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One Cheer for Heckling
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One Cheer for Heckling

Can an already degraded event be diminished?

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene gives a thumbs down during President Joe Biden's State of the Union address. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.)

If you follow politics and want to challenge yourself, try finding something praiseworthy to say about the dismal yearly pageant known as the State of the Union.

Everyone hates it. Kevin Williamson wrote on Tuesday about how much he hates it. Jonah Goldberg has complained many times over the years about how much he hates it. At my old haunt I was known to fire off understated posts on the topic with titles like, “Please, Mr. President: Make America great again by ending the garbage event known as the State of the Union.”

Everyone hates it, but it’ll never be canceled, certainly not by Joe Biden. No president will easily forfeit the chance to speak unopposed at length to tens of millions of American voters, least of all one who’ll (probably) be on the ballot next year. And for Biden, who spent centuries in the Senate, addressing a congressional chamber is his happy place. Observers across the political spectrum marveled last night at how energized he seemed by the setting; reportedly he lingered in the Capitol for more than hour afterward to schmooze with members of Congress.

When the biggest threat to your reelection is public suspicion that you might keel over at any moment, a televised production proving that you can still deliver a long speech late into the evening with satisfactory focus is, frankly, an opportunity that can’t be missed.

Yet the fact remains: The State of the Union is a squalid pseudo-imperial spectacle that should offend the sensibility of any small-R republican worth his salt, for reasons Kevin ably explained. And—almost worse—it’s reliably boring. If you’re of a certain age, the memory of Bill Clinton droning through the usual agenda wishlist for nearly an hour and a half will send a shudder through you to this day. If we must indulge squalid pseudo-imperial spectacles, the least they can do is be lively.

This one, it turned out, was pretty lively.

Oh dear. When did the SOTU become the latest stop on the populist vaudeville circuit?

Some were mortified by the display, not all of them liberals. “I’ve never been more embarrassed to be associated with the Republican party than in the middle of the State of the Union when House members started openly heckling the president of the United States,” a disgusted John Podhoretz wrote afterward, condemning the hecklers as “goonish” and comparing them to “drunken attendees at a WWF match who seem not to know the proceedings are fake.” Dispatch writers, not to mention Dispatch readers, should be primed to agree with him by their abiding contempt for the party’s populist performance-artist wing.

But in this case I side with John only so much. One cheer for the hecklers!


Let me stress: One cheer, not three. If you find the GOP’s civic degradation during the Trump era revolting, as you should, Tuesday night was another new star in a galaxy of data points.

The last time a Republican made waves for heckling a Democratic president during the State of the Union, he was quick to show remorse. After Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” at Barack Obama in 2009, he issued a statement calling his interjection “inappropriate and regrettable” and extended his “sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.” David Frum remembered that Mike Pence, then a bigshot in the House GOP caucus, felt obliged to call Wilson’s interruption a “mistake.”

There’ll be no regrets this time. Unapologetic theatrical incivility to political enemies is the sine qua non of populist authenticity in a party remade by Trump. Apologizing to Biden would cost Marjorie Taylor Greene more support than refusing to apologize will. (“I’m not sorry one bit,” she told CNN afterward, proving the point.) That culture and its perverse incentives is what Podhoretz finds disgusting, I suspect, not the heckling in isolation. And righteously so.

Still, I find myself struggling to get worked up about it. For starters, what did anyone expect?  

The likelihood that House Republicans would misbehave during the speech was so high that Kevin McCarthy reportedly warned his caucus against it beforehand, to no avail. Even a strong speaker in the Pelosi mold would have struggled to restrain a group that treats ostentatious obnoxiousness as a political virtue. A weak speaker like McCarthy was left haplessly trying to shush his caucus from the rostrum as they hooted at Biden repeatedly.

They are who they are. Even Donald Trump, glued to his television on January 6, 2021, allegedly felt moved to note that the glorious patriots battling at the Capitol in support of his coup seemed a bit “low class.”

It grieves me that I’ve grown inured to populists playing to type, but here we are. Come to think of it, everyone played to type last night.

Mitt Romney continued to function as the lost conscience of his party.

Kyrsten Sinema continued to explore bold new senatorial sartorial frontiers.

Donald Trump continued to make national Republican politics a soapbox for his personal grievances and bottomless victimization narrative.

And the official Republican rebuttal to Biden continued to criticize Democrats in a sort of populist culture-war patois that must have been inscrutable to viewers who don’t follow right-wing politics closely. “The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left, the choice is between normal or crazy,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders warned at one point with unintended irony following a midterm in which numerous Trump-backed freak-show candidates blew winnable races.

Before the speech, Greene was seen strolling the halls of Congress holding a white balloon, a prop-comic commentary on our latest fracas with China that was juvenile in more ways than one. Again: What did anyone expect?

I like when the public gets to see Republicans for who they are. A fraction of a cheer for truth in advertising.

Another fraction of a cheer is due to my belief that an event as bloated with pomp and monarchical pretenses as the State of the Union could do with a little more backtalk from the audience. Granted, ideally that backtalk would come from intellects more exalted than those of Paul Gosar and Lauren Boebert. But we should take care not to be too pious about decorum during a spectacle when our faces are being collectively rubbed in the trappings of the imperial presidency.

Especially when the president is abusing those trappings to make claims that are, shall we say, truth-adjacent.

What riled up McCarthy’s caucus last night was Biden alleging that “some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.” That’s technically true, if by “some Republicans” you mean “Rick Scott and no one else.” The rest of the party, from Trump to McCarthy to backbenchers like Nancy Mace, has been at pains to assure voters that entitlements are emphatically not—not, not, not—at risk as the GOP engages in a new round of cosplay as purposeful fiscal conservatives.

I understand why Biden wanted to terrify his huge audience by warning them of conservative designs on Social Security. But I also understand why conservatives felt compelled to correct the record urgently, in real time before the lie spread, by shouting him down. Biden was trying to toss them onto the so-called third rail of American politics. Their backtalk might have saved them from electrocution.

A fraction of a cheer for self-defense!


And finally, a fraction of a cheer for the fact that the GOP’s outburst might backfire.

Might.

The most bothersome aspect of populist transgressions in the Trump era isn’t that so many members are willing to stoop to them, it’s that they often work. Not always, as the hearteningly dismal record of election deniers on the ballot last fall demonstrates. But in a country where a coup attempt is no barrier to frontrunner status in the next presidential primary, one should never assume that misbehavior will lead to punishment instead of profit. Yesterday on social media Trump smeared Ron DeSantis as a pedophile; I wish I could guarantee that he’ll suffer politically for that smear more than DeSantis will, but I can’t.

The same goes with Republican heckling of Biden at the State of the Union. It might be true that the caucus took some carefully laid bait and turned itself into “props for Biden” by publicly affirming its commitment to Medicare and Social Security after he mentioned Scott’s plan. (Imagine losing a strategic battle of wits to a senescent 80-year-old.) But to me it seems like a case of Biden inadvertently tossing the GOP into the briar patch. Liam Donovan compared the episode to a Republican president accusing Democrats of wanting to defund the police, Democrats protesting loudly, and the Republican then cheerily celebrating the fact that both parties oppose the idea.

Funding the police is popular. So is protecting Social Security. How does it harm Republicans for SOTU viewers to see firsthand that they support the latter?

Still, there’s a case that they did hurt themselves by misbehaving. And if they did then the heckling is less objectionable, arguably even salutary. One way they hurt themselves was by reminding a gigantic audience before the debt ceiling fight this summer that they’re not actually serious about fiscal responsibility. Philip Klein, who is serious, watched with horror as House Republicans jeered Biden’s suggestion that they might dare try to make entitlements sustainable someday.

The big picture in all of this is that debt is currently at the highest level as a share of the economy since World War II and on track to smash that record within the next decade. With the ballooning retirement-age population and rising health-care costs, Medicare and Social Security alone are expected to cost $29 trillion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, or more than half of projected tax revenue. Watching political leaders, many at or near retirement age, agree to do absolutely nothing to address this problem is an act of fiscal violence against younger Americans.

I thought about that passage today as I watched this video, which illustrates the degradation of Tea Party Republicans into welfare-state nationalists in an unusually efficient way.

Republicans can always change their minds later on entitlement reform, of course. They probably will, as their commitment to fiscal conservative has shifted cynically for decades along with the political winds. But if you’re a sincere deficit hawk in the Klein mold, you watched last night’s outburst aghast and might have come away wondering what makes this party any more deserving of your allegiance than Democrats are.

If you’re not a sincere deficit hawk in the Klein mold, you might have watched last night’s outburst and come away annoyed regardless, thinking, “Why are these guys always such jerks?”

Democrats have had jerky moments of their own during the State of the Union in recent memory. But Trump’s party is truly Trump’s party, consistently using trollish “name-calling, rudeness, and open disdain” to try to signal the depth of their commitment to fighting the left. It’s no coincidence that the fringiest populist members of the caucus also tend to be the most personally boorish. When McCarthy warned his members before the speech not to act out, he knew exactly which of his “problem children” he had to worry about.

This morning, Fox News anchor Steve Doocy confronted him face-to-face with the fact that independents in Fox’s focus group had noticed the House GOP’s heckling. And not in a good way.

“What Biden and his people do seem to understand is that what saved Democrats in 2022 from the chopping block might save them in 2024: the fear among voters who will decide Biden’s fate—and the fate of Democrats running down ballot—that too many Republican politicians are weird, unpleasant, and crazy,” wrote Podhoretz. That would be perilous for the GOP under any circumstances. But with Biden slyly maneuvering to co-opt populist elements of Trump’s agenda (just ask Don Jr.), Republicans risk facing an election next year in which Democrats are offering the center a broadly acceptable blue-collar menu on kitchen-table issues without the weird unpleasant craziness associated with the MAGA right.

If a meaningful number of normie voters treat the heckling as another exhibit in the case that a GOP dominated by populists is unfit to govern, that deserves another solid fraction of a cheer. The party won’t be talked out of treating boorishness as a virtue, after all, just as it wouldn’t be talked out of wanting Trump as its leader. Those views will need to be beaten out of it at the polls.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.