President Donald Trump has been on a media tear the past week, and by the end of Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech it was impossible to deny how effective he has been lately in using media to dominate the national conversation.
It is starting to feel like 2016 again when every time you turned on a cable news show you saw Mr. Trump’s face and heard his voice ripping his opponents and shamelessly celebrating himself. I fear this is the ubiquitous version of Mr. Trump we are going to have to live with again straight through to November. And I have to admit, after more than three years of trying to counter the lies and smears at the heart of many of his media performances, we in the press have not had much success.
A week ago, Mr. Trump swooped into Des Moines for a rally. And even though the cable channels left most of the coverage to live streams, Friday morning media was filled with talk of it.
Sunday, he was on one of the biggest stages in American life with tens of millions of viewers for the ritualized presidential interview before the Super Bowl. Only this one was pure propaganda and ad hominem attacks with Fox News host Sean Hannity teeing up Mr. Trump’s opponents and the president taking full swings at Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and, yes, Mr. Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Monday night and Tuesday morning, Mr. Trump was on Twitter bashing Democrats over the meltdown of the party’s system for counting caucus votes in Iowa.
“The Democrat Caucus is an unmitigated disaster,” Trump wrote. “Nothing works, just like they ran the Country. Remember the 5 Billion Dollar Obamacare Website, that should have cost 2% of that. The only person that can claim a very big victory in Iowa last night is Trump."
Another tweet: “When will the Democrats start blaming RUSSIA, RUSSIA, RUSSIA, instead of their own incompetence for the voting disaster that just happened in the Great State of Iowa?”
But Tuesday night’s State of the Union performance hit another gear altogether. The speech itself was high-road by Mr. Trump’s usual standards; he did not personally attack, slander or smear anyone. He mainly touted his alleged accomplishments with a blizzard of numbers that no one should trust.
The power came instead from the staged moments in the House chamber. They were straight out of the reality and game-show TV playbooks.
Other presidents have brought victims and heroes to their State of the Union speeches and singled them out to applause. But what happened Tuesday went beyond that with Mr. Trump handing out awards and prizes to create emotional moments much like such early TV shows as “Queen for a Day” and “This is Your Life” in the 1950s.
Mr. Trump singled out Maryland resident Charles McGee, a retired Tuskegee Airman, by announcing that earlier in the day he had pinned the stars of a brigadier general on the 100-year-old former fighter pilot.
Mr. Trump’s wife, Melania, presented radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who announced on Monday that he has lung cancer, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The president also introduced a single mother, Stephanie Davis, and her daughter, Janiyah, saying the fourth grader wanted to go to a better a school but didn’t have the money to do so. The mother and daughter hugged as the president announced that the girl had been awarded a scholarship to attend the school of her choice.
The moment was political as all get-out with Mr. Trump using the term “failing government school" to describe the kind of institution the child wanted to leave. But even as I understood the political calculation, I was still moved.
I despise so many things about this president. I think he is every bit as dangerous as the House managers arguing for his impeachment claimed.
But it’s a mistake to not appreciate his media performances. If you want to understand how Mr. Trump’s approval rating could be at his all-time high of 49% this week, the economy surely is one factor. But so is what he’s doing onscreen.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.