In 2011, Donald J. Trump, host of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” was the star of a Comedy Central roast, a familiar ritual for showbiz personae. The guest of honor sits stage center and gets insulted, then everyone laughs it off as all in good fun.
The State of the Union address, under President Trump, has become something like a celebrity roast in reverse. In this ritual, the center of attention stands at the podium, he says things about working together and getting along, and after it’s done, everyone goes on their way, assuming he didn’t really mean it.
So while the advance spin about the president’s speech Tuesday was that it would emphasize “unity” and “bipartisanship,” the pre-address coverage on cable news was less credulous than before. Mr. Trump had, perhaps, finally been the wolf who cried boy too many times. (He had, in a lunch with news anchors that same day, already called Sen. Charles Schumer a “nasty son of a bitch.”)
Beyond that, there was a sense, with Democrats having swept into control of the House and opponents lining up to run in 2020, that the president was no longer the sole focus of the show. Having served, since announcing his campaign in 2015, as the norm-breaking antihero protagonist of America’s political TV serial, he now had to share billing with a vast ensemble of co-stars.
There was, of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the ubiquitous new representative from Queens, doing interviews before the speech on CNN and after it on NBC. There was a house full of adversaries and potential opponents in the room, as the cameras darted from face to face to catch the reactions of Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and more.
Arguably, the expressions of incredulity and sardonic shade were statements as politically significant as anything President Trump read from his text. It was like a miniature primary of smirks and grimaces, pitched to any of the Democratic base watching, or catching up on social media.
One declared Democratic candidate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, sent out one of her reaction GIFs on Twitter to raise campaign donations mid-speech. Elsewhere on Twitter, Trump detractors circulated a picture of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi perfunctorily applauding in the president’s direction, as if handing him one small clap on a tiny hors d’oeuvre tray.
And the promised bipartisan rhetoric? There were gestures toward it in the speech. There was also combativeness, and fearmongering about immigrants, and boasts specific and unquantifiable — America’s economy was “the hottest,” as if Mr. Trump were pitching a new hotel — and introductions of guest after emotional guest, all stuffing a Dagwood-sandwich speech.
President Trump, never a strong reader off the prompter, read through sections at a slow cadence, then slam-cut through jarring segues. As at his rallies, and on reality TV, he was more comfortable in the moments he could improvise and play off the crowd. As he introduced a Holocaust survivor celebrating his birthday, the room broke into “Happy Birthday,” and Mr. Trump made an orchestra-conducting gesture.
But there was more dissonance than harmony. An upbeat section on the economy closed with a dark warning that investigations of him would bring it all crashing down, wrapped up with a Johnnie Cochran-esque rhyme: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”
The speech made hairpin turns from uplift to fearmongering and back. The Democratic response by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, usually a thankless job, may have benefited simply from being short, focused and sustained in tone.
Fittingly, the most boisterous cross-partisan cheers were ironic. When Mr. Trump referenced the women’s employment rate, a crowd of Democratic women celebrated — many of them having taken the jobs of the president’s supporters.
It was one of many striking visuals of the night, and not just because the congresswomen were dressed in suffragist white. The new class of representatives also contrasted sharply with the throngs of Republicans — mostly white, mostly men — who lined the aisle to glad hand the president as he walked into the hall.
Mr. Trump extended the moment. “Don’t sit, you’re going to like this,” he ad-libbed, adding that there were now more women serving in Congress than ever, which was the closest he came in the speech to congratulating his opponents on their win. They cheered even louder, if more defiantly than he might have planned.
For the former TV host, it was perhaps the old showman’s trick of seeking to hang onto the spotlight by ceding it. For them, it was a chance to emphasize that this new face of the Congress likely would not be there, if not in reaction to Donald Trump.
It was the one point in the State of the Union on which he and they could all agree to give him credit.