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The Prop Department

How Trump used personal stories to repackage old ideas in his Congressional address

When presidents visit their neighbors at the Capitol for a joint session, their speech nearly always ends up as a laundry list with anecdotes scribbled in the corner. The older versions of these addresses — before the existence of C-SPAN — basically served as a live read of the president's Christmas list, sent a year in advance so that the legislative process, slow by the founders' design, could maybe wrap one or two presents up by the holiday season. Now that TV exists, and presidents feel like they need to appeal to the public before getting Congress to play along, the heartstrings must be strummed. Americans from across the country are collected by White House casting directors and arrayed above the crowd to serve as synecdoches for the morality play being spun by the commander-in-chief.

Barack Obama is perhaps the poet laureate of the anecdote-stuffed State of the Union paean. He treated these bite-size stories like truffle oil, as if a few spare details about the lives of the kinds of Americans who appear in heartwarming local news segments garnished with uplifting rhetoric about the promise of America could overpower all ideological differences. The series of proper nouns always crescendoed to the speech's big finale. "I think of Leonard Abess … I think about Greensburg, Kansas … I think about Ty'Sheoma Bethea," he said in 2009. "I see it in the worker on the assembly line … I see it in the American who served his time … I see it in the elderly woman who will wait in line to cast her vote as long as she has to," his refrain went in 2016. "We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez," he said in 2013. "We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. … We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy."

The anecdotes were never the main part of Obama's speeches, but rather his best opportunity to give himself a moment worthy of a John Williams score in a concert hall filled with nothing but grumpy or glad-handing politicians.

For Donald Trump, a man who watches abridged versions of action movies and is unwilling to entertain a single moment of dull exposition, anecdotes are the animating force behind his politics. They prop up problems that don't exist, giving Trump the flimsy evidence he needs to confirm his preexisting view of the world. The hearsay Trump offers is sometimes shouted, sometimes relayed in the hushed and halted tones that a teleprompter forces on him, and sometimes defensively uttered on cable news. The various costumes said baseless rumors wear sometimes confuse those watching into thinking his strategy's changed.

In Tuesday's speech, for example, Trump pointed out a handful of people in the audience who were the inspiration for his new Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office. Moments like these distort the world instead of reflecting it, regardless of how tragic the individual incidents might be. The truth is that immigrants commit violent crimes at a lower rate than native-born citizens, but to those with their worldviews already set in cement, emotion-laden anecdotes are powerful stuff. Writer Eyal Press wrote in The New Yorker last year that "the 'perceived disorder' of a neighborhood correlated positively with the prevalence of Latino residents, regardless of the actual level of crime." When Trump speaks about immigration, he's already appealing to the prevailing mood. Shortly before the election, the Wall Street Journal published the headline, "Places Most Unsettled by Rapid Demographic Change Are Drawn to Donald Trump." Regardless of where people live, however, one can always be convinced that danger lurks somewhere else, threatening to come near. A majority of Americans think the country keeps getting worse and that crime is rampant, while also feeling as though they are very safe themselves.

For the entirety of Trump's political career, these stories have powered his popularity — the only thing keeping him afloat in a world where the facts are united against his presidency. Recall that his campaign kicked off with maybe his most notorious anecdotal missile, one that defined everything that followed. (“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting.”) So Trump was never going for the universal human experience in his addresses; this is a man who returned to the places that loved him best after the election, a man who has spent the first few months of his presidency reiterating that he would have campaigned differently if the popular vote mattered. To the 26 percent of Americans who voted for Trump, some of his anecdotes ring truer than facts.

Trump is by no means the only politician to spackle over holes in logic for the sake of a few claps; it remains unclear how tinkering with the no-fly list would prevent gun deaths, as Democrats have argued, when such a change would have prevented none in the past, or how Republican voter ID laws would stop fraud that largely doesn't exist. But for Trump, who appoints advisers based on advice from friends and has a tendency to "simply listen to the last person he spoke to," these anecdotes constitute his entire worldview, protected by his decision to rebrand facts as fake news.

It also gives massive power to those who provide him with this database of rhetorical fodder, something the successful ones around him have already figured out. The president's understanding of national security in Europe is shaped by his friend "Jim." Trump's claims of voter fraud were bolstered by a story he heard from a golf buddy about a guy in Florida who saw Hispanic residents voting. He is the person who believes in kicking out all immigrants because he knows a guy who lost a job to one, and who thinks that food stamps are bad because his aunt knew someone who gamed the system. It doesn't matter what voters think about these addresses, which rarely affect approval ratings or people's opinions. His gossip has already worked, and the next presidential election is three years away.