On Tuesday, September 25th, the U.S. President addressed the U.N. General Assembly for a second time since taking office. The first time around, almost exactly a year ago, his speech was bombastic, concentrating his most blistering rhetoric on North Korea and perpetual villain, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In the part of the more recent speech dedicated to the latter country, President Trump repeated the lie that the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) had created a “windfall” for that country’s leadership. The truth is that any funds released belonged to the Islamic Republic and were frozen under the previous sanctions regime that the JCPOA brought to an end.
Perhaps the most dangerous attacks in Trump’s speech in terms of his country’s economic interests were those on China, followed a day later by him accusing the country’s government of trying to interfere in the U.S. mid-term elections. This seems entirely political, creating a situation where Trump and Republicans generally won’t have to look at themselves if the predicted ‘blue wave’ comes in November (sound familiar?).
While this speech was more measured and interesting for a variety of reasons we’ll soon turn to, it began in a similar way to the September, 2017 speech in that the President’s early remarks seemed to be directed at a domestic audience rather than the assembled grandees who populate a General Assembly. In doing so, President Trump managed to unintentionally get his audience to burst out in laughter, something of a rarity in the chamber.
The exact moment this occurred was when Trump made the claim that, “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. America is so thrilled.”
While this statement is patently absurd, it was nothing new to most of us, who have heard similarly ridiculous boasts from Trump, both before and after he took office. Showing the pretzel like shapes that his underlings must twist themselves into to avoid his petulant wrath, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley later went on Fox News and said this about the incident and the laughing diplomats, “They loved how honest he is. It’s not diplomatic and they find it funny. … When he goes and he is very truthful, they kind of were taken back by it.”
The moment itself, while amusing in an emperor has no clothes kind of way, was the one most media ran with, from corporate cable news networks to more left leaning outlets, and in concentrating almost exclusively on this moment so early in the speech, they missed its most important parts.
It was obvious almost from the beginning that the address was probably written by his senior domestic advisor and speechwriter Stephen Miller, one of the most reactionary nationalists in Trump’s orbit, and, as such, it distilled the ‘Trumpist’ foreign policy view, something I would call a throwback to the romantic nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries, in the clearest manner I’ve heard it expressed. This doesn’t mean that Trump won’t contradict much of it in the weeks and months ahead, but it gives us a better idea of what the American left will be facing from this ‘new’ right for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether Donald Trump holds on to the office of the presidency or not.
It’s a political philosophy of victimhood and blame, an almost entirely fabulist depiction of Americans under siege by migrants and malign actors, especially in the economic sphere. In the larger view, it also posits a view of the world in which common mores, religious beliefs and languages define the life of nations, things that should be less relevant in an increasingly interconnected world.
The camera often fixated on the American delegation where some of those who would like to eventually succeed Trump sat, nodding their agreement as the president expects. They were the Vice-President, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador Haley and a man who will hopefully never again hold such a high position in the U.S. government, National Security Advisor John Bolton, fresh from his recent attacks on the International Criminal Court
While there are many things that can and should be criticized about the ICC, most importantly its record of almost exclusively holding Africans to account for human rights violations under international law, Trump’s continuation of Bolton’s earlier attacks in his speech made it clear that the Trump Administration expects to have its cake and eat it too, talking about respect among nations while still holding itself as ‘exceptional’ and above established norms of behavior.
Trump used the word ‘sovereignty’ time and again throughout his remarks, not only in the context of his own country but others as well. That he didn’t use it when referring to Venezuela or Iran comes as no surprise, considering the literal threats against these countries he made on the world’s biggest political stage. It was ironic to hear the leader of a country that at this moment is not respecting the sovereignty of Syria and plans to leave uninvited U.S. troops within the country’s borders indefinitely, complain that many countries don’t respect his country’s ‘sovereignty’.
In discussing Venezuela, after making the ridiculous claim that the country’s government is somehow “sponsored” by tiny, cash poor Cuba, the U.S. President quickly turned to ‘socialism’ which he, like almost every other Republican (and most Democrats), either doesn’t understand or is willfully lying about (in the case of Trump I’m inclined to believe it’s the former).
It was at this point that this writer began to laugh, as Trump stated that, “Socialism’s thirst for power leads to expansion, incursion, and oppression. All nations of the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings to everyone.”
While the two are often incorrectly conflated by American politicians, socialism and its more acceptable namesake, social democracy, as practiced throughout the world at different times and different places, has little resemblance to Soviet style ‘communism’. The last time I checked, Norway, Sweden and Denmark haven’t taken an expansionist course or engaged in the oppression of their own citizens.
Telling were the four countries that Trump’s speech chose to portray positively. Each of these, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Poland shed some light on Trump and by association Stephen Miller’s reactionary view of the world.
In India, Hindu nationalism has grown in strength and ‘lower’ castes, especially Dalits and indigenous people are under greater threat than ever. Israel recently passed an incredibly regressive ‘nation state law’, institutionalizing ethnic and religious discrimination in the country. Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy that crucifies and beheads those who dare dissent and Poland seems to have forgotten its own history, making it a crime to claim that their nation bears some responsibility for the immense crimes that took place on their soil during the Holocaust.
At present, none of these countries governments are deserving of praise but they are all, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, telling examples of what the new right sees as the nationalism of the future, which looks a lot like the extreme nationalism of the past.
Those of us who once thought that the two great wars of the last century, almost completely the result of the so-called patriotism of the stupid, had put to rest the idea of the nation state, as an old college professor of mine once referred to it, as a kind of romantic hero writ large, have had a rude awakening over the past few years. Donald Trump’s speech at the U.N., concerning for many reasons that I have not discussed for the sake of brevity, showed that this nationalism and its rosy view of the past is alive and well and still a threat, not only to the United States but throughout the world.