7 Moments That Made the State of the Union Like Watching Reality TV

The family reunion in the middle was really a twist we didn't see coming.

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

Tuesday night’s State of the Union marked the second time in history a president has delivered the address to the American people while in the midst of impeachment (the first was Bill Clinton in 1999). While most expect that Donald Trump will be acquitted today, the pall of impeachment coupled with uncertain results from Monday’s Democratic caucus in Iowa rendered the State of the Union a foreboding glimpse of what’s to come in Trump’s reelection effort. And true to his pre-White House career, Trump turned the whole thing into television-worthy spectacle.

Trump, who once lived in a gold-plated apartment in Manhattan, made strong appeals to “blue-collar” workers, touting a “blue collar boom.”

Of course, that effort also came with a hefty dose of misinformation. The President made false claims that he had lowered prescription drug costs and promised he would prioritize protecting patients with pre-existing conditions. He boasted that seven million Americans were now off food stamps (in reality, Trump slashed the program), and made no mention of the $1 trillion federal deficit (despite balancing the budget being one of his main campaign promises). Trump made a tenuous connection between needing neonatal research for medical care of premature babies, and a push to ban “late term abortion,” despite the two not being linked at all. Amid all of this playing fast-and-loose with the facts was a tone that all of America had somehow tuned into a pro-Trump rally. There were chants of “four more years,” extended applause breaks, and all the showmanship this President uses to keep people engaging with his narrative.

Social media — and the eagerness for viral moments to be part of every political event — plays a role here, and the State of the Union served as a series of reelection gimmicks, anchored by Trump’s reality T.V. instincts. The President wildly bestowed honors and hosted reunions, holding court as what he truly aspires to be: a television sensation.

Giving A Scholarship for One, Funding None

Among Trump’s talking points was the idea of “school choice,” a focus in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s agenda and a proposal recently pushed by Ted Cruz. “School choice,” or school vouchers, have been met with pushback from Democrats who have pointed out that it removes crucial funding from public schools, which are already underfunded. They also have said it rattles the stability of jobs in public schools, and widens the opportunity gap between students in certain schools or districts.

Last night, he awarded a scholarship to a Philadelphia fourth-grader, who attended the State of the Union with her mother, allowing her to attend the school of their choice. It was a dystopian feel-good moment: While awarding the scholarship, Trump mentioned that “tens of thousands” of students remain on the waiting list, repeatedly referenced their “failing” schools, and made no mention of plans to fund those schools in order to create opportunities for those students.

Nancy Pelosi Tore the Speech Up

After extending her hand only to have Trump rebuke her handshake offer before the State of the Union began, Pelosi appeared to tear a copy of Trump’s speech in half, twice. Pelosi also broke tradition, in an attempt to remind the country that this was anything other than business-as-usual, introducing Trump by saying “members of Congress, the president of the United States,” instead of the norm, in which the House Speaker introduces the President by saying they "high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States."

President Trump Gives State Of The Union Address
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The Father of a Gun Violence Victim Called Out

When the President mentioned the Second Amendment to pro-gun cheers from Republicans – saying “so long as I am president, I will always protect your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms” – Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter, Jamie, in the Parkland shooting, called out. Guttenberg, who apologized for the incident on Twitter this morning, was invited to the State of the Union by Nancy Pelosi. He reportedly yelled “victims of gun violence like my daughter,” during that part of the speech. In a night of partisan divide, it was a stark reminder that there are real people on the other side of policies and talking points.

Democrats Fact-Check Prescription Drug Costs Bill in Real-Time

When Trump promised to pass a bipartisan bill related to lowering prescription drug costs, saying he’d “sign it into law immediately,” Democrats decided to fact-check him in real time. Some stood up, with three fingers in the air, chanting H-R-3, the number of the bill they had passed in the House to cut drug prices just a few weeks ago. In addition to creating an awkward stall in Trump’s speech, the chanting acted as a nudge toward reality during a night rooted in rally-like behavior: Behind the scenes and talking points, there is real work to be done.

A Family Reunited

In a moment made for a feel-good T.V. show, after praising the commitment of a military family that included a mother and two small children, Trump had her formerly deployed husband, come down the stairs for a surprise. It was a reunion made for tugging at heartstrings while playing to Trump’s base, who consider him a staunch supporter of the military. While no one would criticize a family being reunited, or a child receiving a scholarship, the television arch of the State of the Union felt like attempts to patch a bandaid over top of the fact that the President has been impeached, and somehow, reelection is still a possibility.

A Sideshow Featuring Rush Limbaugh

In perhaps the most staggering sideshow of the night, the President awarded radio host Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom – in the middle of the State of the Union. Traditionally, the award is given at the White House, and last night marked the first time it was ever presented during the State of the Union, almost as though the country was bearing witness to a bizarre beauty pageant. Among Limbaugh’s greatest career hits are comparing then-12-year-old Chelsea Clinton as a dog, announcing that “feminism was established so that unattractive ugly broads could have easy access to the mainstream,” and not even a year into Barack Obama’s presidency, saying “in Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the Black kids cheering,” according to Media Matters.

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The Walk-Out

Representatives Bill Pascrell, Tim Ryan, and Rashida Tlaib were among the Democrats who walked out before Trump’s State of the Union concluded, citing reasons including the President using the platform to lie about various issues. Ryan described it as “it’s like watching professional wrestling. It’s all fake.”

This is in addition to at least eight other Democrats, including Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Maxine Waters, and Ayanna Pressley, boycotting the State of the Union altogether, refusing to “normalize” the President’s conduct. During a night largely considered one of the most important of the year, a chance for the President to connect directly with the American people, it marked a divide in government officials refusing to legitimize, at best, abnormal, and illegal, behavior for the person holding the highest office in the land.

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