It has been a little under a week since Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union (SOTU) address. I didn’t actually watch the address, but I’ve watched and read commentary on it. Most of the stories I’ve seen first mention that Trump was uncharacteristically reserved and on script. He checked off the usual SOTU boxes – the state of the union is strong; we have to do more to unify and stop trying to divide our nation; congress has to be willing to reach across the aisle; the military is great but we can make it greater; immigration; infrastructure; etc. That’s all well and good – although those of us paying attention know that this is mostly feel-good gobbledygook that doesn’t actually translate into any real policy or changes in attitude. Interestingly, a look at George Washington’s first SOTU (1790), it appears they were concerned about very similar issues – the military, immigration, jobs, education.
However, I’m more interested in the tradition of the State of the Union in general than any particular president.
I haven’t thought too highly of any of president during my lifetime (I was born during the Reagan administration). In the United States, the State of the Union comes from article 2 (concerning the Executive Branch), section 3 of the Constitution: “He [The President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient…” This seems like a good idea on paper. What concerns me, though, is that the SOTU seems to have become a place for the government to promote the Religion of the State.
The Religion of the State is often shrouded in the cloak of patriotism, but is expressed in the ideas of exceptionalism – in the case of the U.S., American exceptionalism – and special pleading. I’m going to talk about this in terms of the United States, since that is where I am from, but also because the U.S. is often one of the major offenders, referring to itself as the Indispensable Nation, but what I’m saying could easily be applied to any country.
American exceptionalism, I think, is fairly self-explanatory. It is the idea that the U.S. is better than any other country – whether due to having the largest economy, the most advanced military, or even because God Himself has smiled down upon us. This exceptionalism, the thinking goes, gives the U.S. permission to involve itself in the domestic issues of any country in the world, because the U.S. alone can give proper guidance to all of the confused or ill-conceived policies dreamed up by lesser nations. But within the United States, this also expresses itself as a belief in the benevolence, or at least the good intentions, of our government. Other countries may have governments that don’t respect human rights and the rule of law, but if the U.S. government wants to spy on its citizens in contradiction to the highest law of the land or imprison them for victimless crimes, it is all done in the name of good intentions.
The other aspect of the Religion of the State is special pleading. Special pleading is when something is said to be excepted from criticism or from the rules that everything else abide by. When it comes to the Religion of the State, this is often summed up in the statement “love it or leave it” or, during the Vietnam War era, “my country, right or wrong.” This is the argument that it doesn’t matter that what the country is doing is wrong or bad or illegal, the country (expressed through the state) should be exempt from criticism. Interestingly, the only time government wrongdoing is allowed to be criticized is when it is wronging the government, but that could take up an article all its own. Special pleading can also be seen in foreign policy, such as when the U.S. will find it unacceptable when other countries do things that the U.S. does routinely, such as intervening in the politics of countries within another power’s sphere of influence.
When it comes to the religion of the state, the State of the Union is the Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving service all wrapped up into one. Every other line the president delivers is met with thunderous applause that reminds one of Kim Jong-un or Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. It’s a self-serving, pseudo-authoritarian spectacle packed to the gills with platitudes, empty gestures, and sweet nothings that serve no purpose other than to demonstrate the awe and gratitude that our self-described betters believe the peons ought to feel toward the state – whether they are straining themselves to pat their own team on the back, or cravenly resisting for the consumption of the other, everyone can equally revel in the self-righteous knowledge that the benevolent government will fix every problem, right every wrong, repel every evil, and provide every comfort. What really matters here is that you feel like your life and well-being hinges on the desires and well-being of the federal government.
It’s for these reasons – and the fact that there has yet to be a president that I’ve liked – that I choose not to watch the State of the Union address.