News outlets understandably highlighted the United Nations General Assembly‚Äôs guffaws on Tuesday when President Trump proclaimed he had accomplished more in two years than any other president. That said, the funny¬†part of the speech ‚ÄĒ ‚Äúfunny‚ÄĚ as in weird, peculiar, bizarre ‚ÄĒ was what followed this declaration.
First were the use of meaningless phrases ‚ÄĒ¬†‚Äúdoctrine of patriotism,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúprincipled realism,‚ÄĚ etc. ‚ÄĒ as if Stephen Miller (or whoever) threw cards in the air and randomly matched words.¬† The speech was strewn with vapid sentences. (‚ÄúThe dreams that fill this hall today are as diverse as the people who have stood at this podium, and as varied as the countries represented right here, in this body, are. It really is something. It really is great, great history.‚ÄĚ) No one really knows what the following means: ‚ÄúHumanity is better because of this beautiful constellation of nations, each very special, each very unique, each shining brightly in its part of the world. In each one, we see also promise of a people bound together by a shared past and working toward a common future.‚ÄĚ¬†One wondered if the speechwriter could explain what ‚Äúnew passion for peacemaking rising within us‚ÄĚ means. (Trump is the peace-lovingest president ever?)
Even worse was the victimology that the leader of the world‚Äôs only superpower expressed. Like himself and white males, America in Trump‚Äôs eyes is a perpetual victim: ‚ÄúThe United States will not be taken advantage of any longer. For decades, the United States opened its economy, the largest by far on Earth, with few conditions. We allowed foreign goods from all over the world to flow freely across our borders. Yet other countries did not grant us free and reciprocal access to their markets in return.‚ÄĚ And yet, our economy is better than ever ‚ÄĒ just ask Trump.
He defends sentiments that are never in doubt. ‚ÄúAmerica will never apologize for protecting its citizens,‚ÄĚ he claims. How revolutionary! It is as if he is reading from a Sean Hannity script in which imaginary foes someone don‚Äôt let the world‚Äôs superpower be the world‚Äôs superpower. (‚ÄúWe will never surrender America‚Äôs sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy. America is governed by Americans.‚ÄĚ)
Banalities aside, the speech‚Äôs intellectual incongruity was alarming. On one hand, Trump says the best way to deal with mass migration is to help countries make a better life for their own people. In the next breath he says, ‚ÄúThe United States is the world‚Äôs largest giver in the world by far of foreign aid. But few give anything to us.‚ÄĚ (Does he expect poor, war-ravaged countries to pay the richest country on the planet?) ‚ÄúThat is why we are taking a hard look at U.S. foreign assistance,‚ÄĚ he continued, vowing only to give ‚Äúforeign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.‚ÄĚ I suppose those countries‚Äô peoples would have no choice but to migrate, which is exactly what is occurring in Syria and Central America, among other places. One cannot promise aid as an alternative to migration and then say we‚Äôre not giving aid unless the recipients like us and give us something back.
Moreover, Trump simultaneously declares that all nations are beautiful, unique, stars in the constellation (or whatever) and should do their own thing, while criticizing the world‚Äôs bad actors ‚ÄĒ including China, Iran, Syria and Venezuela. Either the world is hunky-dory and we can retrench, or the world has some very bad players who treat their people terribly, requiring U.S. leadership. It‚Äôs one or the other. Trump says, ‚ÄúBoth!‚ÄĚ
Then there is Trump‚Äôs weird fondness for dictators. He accords more praise for the leader of the world‚Äôs worst gulag (‚ÄúI would like to thank Chairman Kim for his courage and for the steps he has taken, though much work remains to be done‚ÄĚ) than he does for allies, who he thinks are still ripping us off. Somehow Russia‚Äôs occupation of a sovereign country and its attacks on our electoral democracy didn‚Äôt figure in his defense of national sovereignty. Odd.
Finally, there is Trump‚Äôs unhinged, cartoonish attacks on international bodies. The speechwriter seems to think frothy speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) or blog posts from Breitbart represent the true state of affairs. Does anyone outside 1980s-fixated, right-wing confines think the International Criminal Court is the first step on the road to ‚Äúunaccountable global bureaucracy‚ÄĚ? This is an applause line at the Values Voter summit, not a serious foreign policy statement.
If you listened to Trump without any knowledge of post-World War II history, you‚Äôd think the international system of trade, multilateral alliances, human rights treaties and the rest had left the United States hobbled, destitute and weak. How is it then that we are the richest, most powerful nation on the planet, a country to which immigrants risk life and limb to enter?
You can sympathize with the U.N. General Assembly attendees. Sometimes it is better to laugh than cry when Trump is talking. Nevertheless, the lack of respect afforded to the United States and the utter unreliability of an administration so bedeviled by bogeymen and phantom threats should trouble us all. Sure, it would be hysterically funny ‚ÄĒ if it were not so dangerous, destructive and demoralizing.