The State of the Union is Warlike and Getting Worse

The SOTU spectacle served its purpose. The warmongers shilling for the liberal establishment were reassured that their figurehead president was strong and vigorous, up to the challenge of fighting wars and demonizing immigrants and supporting genocide. Joe still has it in him to be the standard-bearer of the empire, the sigh of relief went up everywhere in the dinosaur media, he can take the fight to the fascists here and abroad! One wants to ignore this non-event altogether except for the volumes it speaks about the cultural stasis this empire has reached in its last days.

For decades I have fantasized—and I’m sure I’m not the only one to harbor this vision—that the president will reach the podium and tear up his formal speech at whatever occasion he’s supposed to be uttering his bullshit and instead look the people in the eye and give them the reality straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. If such a thing happened, the walls of power, I like to imagine, would crumble and honest speech would be common again. Hollywood directors used to harbor the same illusion in the 1930s, during the dark days of the Depression and in a turbulent world heading to another global war, and perhaps some still do, as in the Coen Brothers’s inciteful Burn After Reading (2008), which updated the absurdities of Wag the Dog (1997), to the context of the 2000s, some years after the coup d’état that took the empire in the violent direction that can only have one conclusion.

But this is reality—or the opposite of it—so let’s deal with it. The main interest in Biden’s events is to be on tenterhooks all the time to see if he will completely wander off the rails and start uttering demented gibberish, which, come to think of it, might not be too different from my reverie of the president setting aside his prepared remarks to tell the people the truth at last. But decrepit Joe began by screaming at full volume (when the meds were apparently at their strongest) about the $60 billion he still wants for Ukraine and connecting it with Trump’s alleged fascism, without naming the evil one but often referring to him only as his “predecessor.”

The predecessor is likely to become the successor as well, signaled by the full-throated opening with the insane war in Ukraine, which has already resulted in the West’s collective strategic defeat (though, just as with Afghanistan, the reality hasn’t yet been acknowledged). Beginning the speech with Ukraine, a widely reviled and unpopular policy of unnecessary war among everyone except the blindest of the blind in the Democrats’ fan club, told me that there will be no last-minute swap of blustering Biden.

For as long as I’ve been alive, there has been a persistent fairytale each election cycle among the commentariat that there will be a brokered or open or chaotic convention, and it never happens. The suggestion that such flexibility (even of a tyrannical, oligarchical bent) is still possible in these late days of empire beggars the imagination.

There will be no swap (with an eagerly awaiting Newsom). No switch will occur at the convention or before it. This is it, this is their playbook, this is their whole game, the shtick they’re going to stay with until the end, and they really believe it’s going to work. It’s not so far-fetched either, because ultimately it will again come down to Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, taking Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada out of the equation and putting them firmly in the predecessor’s electoral column this time.

Ukraine, Dark Brandon standing up for democracy (while trying to put his predecessor in jail), outdoing the Republicans on demonizing immigrants (senile Joe let out the word “illegal,” buying into MAGA witch Marjorie Taylor Greene’s shaming of him to name Laken Riley, the 2024 gift to immigrant-haters that is sure to feature bigly at the Republican convention), and equipping Israel with everything it needs to finish off its genocide of Palestinians is really the way they’ll go until the end. All the while hoping that they can still convict Trump on one of those nonsensical charges (probably the classified documents case in Florida) to dissuade just enough voters to narrowly pull out a win in a handful of critical swing states.

Actually, these spectacles don’t even take their presumed narrow audience seriously. They are more like internal memos, talking points circulated among the bureaucratic  types who administer mass death and destruction around the country and the world, as if to remind themselves of what they’re supposed to say each morning as they wake up and look at their faces in the mirror. Biden’s rousing war sloganeering will ring in the heads of the legions of Victoria Nuland wannabes still serving the rapidly fading empire.

It wasn’t until the closing moments of the speech that Biden got around to the genocide in Palestine, and then only by condemning Hamas, repeating the lie he still peddles about the sexual outrages that are supposed to have set this off, and only then lamenting the loss of tens of thousands of lives as though this were a natural event beyond any control of his own. In fact, one phone call to Netanyahu to threaten the stoppage of funding would bring the genocide to an end, but what Biden promised instead was a farcical floating pier to deliver aid perhaps weeks or months from now, when all that needs to be done is to remove the Israeli blockade of land routes for food and medicine already waiting to get in.

On immigration, just as Barack Obama refused to do anything about this critical issue when it was more than ripe for a permanent resolution with total control of all branches of government—after George W. Bush’s two nearly-successful attempts at legislative action in the mid-2000s—and instead chose to be deporter-in-chief, Biden likewise used all of 2021, his first year in office, to slow-walk every single domestic reform half-promised under pressure from progressives during the 2020 campaign. This included the slow death of Build Back Better and all its desirable components, anything he could actually have run on in 2024, such as child or elderly care or real student debt forgiveness or free community college. With regard to immigration, three different proposals were included in an economic bill and each time the Senate parliamentarian—a non-entity who seems to assume divine stature only when the Democrats are in complete control of government and need an excuse to do nothing —nixed the proposals.

And that was the end of any attempt to stabilize the status of millions of people in uncertainty, those with roots in the community, and the beginning—once attention shifted to restarting the forever wars, after all the domestic demands were cleared off the table in 2021—of letting in desperately-needed immigrants through the back door.

Without this trickle of easily exploited labor, inflation would have been even worse. Business knows it and is eager for the new cheap pool of labor, yet the neoliberals can’t even talk about the actual equation of needed versus available labor. Instead, they offered to pass a draconian anti-asylum bill that was favored by Republicans yet in the end rejected by them. Both sides want to keep this wedge issue alive, as they have for the last forty years. Comprehensive immigration reform is as much of a non-starter as the two-state solution that the Democrats still insist on mentioning at the end of whatever phase of genocide they’re currently complying with, as Biden predictably did on Thursday.

There was stuff about abortion and IVF and guns and ending cancer and whatever the usual bullet points tend to be for their side, but nothing about anything that can actually help people. Car prices have doubled, the same goes for grocery prices, rent and mortgage payments are through the roof, as a basic standard of living is nearly impossible to attain for most people in the cities. Everything is twice as expensive and the quality of life has dramatically declined. There are eminently reasonable, practical solutions to each of these problems, to ending the overhang of debt, to making health care and education and housing and transportation and—for God’s sakes—food affordable to everyone, but none of the policy choices are even on the radar. For example, a good start to address the housing crisis would be to stop private equity’s rampage through the housing market, as Wall Street takes units off the market and converts them into investment vehicles. But the old man talked about more chips in the bag!

In the end, Corn Pop didn’t poop in his pants, because he did linger for half an hour after the speech in the Senate chamber, even if he was just as late in arriving to his own SOTU. Trump’s comments on Truth Social—which I have now signed up for—were more entertaining than anything Biden could have said. To top it all off was the histrionic Alabama Senator Katie Britt, who did her best impersonation of a struggling suburban mom from her well-appointed kitchen, switching between fake laughter and fake tears like an actor who can’t make up her mind which play she’s in, a comedy or a tragedy. It was almost as grating as Daniel Day-Lewis hamming it up in There Will Be Blood. At times Biden lapsed into his trademark dementia whisper, drawing us closer toward the screen. Those were the moments we could see through his translucent eyes, all the way deep into his empty soul, where the American empire has already died, yet continues to speak through his maniacal screaming/whispering voice, buzzing into our heads that it still lives.

Trump is right, who’s the old man angry at? We expect words and meaning where they can’t be found. There really is nobody at home. They’re gone.

Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Approach to Immigration, and Confronting American Fascism