The stars were aligned for President Donald Trump to emulate Ronald Reagan in the House chamber Tuesday night. Trump has gleefully compared himself to Reagan on several occasions, and there are numerous commonalities between the two. They both have entertainment backgrounds and former associations with the Democratic Party. They both suffered stinging midterm rebukes and sagging poll numbers two years after winning long-shot elections against establishment candidates.
They also share the distinction of giving State of the Union addresses that were delayed by a week. Reagan’s 1986 speech was postponed by the tragic Space Shuttle Challenger crash. Trump’s was delayed by the recent 35-day shutdown that ensnared a quarter of the federal government. Given this connective tissue and the high stakes surrounding his speech, Trump would have much better served by following Reagan’s successful framework for the State of the Union, specifically his 1982 address and singularly focused homage to guest hero Lenny Skutnik.
Read more commentary:
State of Trump’s Union: We’re coping with our ethically heedless Brigadoon president
Trump’s State of the Union address lays groundwork for 2020 re-election campaign
Donald Trump pretends to be presidential during State of the Union to con the nation
Historians consider Reagan’s 1982 and 1986 State of the Union addresses two of the best ever. One reason for Reagan’s success was his brevity. These two speeches lasted 30 to 40 minutes, and Reagan’s average length for all of them was 40 minutes. Trump doubled this appropriate duration of time with an 80-minute opus in 2018 that he narrowly exceeded this week. Comedian Stephen Colbert equated the speech to watching paint dry. Viewers these days have an enormous number of competing media options, and those watching the speech likely tuned out in the middle.
In his 1982 speech, Reagan ingeniously decided to invite the first presidential guest to attend the State of the Union address and sit prominently next to the first lady. Two weeks earlier, Skutnik, a Congressional Budget Office employee, had jumped into the icy waters of the Potomac River to rescue a survivor of the Air Florida Flight 90 plane crash.
Reagan saluted Skutnik at the very end of his address and said Skutnik’s bravery demonstrated “the spirit of American heroism at its finest.” The House chamber erupted in applause and presidents ever since have invited special guests, both to elicit an emotional response and to help advance their political agendas.
Guests to advance an anti-immigration agenda
Trump is obviously aware of this presidential stagecraft that Reagan perfected, but his attempt to replicate it has now failed twice. There was just one Lenny Skutnik, but a whopping 15 names appeared on Trump’s 2018 State of the Union special guest list. On Tuesday, he had 18 guests. Such a deep roster of invitees devalues their unique stories and means less time in the limelight. Trump’s overuse of the device feels as if he is pitching a new reality show.
In addition to having too many guests, Trump has frequently used them to articulate his strict anti-immigration agenda. Four guests from the 2018 State of the Union address were parents of two teenage girls who were tragically killed by MS-13 gang members in Long Island. Several guests from Trump’s 2017 address to a joint session of Congress were similarly connected to immigrant crimes.
Trump used the word “countless” to describe the number of Americans murdered by illegal immigrants (though studies show that both legal and undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans) and he warned of new caravan threats “on the march” as Democrats booed. Trump also told the painful story of grandparents from Reno, Nevada, who were murdered this year, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant, and introduced several family members of the victims. His antagonistic immigration posture during major speeches has yet to produce any tangible results, and his latest performance doesn’t put Congress any closer to reaching a spending deal to forestall another government shutdown.
Down the partisan rabbit hole with Trump
Instead of going down the partisan rabbit hole again, Trump should have modeled Reagan by inviting just one everyday American hero — for instance, James Shaw Jr. The 29-year-old is credited with saving numerous lives after disarming Travis Reinking and his AR-15 at the Waffle House last year in Antioch, Tennessee. Shaw then created a fundraiser for the victims of the attack. Trump did eventually talk with Shaw Jr. on the telephone, but a well-deserved trip to the White House never materialized. Trump may have avoided inviting the selfless American hero because of the style of the rifle involved in the Waffle House shooting and many others.
Not only did the country not get a Reagan-like speech from Trump, it reverberated with echoes of Richard Nixon. Trump said partisan investigations are one of the only things that can stop the “economic miracle” taking place in the United States. He also said passing legislation is incompatible with investigation.
In his disciplined 2018 address, Trump didn’t come close to talking about Russia. This time he channeled Nixon, who infamously called for an end to the Watergate investigation in his 1974 address. Later the same year, Nixon resigned from the presidency.
During this difficult time, America needs an ordinary hero as well as hope and optimism in the future of the country. Unfortunately, Trump failed to deliver on both accounts.
Aaron Kall is director of debate at the University of Michigan, and Joshua Clark is head debate coach at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. They are contributors to “The State of the Union Is … Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years.”