Why the Joint Session Standing Ovations Creeped Me Out

Marianne March

Last night, I tuned in for President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress. What stood out to me most, besides VP Pence and Speaker Paul Ryan’s matching cobalt ties, was the way those two men and a portion of the audience kept popping up and down, out of their chairs like plastic rodents in a game of whack-a-mole. During the roughly hourlong speech, (some of) the audience rose out of their chairs, clapping, no less than twenty times.

Clap Until Your Hands Are Raw

There is something incredibly disingenuous about giving an enthusiastic standing ovation every three minutes. What inspires people to participate so eagerly in, what is clear to any outsider, an orchestrated scene?

It calls to mind, Russian novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago, in which he describes the following scene,

At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). ... For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare to be the first to stop? … After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first!

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved!

The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

Circa 2017

Some amount of applauding and even standing ovations are not out of place at a political event, especially a presidential speech, but audience reactions to Mr. Trump’s joint session address were borderline ridiculous.

People in the gallery, and seated behind Trump, stood and applauded law enforcement, the First Lady, protectionist trade policies, “transitioning” out of Obamacare, and they clapped almost endlessly for Carryn Owens, the grieving widow of Navy Seal Ryan Owens who was killed during a raid in Yemen in late January.

During the several minutes that they stood clapping for her, Carryn Owens sobbed, clenched her hands together and looked up to the ceiling, mouthed the words ‘thank you,’ and clearly struggled to keep her composure. It was difficult to watch.

Glenn Greenwald described the moment perfectly in an Intercept article:

Independent of the political intent behind it, any well-functioning human being would feel great empathy watching a grieving spouse mourning and struggling to emotionally cope with the recent, sudden death of her partner.”

And it’s true. I imagine few could help feeling sympathy for this woman. Not only has she borne the loss of her husband, but she is now being used as a pawn to promote and glorify war and suffering.

Using Women to Promote War

And what a paltry recompense applause is. I’m sure that the widow Owens would much prefer that the men and women of Congress keep their hands in their pockets to losing her spouse. But this is a powerful tool for promoting war and it has been used for a long time.

Exalting only a country’s own soldiers, without so much as a whispered reference to the other victims of war, the deaths of innocent civilians, and using women, particularly mothers and widows, to connect an audience with less negative perceptions of war is an old trick.

This tactic is perhaps best explained in the 1964 film, The Americanization of Emily,

And it's always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades.... We shall never end wars by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It's the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows' weeds like nuns ... and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices."

What is amazing is that we’re still falling for these schemes.

Again, I agree with Greenwald that,

None of this is to say that the tribute to Owens and the sympathy for his wife are undeserved. Quite the contrary: when a country, decade after decade, keeps sending a small, largely disadvantaged portion of its citizenry to bear all the costs and risks of the wars it starts – while the nation’s elite and its families are largely immune – the least the immunized elites can do is pay symbolic tribute when they are killed.”

In his address, President Trump called for “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history." And then he proceeded to show us just how he’s going to get it. How many more widows and victims will be paraded out in front of us in the years to come?

We must recognize that when we allow our emotions to be manipulated in this manner, we too become pawns of the state.

Related Articles

{{relArticle.title}}

{{relArticle.author}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}} {{relArticle.author}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}}
{{article.BodyText}}