(Read the Arabic version of this article here.)
The most prominent mid-winter events in America’s annual secular ritual cycle are the Super Bowl and the State of the Union address. Both of these ritual performances attract immense audiences of television viewers, and both engender detailed analyses and commentary by journalists, pundits, and average Americans for days afterwards. In the past, these events conveyed an importance and reverence comparable to a British royal coronation or the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Lately, however, the institutions that these rituals celebrate and sustain—American football and the U.S. presidency—are increasingly objects of critique and derision. Rituals, whether secular or religious, are supposed to bring people together, remind them of their common identity and interests, and celebrate community solidarity. When rituals don’t achieve these ends, one has to wonder about the state of national institutions as unified entities.
The Super Bowl clearly draws more viewers than the State of the Union address, and even people who are not particularly interested in America’s favorite sport eagerly tune in to see the famously clever commercials (which can cost advertisers as much as $15 million a minute) and the half-time show, which usually features the top musical performers of the day. People across the country hold Super Bowl viewing parties featuring barbecued chicken, potato chips and a variety of dips, and lots of beer. On Super Bowl Sunday, America’s streets and stores are empty, and the only sounds are the occasional cries of joy or sorrow emanating from houses and apartment buildings filled with football fans as their teams either cruise to victory or crash in defeat.
The State of the Union address is a somewhat more somber affair: an annual review of America’s challenges and successes as seen through the partisan lens of whatever party holds the office of the presidency. The audience gathered in the Capitol Building dresses in their most formal business attire, and ritually rises to applaud the president’s words every few minutes. For days preceding the address, journalists report excitedly on who the President and members of Congress are inviting to the event, reading these invitations as telling subtexts about partisan politics and prevailing ideological trends. Despite the solemnity of the State of the Union address, it is every bit as theatrical as the Super Bowl, and discussed in detail for days afterwards in the mainstream media and around the office water cooler.
Both of these annual secular rituals are notably male-dominated and reflective of mainstream values of patriotism and power. Football games in the United States begin with recognition and thanks to the members of our military forces, and feature an Air Force jet flyover as the game begins. There is no room here for partisan political debate and controversy–at least until quite recently.
Although football celebrates middle-American values and beliefs about national prowess and the basic goodness of the American way of life, the majority of the football players putting their bodies and health on the line are African Americans who might not have had the privileged upbringing of the game’s largely white fan base. Tickets to football games are astronomically high, and only the wealthiest fans can afford the vastly more expensive Super Bowl tickets.
For the past two years, American football has been the focus of debate and disagreement over police violence against African Americans and the overall erosion of the civil rights that the late Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life fighting for. One player in particular, Colin Kaepernick, has become the icon of African American protest and resistance. He symbolically “took a knee” during the National Anthem at the beginning of a football game three years ago, sparking intense debate over race relations in the United States as well as the appropriateness of athletes entering the fray of political debate and protest. Kaepernick, a talented and tough player, lost his job as a result of holding firmly to his convictions. Many football team owners and coaches are politically conservative, and this year’s winning team of the Super Bowl competition, the Boston Patriots, are led by a coach and a quarterback who avidly support President Trump.
The impact of Kaepernick’s protest and the backlash from football team owners and conservative commentators affected the Super Bowl’s half time show this year. The most popular musical performers in America at present are African American or Latino-American. All of the leading candidates for the half-time show refused to perform, declaring their solidarity with Kaepernick by boycotting the game. As a result, an all-white band, Maroon Five, took the stage, and the public response to their performance last Sunday was lukewarm, at best.
In both of these annual secular rituals, women are usually relegated to the sidelines. The only women one sees on the football field are the beautiful and sexy cheerleaders dressed in very short brightly colored skirts. Television viewers of the State of the Union address watch the president speak for an hour or so, with the Vice President and the Speaker of the House sitting behind him on a raised dais. Only thrice in U.S. history has a woman sat on that dais, and each time it has been the same person: current speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California. Another woman also plays a key role in the annual address: the first lady, who has her own viewing box on the upper deck of the hall, where she is accompanied by guests chosen specifically for their symbolic importance to the president’s policies and beliefs.
As the camera angle switches back and forth from the president speaking and the hundreds of attendees listening and applauding, the television viewer usually sees a mass of men and a smattering of women in dark suits, military leaders in their formal uniforms laden with medals, and the black-robed justices of the Supreme Court. This year however, following mid-term elections that brought the largest number of women to Congress, as well as the most ethnically diverse cadre of Democratic legislators, television viewers saw a very different State of the Union audience. Both newly elected Democratic female legislators as well as women who have been serving for years added their own symbolic statement to the event by wearing all-white outfits in recognition of the suffragettes who fought for and won American women’s right to vote 100 years ago. Sitting together in two large groups in the great hall, their white outfits stood out like islands of light in a dark sea of men in formal business attire.
The camera kept coming back to these Democratic women of all backgrounds and colors, and several times during the president’s address they volubly responded as one. At one point, President Trump, celebrating the rising profile of women in American public life, even stepped out of character to recognize and honor them with seemingly genuine respect. This provided a moment of levity in the hall, and the new faces of the Democratic party, dressed in white, began shouting “USA! USA! USA!” That, as well as the president’s recognition of a young girl who has survived brain cancer, two veterans of World War II’s Normandy landing, a woman released from an unfair jail sentence, and the aging father of a naval officer killed in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole nearly two decades ago, were the event’s only moments of true unity and consensus.
But the most theatrical element of all during last night’s State of the Union address was President Trump’s earnest performance of the role of distinguished national leader and unifier of the nation. As in his last State of the Union address, he came across as a serious, conscientious, and honorable head of state, speaking in complete and grammatical sentences with a somber and caring demeanor appropriate to the occasion. This was all an act, of course–the product of the speech-writing prowess of Trump’s most trusted and respected advisor, Stephen Miller, a brash young politician known for making racist comments and voicing extremist views. Miller can really write great speeches though, and successfully put convincing and eloquent words into the mouth of the most divisive, brash, and corrupt president in the history of the United States of America.
This year, however, it was much more difficult to pull off this amazing political sleight-of-hand. As she bluntly noted in her official rebuttal to the Republican president’s address, Stacy Abrams, a rising leader in an increasingly young, non-white, and female Democratic party (who narrowly lost the election for the governorship of the State of Georgia last November), reminded America that this was the same president who shut down the government in a cheap political stunt in an effort to get his $5 billion border wall by any means necessary. This was the same president who deprived federal employees and government contractors of their salaries for more than a month. This was the same president who has shown lenience to racists and nativists, while also overseeing the cruel and illegal kidnapping of immigrant children at America’s southern border. This was the same president tweeting bizarre views about climate change just days before. Implied in all of Abram’s response was the recognition that this is the same president who will undoubtedly resume tweeting divisive comments hourly the day after this annual theatrical performance of national unity.
Trump claimed numerous times that the State of the Union is “great.” But the obvious fragmentation of public interpretations of this annual secular ritual, not unlike the growing dissent within the world of American football, tell a very different story. The male-dominated and conservative–even racist–structures of America’s most popular sport and its most visible branch of government are under increasing attack by women, youth, non-whites, and the growing numbers of America’s economically marginalized population. Viewed from their perspective, the Union is anything but unified. Today, Trump is probably feeling quite self-satisfied with his performance last night. But he should not get too complacent. Fewer and fewer Americans are buying his act.