Going into Tuesday's State of the Union speech, it's hard to know what to make of Donald Trump's unsubtle hints that he may use his big annual address to Congress to declare a national emergency so he can circumvent legislative approval and start building his border wall. Is he serious about this, or is he just putting up a front to drive up viewership and media coverage?
Chatter about the possibility of some dramatic announcement during the speech went into high gear earlier in the week, after Trump -- using his preferred communication form of insinuation -- told CBS on Sunday that he doesn't "like to take things off the table" and "you know, there have been plenty national emergencies called."
But while Trump's instincts are simply to act like the kind of strongman dictator he so admires, there are plenty of reasons to suspect he's just blowing smoke. A number of Republican senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have warned Trump that a national emergency declaration is a bad idea. Part of the concern appears to be that if Trump declares a national emergency, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can deploy a complex legal strategy and force Republican senators to take a vote on whether or not to let him do it.
And the main thing Republican senators seem to want is to avoid ever having to make a straightforward up-or-down vote on the border wall, which remains extremely popular with Republican voters but also seems destined to become an embarrassment beyond even the Iraq War within the next few years.
Odds are that Trump won't declare a national emergency on Tuesday night. His hints that he might largely stem from his history as a reality TV show host. The strategy those shows follow is to heavily hype the "shocking developments" of the next episode, and then to disappoint viewers when the episode airs and the developments are a good deal less sensational than implied. Trump likes to play this game, as well, telling Americans to "stay tuned" for exciting twists in his presidency -- which he clearly mistakes for a TV show -- and then failing to deliver.
Meanwhile, some White House officials are trying to spin the upcoming speech as positive and unifying.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters that the speech is going to "call for an end to the politics of resistance, retribution and call for more comity" and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump's message will be that "we can either work together and get great things done or we can fight each other and get nothing done."
Reading between the lines of that spin, the likely message will be that Trump is entitled to have everyone in D.C. fall in line with his agenda, and their failure to do so renders him the biggest victim in the history of victims. This talk of "unity" is a nod towards Trump's guiding idea that unity is best achieved by everyone in politics meekly obeying his every whim.
There's good reason to believe the speech, like so many others apparently penned by his main speechwriter Stephen Miller, will be a series of empty clichés paired with lurid and possibly pornographic descriptions of violence committed by the dark-skinned immigrants who haunt Trump's imagination. Trump's guest list suggests that the White House has not backed off its main obsession, which is convincing Americans to buy the racist myth that masses of brown people are streaming across the border to rape and kill them.
The high likelihood that the speech will simply retread the main themes of the Trump administration — brown people are coming to kill you and Trump is entitled to obeisance — has made it tough for the White House to drum up much public or media interest in the speech. That's become even more difficult as all the Trump scandals continue to metastasize, with federal prosecutors sending out another flurry of subpoenas this week, this time looking into possible grift and money laundering around Trump's inauguration.
It's hard to imagine anyone actually getting excited about the State of the Union, beyond people who have a thing for hearing elderly men describe fantasies about women being kidnapped with duct tape over their mouths. Even they will likely be disappointed, since Trump is likely to avoid telling this utterly false story about kidnappings at the border (apparently borrowed from the movie "Sicario: Day of the Soldado"), because it might be too easily disproved, even by Trumpian standards, in this august official setting.
As much as anything, that's likely why Trump has flirted so heavily with the idea of a national emergency. Teasing a dramatic announcement is the only thing that might get large numbers of people to tune in to a speech they know will be poorly written, racist and full of lies. The alternative strategy -- to give a good speech that actually tries to change the tone and move the political discourse forward -- is clearly off the table. So the reality TV fake-out is all Trump has left.