Nancy Pelosi’s hands told the story of a nauseating night in Washington.

As Donald Trump took his place at the front of the House chamber for his third and possibly final State of the Union address, the House speaker and most senior Democrat in Congress reached out for a handshake, only to be rebuffed.

Seventy-eight minutes later, Pelosi, as she often tends to, got her revenge by ripping up her copy of the president’s speech while still in her position on the dais.

You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Pelosi was the mastermind of Trump’s impeachment in this very chamber just weeks ago, staining his record in future school textbooks for all time.

But somehow, with seven of the Democrats who had pressed the impeachment case against him as impeachment managers glaring up at him from a prominent position, the president, like Bill Clinton before him, managed to resist using the “i” word throughout his speech. That, at least, was a departure from his gloves-off campaign rallies.

Yet Trump being forced to suppress his id was somehow even worse. The tension, grievance and resentment seething below the surface was almost palpable. The president’s tissue of lies and partisan swipes left Democrats heckling, throwing up their hands or walking out of the chamber in despair.

The Democratic side contained a sea of women wearing white suit jackets in honour of the suffragist movement. The Republican side was a sea of dark suits and white faces. It has been like this since Trump first addressed a joint session of Congress in 2017. But each year feels progressively worse and more hopelessly polarised than the one before.

Tuesday felt worse than ever. Poison was in the air.

After all, Democrats had just deployed the ultimate constitutional weapon, impeachment. But in less than 24 hours, Trump is set to be acquitted by the Senate after a “trial” with no witnesses. Both sides have come to believe that defeat in the 2020 election will be an existential catastrophe. The president, meanwhile, has come to believe he is indestructible.

Critics said moving the US embassy to Jerusalem would end in disaster but he believes he got away with it. They said killing Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, would end in disaster but he believes he got away with it – and he turned it into a State of the Union applause line.

Above all, he pressured Ukraine to investigate a political rival if it wanted US military aid and, in less than 24 hours, is about to get away with that too when the Senate acquits him. A former White House official told the Axios website recently: “I swear to God, this guy is the luckiest SOB that’s ever lived.”

Now, more than ever, Trump can throw caution to the winds and act with impunity, fearless of retribution.

This is always the busiest night of the year for the nation’s factcheckers, but Trump delivered a State of the Union address overflowing with untruths, for example promising to protect patients with pre-existing conditions at the very moment his administration is in court trying to take those protections away,

He also pulled off a stunt that even the Trump of three years ago might have hesitated over. Right there, in front of the hallowed chamber packed with senators, representatives, supreme court justices and guests including Nigel Farage, he announced the presidential medal of freedom – America’s highest civilian honour – for talkshow host Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh, who revealed this week that he is suffering from advanced lung cancer, is notorious for countless sexist, racist and homophobic comments. His song “Barack the Magic Negro” claimed that President Obama “makes guilty whites feel good” and that Obama is “black, but not authentically”. Limbaugh once described a woman who wanted her university to alter its health insurance to cover contraception as a “slut” and “prostitute”.

Yet Trump, a regular on Limbaugh’s show, declared: “Rush, in recognition of all that you have done for our nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire, and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity, I am proud to announce tonight that you will be receiving our country’s highest civilian honor.”

When the president asked his wife, Melania, to hang the medal around Limbaugh’s neck there and then, Democrats audibly gasped and groaned in disbelief. Katie Hill, a former congresswoman who had returned to the chamber, tweeted: “Oh FFS Rush Limbaugh getting the Medal of Honor is a low I sure wasn’t expecting.”

Fred Guttenberg, father of Parkland school shooting victim Jaime Guttenberg, is ejected after shouting during Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.

Fred Guttenberg, father of Parkland school shooting victim Jaime Guttenberg, is ejected after shouting during Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Not for the first time, they remained riveted to their seats, stony-faced, as Republicans rose, cheered laddishly and applauded long and hard. “Thank you, Rush!” shouted one man. Here it was, impeachment revenge: not so much about honouring Limbaugh as goading liberals. Trump is the master of finding a wedge issue and hammering it like a tent peg.

Donald Trump Jr, the president’s eldest son, recently published a book entitled Triggered. It’s all about “owning the libs”. No tweet caught it better than Republican strategist Andrew Surabian: “Forcing a room full of Democrats to have to watch Rush Limbaugh receive the medal of honor is the greatest own the libs moment in American history and I loved every second of it.”

But perhaps the hero of the night was Fred Guttenberg, who lost his 14-year-old daughter in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Forced to listen as Trump promised to defend gun rights and offered nothing to curtail future massacres, Guttenberg yelled out from the public gallery and was forcibly removed by a plainclothes police officer.

As the presidential cascade of lies continued, it was a sobering reminder of all that is at stake in November’s election.

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