or enacted into policy, the way some follow sports teams. Staying informed isn’t mere civic responsibility; it is the needle I jam in my veins. The State of the Union used to be my Super Bowl.
But for the last year, this 21st-century reader has been treating Donald Trump as if he were a 19th-century president, and neither video nor audio of him existed. It’s not only appropriate, given his 19th-century mindset, it’s also the only way I came out of 2017 with my sanity intact.
If his moving image came on a screen or if his voice came on the radio, I’d hit any button that ended the channel. If the remote wasn’t mine to control, I’d walk out of the room. I am hugely active on Twitter but don’t bother to follow Trump. Nobody needs to do so any more. The tweets seep into everyone’s timelines anyway, like IQ-lowering lead paint.
I’m not suggesting that we ignore a guy who is clearly the biggest threat on the planet. I’m mindful of the fact that millions who’ve already been adversely affected by his nonsense — refugees denied entry, undocumented families torn apart, Medicaid recipients who can no longer get coverage, poor families who will pay more taxes while millionaires pay less — do not have the luxury of looking away. Nor should the more fortunate.
What I’m saying is, we resist better when we ignore the persona and focus on the substance, on the words. Amazingly, it turns out you can absorb just as much news about the guy through the cool filter of text. You can accept that he is the president, and campaign like crazy to change that, without watching him make a mockery of the presidential platform.
Refusing to indulge his presence in our homes is essential self-care — and on a large scale, it’s the most Resistance-friendly thing we could do. For one thing, it hits him where it hurts. Right in the ratings.
Forget the caricature
It’s important to remember Trump is a showman and a snake-oil salesman. He’s not necessarily a very good one — when it comes to the art of persuasion, that ego-stroking and that childish refusal to learn make for obstacles the size of an over-leveraged Fifth Avenue tower.
But he has a talent. He can hold the attention of a large room as well as any big-name hypnotist. TV is his natural home. He played a good business leader on TV once, though he had to be heavily edited to remove all the racist and sexist comments and many episodes had to be heavily edited to make his random firings look pre-ordained.
But still! Trump’s appeal is primarily emotional, and that means it is visual and aural. He has a deep resonant voice, and science says we respond more readily to deep-voiced politicians. It’s something deep in the brainstem: we are predisposed to believe them even when they lie through their teeth. This, along with a liking for authoritarianism, is why 35% of the country sticks with the petulant boy emperor no matter what.
I’ve written previously about scientists, analyzing Trump’s voice using software that tells call centers whether a customer is about to explode, who were disturbed by how calm it sounded when he lied. They’d never seen anything like it. Normally, when politicians lie, there’s a little bit of perceptible stress in the voice — a twinge of conscience, perhaps. Not this guy. And that makes for a dangerous demagogue.
Many if not all of that stubbon 35% base are people who primarily follow Trump via television and talk radio, not the written word. They are lulled more by the rhythm of his patter, the smartest-guy-in-the-dive-bar cadence, as much the words he uses. They are perfectly happy being fooled by his gruff glower, his shit-eating grin. It’s a willing suspension of disbelief, the exact same mental mechanism that allows us to think of TV characters as real.
This is what everyone from your local newspaper cartoonist to Alec Baldwin on SNL don’t seem to get: the caricatures, the fact that he can be easily rendered in a few ink lines of hair and squint, actively helps him thrive among his base. To them, he’s already a character, an icon. You might as well try to parody Mickey Mouse.
To stay here, on the written word side of the line, is to stay sane. Here is where books live — books, the things Trump never reads, according to Fire and Fury, a flawed book that has nevertheless revealed how few clothes the emperor wears. To judge him purely on what he says, not the way he says it or how he looked when he said it, is a reminder that reason is a thing that exists and that this man falls short by most of its measures.
Cool, level-headed scientific rationality is exactly what we need more of right now. So if anyone needs me during the State of the Union, I’ll be sitting by the fire keeping the written word alive — immersing myself in fictional plots that are many times more coherent than our current national nightmare.