The State of the Union headline was not in Donald Trump’s script, which initially leashed him to a teleprompter before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, writes Scott Lucas.
The White House had trailed that the speech, given a week late because of the shutdown of the federal government, would emphasise a bipartisan approach to politics. So Trump – more like a newcomer carefully reading through an audition than the flamboyant actor at his rallies and impromptu press conferences – ticked off lines that could have been given by any of his predecessors.
“Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us, gathered in this great chamber, hoping we will govern not as two parties, but as one nation,” he opened. “Victory is winning for our country,” followed. And “Make America Great Again” was reworked as “Tonight I ask you to choose greatness”.
Trump sheltered in the safety of introducing various invited guests, from World War II veterans to Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. He warmed up and loosened up a bit as he claimed credit for everything from the American economy to the release of former inmates Alice Johnson and Matthew Charles through clemency, who were also in the audience.
The story of the day had been the off-script Trump. Before feigning the bipartisan in his speech, Trump spent a lunch with reporters assailing Democrats. There, he apparently dismissed former vice-president and possible presidential candidate Joe Biden as “dumb”, while Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, was a “son of a bitch”.
But the story of the night was the woman behind Trump on the podium. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, the legislator who uninvited and re-invited Trump to give the State of the Union address, silently exercised her new authority as leader of the Democrat-controlled chamber.
Pelosi gave courteous applause at points during the performance. But for much of it, she monitored Trump like an instructor watching a borderline student. She quietly marked Trump’s 15-minute peroration on immigration, filled with his boilerplate distortions about the “tremendous onslaught” of “large, organised caravans” arriving at the US border. She gave a small shake of the head as he recited hyperbole about his immigrant straw man, “the savage gang MS-13”. She never broke into a gaze of disbelief as the claims got bigger and wilder, as he introduced three women whose relative was killed by an “illegal alien”. She just continued the silent marking of the man in front of her.
The women of Congress were the story in front of Trump, and many of them were taking seats for the first time this January. They came dressed in white in tribute to the women’s suffrage movement.
As he got into his script, with more swagger and jabs in the words, Trump played to the Republicans who rallied to their cues. They backed him in his biggest swing of the night, when he attacked “ridiculous partisan investigations” as disruptive to the “economic miracle” taking place in the nation.
When they offered an impromptu opportunity by chanting “USA, USA”, Trump seized it. “That sounds so good”, he told them. Buoyed, he gave a finger jab at the Democrats as he claimed the achievement of making the US a “net exporter of energy”.
But the cameras were often on the 131 women sworn into the 116th Congress. Like the woman behind Trump, they monitored the chief executive rather than deferred to him. They stood in their own tribute to “greatness” but remained in their seats during Trump’s more frequent invocations of division and confrontation, including over his wall with Mexico.
And then they seized the evening.
Trump, with his chequered personal and political record over women, again reached for self-congratulation: “No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58% of the new jobs created in the last year.”
The 131 women leapt to their feet. They whooped, danced, and high-fived each other. They celebrated.
Appearing surprised and unsettled, Trump exclaimed: “You were not supposed to do that.” He tried to regain attention to himself: “All Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before.”
The dancing surged. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York gave a hip shake.
Trump tried one more time: “We also have more women serving in Congress than ever before.” Every eye on them rather than the president, the women hugged each other, waved, and danced some more.
Facing the wave, the Republicans pushed it with the chant, “USA, USA, USA”. But rather than giving way, the women took up the chant. Rather than letting the Republicans claim to represent the nation with their mantra, they shouted it, too – they danced to it.
Trump continued through his script. He announced another summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, in Vietnam at the end of this month. He introduced a ten-year-old girl who defeated brain cancer. He spoke about “babies ripped from their mother’s womb, moments from birth”. But his State of the Union was done for the night.
And his rule of the state might be done for good. Behind him was a new political reality: one woman with her own control. In front of him, the many others not just blocking his path – likely to be a troubled one in 2019 – but forging their own.