Weekly addresses are the chaste presidential equivalent of sending a "u up?" text to the American people. This executive outreach, saved for Saturdays (when we've already tuned out), deploys minimal effort — an executive branch "hey," all lowercase, no period. Most of the time, America doesn't even bother responding. You might not even be aware that our president does weekly Facebook Live sessions, the umpteenth update of the radio rubric that his predecessors used to reach out to their "fellow Americans" on a regular basis.
Trump's interpretation, however, makes what should have been obvious for years painfully clear: It's time to kill this now-useless tradition.
Hearing the president's take on the news of the week is no longer a privilege, especially now that our leader thinks tweeting is the only responsibility enumerated in Article II. But if there was one presidential precedent he was going to uphold, it would be the one involving a camera. Not that he seems to enjoy the weekly addresses much; his artistic inspiration for delivery seems to be the "grab her by the pussy" "apology" video that the New York Times called "unusual" and the Huffington Post said looked "like a hostage tape."
It's like watching the Trump Steaks ad after it took a 100-year nap and woke up and realized it was late for the fun funeral.
The weekly address didn't always feel like this. Back when hearing directly from the president was a rarity, Americans even looked forward to catching up with the commander-in-chief. On February 23, 1942, more than 61 million tuned in to hear one of FDR's occasional fireside chats. Ronald Reagan was the first president to make a weekly radio appointment with the public, and about 5 million people listened regularly.
In the decades since, however, presidents have found myriad other ways to check in, thanks to the inevitable creep of technological innovation — and their ever-growing desire to bypass the press.
Reaching out to the public is no longer a nice side gig. Now that the White House's power over Congress is diminished, it’s one of the easiest ways for a president to accumulate political capital. Presidential communications, meanwhile, have become even less of a thrill, as we also now have an ever-increasing number of things to watch on cable instead of anything to do with the White House. That hasn't stopped these executives from bugging us.
Recent presidents have started to stalk Americans with their hyperactive social media feeds and endless requests to check out their podcasts. They send us emails at 9 p.m. with subject lines like, "Are you awake?" Their faces are plastered on the news 24 hours a day, and most Americans probably feel lucky to make it through a day without hearing about the White House once. The weekly address is the weakest tool in this arsenal. This isn't a new development; it's hard to remember a time when these fun-size state of the unions ever broke news. Back in 2014, the Boston Globe concluded that the practice had "faded into near-irrelevance." President Obama's last weekly address has slightly more than 140,000 views on YouTube — less than half the views of an instructional video titled, "Is it a good idea to microwave grapes?"
Trump, however, might be a bit excessive in the keeping-in-touch department.
His constant communication on other platforms makes his weekly addresses seem even more archaic. But that doesn't mean that people aren't watching, at least in these early days of his administration. The president's weekly addresses currently average about 500,000 views on Facebook — a platform that has turned this staid tradition into a more interactive affair. "He's done more than Obama ever did! Obama was busy playing," one user wrote on March 10, a day before Trump went golfing. Many of those commenting, a mix of hate-watchers and true believers, realized what most people in America learned decades ago: Listening to weekly addresses is a waste of time. "Sorry," another wrote. "i have some jalapeños I need to rub on my eyes instead." This is a common refrain; two weeks later, a Trump dissident commented on another address, "Sorry, I have better things to do. Like fork my eyes out of my face." The remark has received 171 likes.
If we are stuck with this oratorical overkill, there is one consolation prize. Donald Trump's weekly addresses, unlike all his other presidential communications, take place in an alternate universe where he has pivoted so many times that the 2022 Olympics judges have already given his triple-axel a perfect score. There is no visible audience for whom to perform, no crowds to inflate post-production, so Trump's personality is subsumed into an affectless monotone as his eyes metronome from left to right, clearly gazing at a teleprompter. His hands are out of the frame, and although they are still gesticulating, they only bump into the picture, unable to orchestrate his typical emotional crescendo, forcing his Herculean over-enunciation to shoulder the entire dramatic burden. He does not smile, and he takes huge breaths between paragraphs. The diction is slightly off, like if an eighth-grader did a dry read of Twelfth Night wearing drunk goggles. If you were wondering why Trump hasn't turned presidential, here is your answer: When he tries to act presidential, it sounds like he's recording the audiobook for Dinner Party-Worthy Microwave Masterpieces for One. Trump occasionally breaks free from the teleprompter or reads a familiar phrase, the light in his eyes changing as he retreats to his comfiest expressions for a quick footnote: "very exciting … Actually, very exciting … believe me."
In an address on March 3 in which Trump trades out his suit for a jacket and hat from the USS Gerald R. Ford, he noted that "a famous aviator once wrote that, to build a truly great ship, we shouldn't begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, or distributing work, but instead by awakening within the people a 'desire for the vast and endless sea.'" He pauses briefly, then adds, "So true."
They are censored of any content that might not be interpreted as winning. This limited approach doesn't give the producers much to work with, and forces them to sometimes sift through American history to find something pleasant to render into small talk.
When he tries to act presidential, it sounds like he's recording the audiobook for Dinner Party-Worthy Microwave Masterpieces for One
Like ... space. Last week, Trump's entire weekly address was an extended monologue on NASA. The score for a generic action-movie trailer played over his words, making it sound like a Kidz Bop cover of Bill Pullman's speech in Independence Day. NASA escaped Trump's budget proposal relatively unscathed, at least compared with other agencies, and he just signed a bill focused on deep-space exploration. The address mainly focuses on the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been taking instas of the universe since 1990, and features sentences that don't seem designed to come out of Donald Trump's mouth.
When you have a character so familiar and well-defined, the moment when they seem to break character is especially noticeable, like a glitch in the matrix. There is the moment in a New York Times letter to the editor from 2005 when a man from New York named Donald Trump wrote of a reporter who covered him, "His painterly turn with nasturtiums sounds like a junior high school yearbook entry," and "I've read John Updike, I've read Orhan Pamuk, I've read Philip Roth." Trump's weekly addresses have this feeling, as if old weekly speeches were transposed into Trumpese with Google Translate.
"But the unforgettable image did not satisfy our deep hunger for knowledge," Trump says of the space telescope. "It increased evermore and even more and reminded us how much we do not know about space; frankly, how much we do not know about life." He concludes that "Most of all, new discoveries remind us that, in America, anything is possible if we have the courage and wisdom to learn." It is hard to believe that Trump, whose musings on the universe are limited to saying, "Space is terrific, space is terrific," would ever say such things unprompted.
A few days later, after Trump had escaped the only room where he has to look vaguely presidential, he signed an executive order that erased most of Obama's climate policies and confirmed that Trump is fine with hurting the economy to achieve symbolic ends. His budget would make it hard for the EPA to continue studying climate change, and would decimate medical research. There's a reason Trump only talked about science concerned with problems light-years away.
Most of the time, the weekly address doesn't try to change the Trump script that much. The obsession with the election is intact, if revisionist: "You've heard me say that many, many times during the debates … I have been saying I was going to do that for a long time … deliver on that promise, believe me." The shout-outs to women and minorities are paired with promises to keep Americans safe with law and order. Evidence that Trump changes his mind too quickly to faithfully recap himself on a weekly basis is plentiful. On March 10, the president said, "I want every American to know that action on Obamacare is an urgent necessity." Fourteen days later, he told the Washington Post, "I never said I was going to repeal and replace in the first 61 days," when asked why not acting on Obamacare was now the plan.
But, the weekly address probably won't go away after surviving so long sitting at the edge of relevance. Trump seems to be getting comfortable, too, looking more and more like he's selling Trump steaks as the weeks pass. In the video where he wore the military-gifted jacket and hat, he commented on the ensemble in a way that could have doubled as commentary on the address itself: "Not really used to it, but it feels awfully good."