Even before Donald Trump became president, the annual State of the Union ritual had grown tiresome to those who considered it outdated kabuki theater, just as party conventions have become little more than an extended TV commercial.
Then Trump arrived in the White House. His willingness to say one thing one day and another the next threw Washington into a bizarre reality where what Trump says next, on Twitter, matters more than what he has said before.
In the Trump era, there is no pretending that the State of the Union speech involves a serious political dialogue between the president and the legislative branch. It has descended into political theater, posturing and play-acting.
Ahead of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Trump has created suspense over whether he’ll use the speech to announce that he will use national emergency powers to obtain funding to build a wall along much of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We will be looking at a national emergency, because I don’t think anything’s going to happen [with congressional negotiations]. I don’t think Democrats want border security,” Trump said Friday. “Listen closely to the State of the Union, I think you’ll find it very exciting.”
Trump’s rhetoric was in direct opposition to what his own aides, a few hours later, said would be the tenor of his speech to Congress.
“He is going to strike a unifying tone,” said a senior White House official, who spoke to reporters on the condition that he be identified as the kind of anonymous source that Trump has said only appears in fake news stories.
It would certainly not be a kumbaya moment if the president was to tell Congress that he will circumvent their approval in a legally questionable way, in order to build a border wall.
But this dramatic back-and-forth may increase interest in an event that for years has “become a less and less serious type of thing and more of a pep rally,” according to Bob Shrum, a Democratic political adviser and speechwriter.
Shrum said “a lot of students want to come” to an event to watch the speech at the University of Southern California, where he is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.
“It’s not that they are deeply into studying State of the Union speeches,” Shrum told Yahoo News. “The power this year is the power of drama.”
Pat Caddell, a former pollster and adviser to President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Joe Biden, and now a conservative pundit, feels that the speech has declined in substance in recent years, but agreed that this year’s event will have some “potentially exciting moments.”
“Will Nancy Pelosi spit at Trump?” Caddell said. “How insane will it get on the floor?”
Still, Caddell told Yahoo News, “it’s all now in the theater. It was once a very potent forum, when we had a more regularized politics than it is now.”
President Lyndon Baines Johnson unveiled his Great Society programs in State of the Union speeches. More recently, President George W. Bush used the forum to make the case for invading Iraq, and President Barack Obama to push for his health care legislation.
But partisan divisions are so pronounced now — with the president and the Democrats dug in on their respective positions around border security, and with Trump’s call for a border wall — that any talk of an infrastructure deal, or some other bipartisan legislation, won’t be taken very seriously.
So is all the attention deserved? Does American politics accord too much importance to what has become another version of reality TV?
Some political veterans said that political theater, even if it amounts to no more than that, is still able to draw in and inform casual observers about the nation’s politics.
“Even if [the GOP] controlled both chambers, it’s still an adversarial chamber,” said Eli Attie, who wrote speeches for former Vice President Al Gore and has since lived in Los Angeles and written for such TV shows as “The West Wing” and “House.”
Now, with Democrats controlling the House after last year’s midterm elections, “it’s kind of like the opening of a gladiatorial game,” Attie told Yahoo News.
Historian Jeffrey A. Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, said on the Mother Jones podcast that he still thinks the speech can call the nation toward unity.
“I am leaning toward ‘Who cares?’” about the State of the Union speech, Engel said, noting that he believes it does have some merit.
“I think the pomp and circumstance is really important,” he said, “because it does tell everybody in the government that they’re all on the same page … when Americans remember that being an American is more important than being a Democrat or Republican.”
But Caddell argued that polarization in the nation has undercut any unity.
“Most people who support Obama watched his, and people who didn’t like him didn’t watch. It’s the same with Trump,” Caddell said. “It’s stopped being a universal moment, as our politics have come more partisan.”
A larger number of Democrats may be watching this address than during Trump’s last two speeches to Congress, but not because they are looking for a moment of unity. Many will be looking for signs of opposition from the new Democratic majority.
If the nation is at a point at which the State of the Union can do little to unite Americans around a common purpose, the voices questioning why the event should demand any attention will grow louder.
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