Why you can skip the SOTU

The word considerable does not mean what most people think it does. It means “needing or deserving of consideration” , not “big”  or “a lot” .  It means what everything Donald Trump says is not, and tonight’s speech (and the post-speech tweets and flailing about by flacks and shills that will follow) will be more proof: Trump’s discourse is not considerable and should just be ignored as such. 

One significance of the Jewish ceremony of Bar Mitzvah is that the principal is now responsible for what he says: when an adult says he will do something, the odds that he will should go up, and in general people can depend on that and make corresponding commitments. What Trump says he will do has no such significance: his statements of intent are vacuous and ephemeral, as Mitch McConnell and the dozens people he has stiffed in business can attest.

When grownups assert facts about the world, the assertion has some bearing on what you should believe, though of course some are better informed than others or smarter.  When Trump says practically anything, his relentless, terrier-like, purposeful ignorance means it has no informative value whatever, whether he’s noodling about climate, Iran, the border, or trade data.

A third kind of discourse enlightens us about the speaker’s values: “I’m a Christian” is shorthand for a bunch of actions in the world one can expect the speaker to try to perform or not.  Trump’s value statements are as vacuous, and as labile—whether odious or decent–as his fact discourse. 

It’s not just a matter of mendacity, though his endless, insouciant lying about big things and small have a lot to do with this. He doesn’t misrepresent his values; he just doesn’t have any (except his own ego). If there were money to made from it, and he had permission from Laura Ingraham and Putin, he would as readily get on a climate alarm jag as he does about immigrants.

All of which has been a paralyzing problem for all of us and especially for the press.  Deference to his office, and long journalistic tradition, seems to require that when the president says “A is B”, the fact that he said it requires reporting, perhaps with a quote from another source who says “no, it’s not!” But when this president says absolutely anything, the event is not like any other president, or any other important public official saying something.  It has no bearing on anyone’s belief, on what he will do in the future, or on our views of him: it’s not considerable. It’s like a horserace prediction based on a dice roll. We’ve had two years of our press trying to treat Trump’s discourse as the utterances of a responsible, more-or-less-informed, responsible adult: it’s time to stop. The word lie is, thankfully, starting to be used to characterize his mendacities, but why tell us about something that will be inoperative or a passing fancy by the next news cycle?  We need a completely new convention, recognizing that the presidential utterance process has been replaced with an inconsequential–not considerable—model, and treating it like the “speech” of a parrot or random artificial speech generator.

Not considerable: how to listen to tonight’s speech, or why you can just ignore it.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

14 thoughts on “Why you can skip the SOTU”

  1. I wish that the Democrats had boycotted the SOTU, not just because his utterances are not considerable, but because he is a monster. He has kidnapped thousands of children and, despite a court order, will not return them to their parents! How can we pretend that he is a person worthy of treating with respect?

    I’m also thinking about the presidential debates in 2020. If he has not been removed from office by then (I can’t bring myself to type his name), then how can the Democratic nominee agree to debate him? Doesn’t a debate require a minimal commitment to truth and reason and good faith, all of which he utterly lacks?

    1. Pardon me for continuing this rant, but, if Pelosi could say “No SOTU until you reopen the government,” then wouldn’t it have been even more important to say, “No SOTU until you return the children you kidnapped”? And why hasn’t Congress appropriated funds to hire hundreds of people to search for the children and their parents? I cannot contemplate the suffering that Trump is inflicting at this very moment. Doesn’t Congress care?

    2. Agreed that nobody can have a real debate with Trump. If he is the GOP candidate (I put the odds at less than evens; bookies are more generous) the Democratic nominee can, after an opening statement, ignore him in the so-called debates and speak directly to the moderators, the studio audience, and the TV audience.

      1. The problem with ignoring Trump is that Trump should not be allowed to get away with his lies as the debate proceeds; viewers should not have to wait until the post-debate commentators point them out, as many viewers will not watch them. The Democratic candidate should not have to waste his or her assigned time pointing out the lies, and, even if he or she did, Trump could reply, “No, you’re lying,” and we’d get nowhere. There should be a panel of independent historians and journalists sitting on stage, who would hold up a sign saying “False,” whenever a speaker utters a clear falsehood. Let Trump debate with them if he wishes. Or maybe have the panel offstage and press a buzzer, as in Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life,” whenever a falsehood is uttered, with no opportunity for the liar to debate them. The Democratic candidate should not agree to debate without the presence of a neutral panel.

        1. For those too young to have watched Groucho’s show, the buzzer would go off when a contestant said the secret word chosen for each show.

          1. Even better would be for the duck to come down bearing a sign saying, “False!” in its bill.

            Of course the operator of the duck might get tired or suffer an injury due to the frequency of its appearances, so a backup duck operator should be on hand.

      2. In 2014, Bill Nye debated young-earth creationist Ken Ham. A great many people on the pro-science side urged Nye not to take the challenge, figuring that Ham would simply do the “Gish gallop,” i.e., lie and keep moving on to the next lie, making it impossible for the opponent to address all the creationist’s claims and leaving the impression that the creationist was controlling the debate. Nye actually did very well by focusing on a few strong points and continually redirecting the debate to those points, and the debate is generally considered a win for Nye.

        I suspect the Democratic candidate will be spending at least some time studying Nye’s techniques in that debate.

        1. How does one “win” in a debate with Trump? The idea is not to win in an intellectual sense, but to gain votes. The Democratic candidate cannot win over the people in Trump’s base, and he or she has won over anyone with a brain before the debate starts. That leaves the undecideds, who must be people with half a brain. How does one appeal to them? I don’t know.

          1. The idea is to gain votes, but also to keep votes. And also to give those who might have been on the other side reason to think again. There will always be those who won’t budge (my mother remains convinced that Richard Nixon was unjustly hounded from office). But it’s worth noting that what we’ve been calling “Trump’s base” has been shrinking, which means that some people who were “never not-Trump” have been withdrawing from their earlier stance.
            Another important function of debates–and of almost all public rhetoric–is to give those on your side the reasons (mental excuses, if you like) that will induce them to continue to be on your side. (Obama’s television address before the 2012 election provided people who were ready to vote for him with reasons to determine to vote for him and probably moved a number of people who were leaning in that direction to make the final decision in his favor. That’s why it was referred to at the time as his “job interview.”)
            There are a lot of people who don’t pay much attention to politics most of the time, just as there are many people who don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the importance of the theory of evolution to modern science and who probably think “teach both sides” sounds nice and open-minded. Nye gave them a reason to rethink that; he showed Ham’s arguments to be lacking and explained why evolution was the best explanation. And many of those who don’t pay attention to politics may be amenable to arguments to vote for the Democratic candidate–or at least not to vote for Trump.
            The Democratic candidate doesn’t have a choice about debating, but I think there’s a lot that can be accomplished in a debate. In particular, Trump increasingly presents as emotional and fearful. The Democratic candidate has room to be calm, self-assured, competent and in control.

  2. although I am still thinking about it, I tend to think the Dem nominee might want to skip a “debate.” But a lot would depend on who the nom is and what kind of mediator there will be. This may be too cautious a view – I barely recall the Hillary – Don matchup … but I don’t remember him trying to mud wrestle or anything. It’s just awfully hard to have any kind of real conversation with someone whose use of language is so ______. Random? But they might be able to just talk past him. It will depend on the setup.

    Either way, I would like to see this nominee spending a good bit of campaign time going out and trying to talk to our red area brethren. Even if it gets not a single vote. Naturally the advance work would be grueling bc you’d have to sort out the screamers and the plants… but there ought to be a decent number of your non-college Anglo-ish folk with whom one *can* discuss. And i think it is important to do.

    And I have to say … we on the Left are sure not perfect either. We’ve got the circular firing squad working overtime. And it’s still early! Why would anyone apologize for testing their own DNA? (altho I suspect she didn’t actually apologize … she is just not contradicting it, though I sure wish she would)(I don’t recall her saying she was a member of an actual tribe. If she had said it, then *maybe* I could see an apology. But honestly! I am just about done with people getting offended. Why not talk about, say, a new war on poverty? Hmm?) Maybe we are skipping the middleman and just shooting ourselves? I could imagine being an Anglo-ish person and watching this and thinking, wtf? I don’t want any part of it. And Virginia. Oh my.

  3. The one thing that I remember from the 2016 debates is when Trump walked behind Clinton in order to make her nervous or uneasy. If a debate is planned for 2020, then the Democrats ought to make it a condition that, if Trump does that, the moderator will end the debate then and there.

    I like byomtov’s suggestion. I’d forgotten that, in addition to a buzzer going off, a duck came down. And lcoleman6 makes some good points in answer to my question above.

    1. I have no doubt that those organizing the debate and those prepping the Democratic candidate will be thinking long and hard about how to handle any wandering about on Trump’s part. The problem with stopping the whole event then and there is that it gives him control over the ability of the Democrat to get her/his points across. As soon as a sensitive subject comes up, Trump can just shut the whole thing down by leaving his podium.

      However, if the Democratic candidate and the moderators treat Trump’s wandering as if it’s the behavior of a confused person (“Sir? Are you all right? Is there something you need? OK, could you return to your place now?”), he might stop it.

      Trump’s wandering in the 2016 town hall debate seemed to be partly about disconcerting Clinton (who stood up to it admirably, I think) and partly about focusing attention on himself–he seemed very aware of where to stand to make sure he was prominently on camera. Deprive him of those two goodies–make sure the Democratic candidate has been thoroughly prepped for unflappability, and offer only the kind of attention he doesn’t want if he does wander–well, it’s an old trick, but it just might work.

    2. It is mildly fun to envision a trap door, a la Bond movies, but instead of sharks he could land on something soft. Non-violence being an essential value. Oooh, or a dunktank!

      Maybe just have them both be seated. Especially as that might work against the whole height stupidity.

      Btw Jarndyce… never apologize for a good, intelligent rant. People who never complain are just as bad as people who do it too much.

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