CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters

One should never feel sorry for anyone working in President Trump’s White House. They volunteered for this dreadful and chaotic administration. But it’s hard to envy those tasked with writing drafts of his State of the Union address.

Trump is an incumbent who behaves as if he is in the opposition. He relishes bemoaning the terrible things happening to the country on his watch—after two years of unified Republican government. 

At the same time, it’s hard to recall a president more boastful about how great he is and how he has accomplished more than anyone who has ever held his job, which presumably includes Washington, Lincoln and FDR.

Trump is so in love with bragging that he even touts events that are anything but achievements.

On Jan. 4, 2018, Trump proudly tweeted: “Dow just crashes through 25,000. Congrats!” He recycled the same thought last Wednesday: “Dow just broke 25,000. Tremendous news!” Think about it: Taken together, the news from the two tweets is that the stock market has been flat for a year, hardly joyous tidings for investors.

But recall that Trump told us years ago in “The Art of the Deal” that he engages in “truthful hyperbole,” which can “play to people’s fantasies.” The problem is that we never know for certain if the fantasist himself believes the tales he is spinning. 

The latest fantasy, described over the weekend to journalists by Trump aides, is that his speech on Tuesday will be a unifying, bipartisan call to end old divisions and heal old wounds. 

Good luck with that, especially since his aides say he’ll also focus a large part of his speech on immigration. 

The largest contrast on Tuesday night will thus not be the obvious disparity in the backgrounds of two speakers, but in their spirit: Hope vs. Carnage.

Will he be able to stay away from his staple references to “criminal aliens,” “drug dealers,” and those coyotes he loves to summon? The president, as my Washington Post colleague Monica Hesse pointed out last week, regularly (and questionably at best) describes female migrants as being “tied up” with “duct tape” on their faces. Will such phrases disappear, too?

And how credible can calls for bipartisanship be from a man who predicted on Thursday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might some day “be begging for a wall”?

What we can be sure of is self-congratulation over Friday’s report that the economy added 304,000 jobs last month. Trump may talk about all the regulations he has scrapped (though probably not with a lot of specifics, since most voters don’t cotton to dirtier air or water, or less policing of shady banking practices). He might mention his corporate tax cut, even if it’s unpopular and has fallen far short of the promises made on its behalf.

But Trump can never get too upbeat, because he decided long ago that his political health depends upon inciting anxiety and anger as well as hostility toward (nonwhite) outsiders. This requires him to conjure a dystopian world because what he fears most is a world in which fear is abating.

There was one truly unforgettable line in his inaugural address: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” But the carnage can never end since Trump must argue that he and his wall are all that stand between us and chaos, duct tape, gangs and coyotes.

This isn’t working. Even members of that base he’s obsessed with expect the president they voted for to solve problems and not simply exploit them. That’s why his core support is shrinking. The survey number that should trouble Trump most is a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll finding that only 28 percent of Americans said they would definitely vote for him in 2020. Maybe that’s why Trump’s lieutenants insist he’ll try something different this week. 

The Democrats’ choice of Stacey Abrams to respond to Trump will highlight his dilemma.

Selecting the party’s 2018 Georgia gubernatorial nominee certainly underscores the party’s diversity and the importance of African American women in its coalition, as the Post’s Eugene Scott noted. But as important is the fact that she describes herself with two words often miscast these days as polar opposites: “progressive” and “pragmatic.” She’s also an optimist who believes that “the further ahead we get, the harder it is to drag us back.”

The largest contrast on Tuesday night will thus not be the obvious disparity in the backgrounds of two speakers, but in their spirit: Hope vs. Carnage. No matter how hard his speechwriters work to make him buoyant and collegial, Trump needs to depict a country facing a petrifying crisis. It’s the only way he can justify what he does.

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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