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The Spectacle of the Union

The State of the Union began in 1790 when George Washington gave an update on the country and detailed his suggestions for the future. Article II of Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution mandates that each president should give a report on the latest issues and talk about their plans for the future. At its origin 230 years ago, this was a straightforward speech to the lawmakers of the time.

Later in 1982, Ronald Reagan was the first president to invite a guest to the State of the Union, a heroic man who saved a woman from drowning following a plane crash. This set a precedent for the generations of presidents to come, and following this tradition, President Donald Trump invited a number of guests to his State of the Union ceremony on Feb. 4. Many of them had a story relevant to Trump’s speech about border control or military sacrifice, standing up when they were mentioned to receive a round of applause. Other guests became involved themselves, playing a bigger role than just smiling and waving.

At times it was clear that his decision to invite some of his guests was perfectly calculated. Trump used real people and their authentic personal triumphs and hardships to get his own agenda across, such as holding up a set of parents grieving for their daughter who was killed by Syrian terrorists to justify his own military action and Islamophobic rhetoric. As the night continued on, he granted a scholarship to Janiyah Davis, sitting with her mother in the gallery. Mid-speech, Trump's wife Melania gave the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, a controversial alt-right talk show host and outspoken Trump supporter. A military reunion was even facilitated for the middle of the address, mimicking those trending on the internet. This State of the Union wasn’t just an update on our country; it was an entertainment event.

The issue isn’t so much about Trump doing great things for people while honoring commendable Americans, it is his demand for attention while doing it. He could have honored these deserving Americans in the same way in private, or even a separate organized press conference—instead, Trump sought credibility and used real people to do so. Success stories are suddenly a way to support—or bash, in Ms. Davis’ case—policies made by the president and present lawmakers.

It would be less surprising if President Trump had done the same in his past two State of the Union addresses, as it would fit with the reputation he gained during his first election in 2016. However, he made a pointed effort to make this particular address more elaborate, dramatic, and polarizing than ever. Beginning with President Trump's refusal to shake Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's hand and continuing with the reactions of each side throughout the address, Americans weren't just being presented with Trump's speech—they witnessed the turmoil of this country firsthand. Ultimately, this spurred Pelosi to rip up Trump's speech manuscript after he had finished, leaving viewers feeling uneasy with the state of our nation, instead of reassured and ready for a new year.

With the presidential election happening in the coming months, one would think each party would put their best food forward, especially the president. His show of proving he’s the best and most generous person in the room isn’t what will fix things. Instead, he should be a leader who encourages people of different ideologies, religions, and cultures to thrive in the country he leads. It is clear from his actions and rhetoric that when Trump honored a family, granted a scholarship, and awarded the Medal of Freedom that all he was really doing was promoting himself. With the election this year looming ahead, President Trump seems to be putting all of his energy towards standing out above his opponents—and sacrificing tradition for spectacle.