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E.J. Dionne Jr.: The State of the Union: Petrified

One should never feel sorry for anyone working in President Trump’s White House. They volunteered for this dreadful and chaotic administration. But it’s hard to envy those tasked with writing drafts of his State of the Union address.

Trump is an incumbent who behaves as if he is in the opposition. He relishes bemoaning the terrible things happening to the country on his watch — after two years of unified Republican government.

At the same time, it’s hard to recall a president more boastful about how great he is and how he has accomplished more than anyone who has ever held his job, which presumably includes Washington, Lincoln and FDR.

Trump is so in love with bragging that he even touts events that are anything but achievements.

On Jan. 4, 2018, Trump proudly tweeted: “Dow just crashes through 25,000. Congrats!” He recycled the same thought last Wednesday: “Dow just broke 25,000. Tremendous news!” Think about it: Taken together, the news from the two tweets is that the stock market has been flat for a year, hardly joyous tidings for investors.

But recall that Trump told us years ago in “The Art of the Deal” that he engages in “truthful hyperbole,” which can “play to people’s fantasies.” The problem is that we never know for certain if the fantasist himself believes the tales he is spinning.

Tuesday’s delayed speech to a Joint Session of Congress thus promises to be an exercise in whiplash between despair and triumphalism.

The “crisis” at our southern border will be cast as an existential threat to the nation. It’s hard to imagine we won’t hear at least some of his staple references to “criminal aliens,” “drug dealers” and, of course, those “coyotes” he loves to summon. The president, as my Washington Post colleague Monica Hesse pointed out last week, regularly (and questionably at best) describes female migrants as being “tied up” with “duct tape” on their faces.

On Thursday, Trump even predicted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who continues to resist his edifice-as-policy approach, would someday “be begging for a wall.” The president likes the idea that people — particularly, it seems, women — will “beg” him for things.

Amid the darkness, he’ll no doubt point to a few shafts of light, starting with Friday’s government report showing that the economy added 304,000 jobs last month. Trump may well talk about all the regulations he has scrapped (though probably not with a lot of specifics, since most voters don’t cotton to dirtier air and water, or less policing of shady banking practices). He might mention his corporate tax cut, even if it is unpopular and has fallen far short of all the promises made on its behalf.

But Trump can never get too upbeat, because he decided long ago that his political project depends upon inciting anxiety and anger as well as hostility toward (nonwhite) outsiders. This requires him to conjure a dystopian world because what he fears the most is a world in which fear is abating.

There was one truly unforgettable line in his inaugural address: “This American carnage stops right here and right now.” But the carnage can never end since Trump must argue that he and his wall are all that stand between us and chaos, duct tape, gangs and coyotes.

This isn’t working. Even members of that base he’s obsessed with expect the president they voted for to solve problems and not simply exploit them. That’s why his core support is shrinking. The survey number that should trouble Trump most is a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll finding that only 28 percent of Americans said they would definitely vote for him in 2020.

The Democrats’ choice of Stacey Abrams to respond to Trump will highlight his dilemma.

Selecting the party’s 2018 Georgia gubernatorial nominee certainly underscores the party’s diversity and the importance of African American women in its coalition, as the Post’s Eugene Scott noted. But as important is the fact that she describes herself with two words that are often miscast as polar opposites: “progressive” and “pragmatic.” She’s also an optimist who believes that “the further ahead we get, the harder it is to drag us back.”

The largest contrast on Tuesday night will thus not be the obvious disparity in the backgrounds of two speakers, but in their spirit: Hope vs. Carnage.

No matter how hard his speechwriters work to make him buoyant, Trump needs to depict a country facing a petrifying crisis. It’s the only way can justify what he does.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

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