Trump only pretends at convenient moments to be a statesman, and we’re supposed to pretend in turn that all of his vulgar and recklessly divisive behavior the rest of the time doesn’t negate his claim that he has the nation’s interests at heart and its course in hand.

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How seriously should we take any big, formal address by Donald Trump?

The answer lies in his speech last February to a joint session of Congress. It was essentially a State of the Union minus the formal tag, and when I went back to reacquaint myself with it, I was struck — flabbergasted, really — by how the president began it: with an exaltation of civil rights and a denunciation of anti-Semitism. That came in its very first minutes, as did his declaration that “we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.”

Indeed we are, at our best. And yet this very same president went on to insist, later in the year, that there were “some very fine people” among the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompting fatal violence.

Trump only pretends at convenient moments to be a statesman, and we’re supposed to pretend in turn that all of his vulgar and recklessly divisive behavior the rest of the time doesn’t negate his claim that he has the nation’s interests at heart and its course in hand.

We’re supposed to pretend he gives a fig about comity, although it disappears almost as soon as the teleprompter does. Above all, we’re supposed to pretend that what he says today has any bearing on what he’ll say tomorrow, when what he said yesterday contradicted it.

Our president lives in a world of sand and wind and make-believe, where the merest gust can alter the shape of everything, and the remarks that he delivered Tuesday night should be seen in that shifting, swirling, fantastical context.

To be fair, most State of the Union addresses are wishes. George W. Bush gave us gauzy spins on where he was going and where he had been. Barack Obama set markers (preschool and community college for all!) that he’d never reach. The State of the Union traffics in the sublime — and thus in the ridiculous.

But Trump is a ridiculous breed apart, his moods more erratic, his poses more ephemeral, his promises emptier.

Early this month he invited television cameras into a meeting in the White House so that we could behold his placid demeanor as Democrats made their pitch for Dreamers and he recommended a “bill of love” to address immigration. Within 48 hours, he was ranting about “shithole countries” whose human effluvium befouls our shores.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the leader of his chamber’s Democratic minority, said that negotiating with Trump was like negotiating with Jell-O. Food-wise, he was giving the president the benefit of the doubt. Trump is even squishier, and far less innocuous. Negotiating with him must be like negotiating with sour cream.

Whether the issue is health care, tax cuts or even his beloved border wall, he holds several different positions simultaneously or in rapid succession, saying one thing at a microphone only to tweet something else entirely. His aides occasionally try to sell this as a master dealmaker’s way of keeping everybody guessing, when it’s really an amateur policymaker’s way of revealing that he’s just bumbling around.

The distance between Trump when he’s controlled and Trump when he’s unbound makes an event like Tuesday night’s an especially hollow charade.

So does the fact that Trump and his enablers routinely put so much energy into sneering at traditions, defaming institutions like Congress and undercutting our democracy with self-preserving attacks on its pillars.

Having burned their way already through the news media, they spent the days before the State of the Union address taking a torch to the FBI, and that reckless blaze is just beginning. House Republicans could soon release, with the president’s blessing, a highly partisan memo meant to persuade Americans that the investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia was politically tainted from the start.

Any choreographed news from Tuesday night wasn’t going to erase the unscripted news preceding it, including the decision by the FBI’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, to step down from his post. Trump has been withering toward McCabe; according to a report by NBC News this week, he taunted McCabe on a phone call last year by telling him that he should ask his wife, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for office in 2015, how it felt to be a loser.

A separate report this week by Jonathan Swan in Axios described panic among Trump’s lawyers about his possible interview, under oath, by special counsel Robert Mueller. Swan wrote that one of Trump’s intimates “believes the president would be incapable of avoiding perjuring himself. ‘Trump doesn’t deal in reality,’ the source said. ‘He creates his own reality.’ ”

What a luxury for him. What a danger to us. And what a key to understanding his major speeches and minor utterances alike.