World leaders who are in trouble at home have a pretty standard playbook for how to use the United Nations General Assembly to turn the page: Show up strong and substantive and draw status and solidarity from other heads of state. I saw President Clinton deploy this strategy when I was at the U.N. in 1998 as a member of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s staff. As CNN flashed headlines about Monica Lewinsky, Clinton delivered a classic (and long) stemwinder about the equal humanity of Muslims, the global nature of anti-terrorism, and other lofty causes. Clinton was rewarded with a standing ovation from his fellow leaders.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump delivered a speech full of strong rhetoric on many of his usual themes — the value of nationalism, the dangers of socialism, the perfidiousness of Iran — and some new riffs, in which he attempted to lump humanitarian workers in with human traffickers (both are “evil”), told refugees to stay home, and accused social-media companies of threatening Americans’ freedom of speech. But the speech was no respite from Trump’s many troubles. He and his audience seemed to compete for who was less excited to be there: The president’s delivery was uncharacteristically halting and flat, and elicited almost no response from the room, not even the derisive laughter he got last year.
If the speech is remembered at all, it’s likely to be viewed as a throat-clearing before Trump plunged into battle over an impeachment inquiry. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the text, as it shows what themes we can expect to hear from Team Trump on the campaign trail — and from other would-be autocrats abroad. Here’s what we learned.
This year’s hot trend: bashing the U.N. at the U.N.
The president’s speech opened with a riff on one of his standard U.N. themes: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” (Let’s pause briefly to note the origins of “globalist” as an anti-Semitic slur, still used for that purpose by white nationalists in the U.S. and Europe.)
As in his last two U.N. addresses, Trump sought, without irony, to portray himself as the leader of a group of likeminded nations, each cooperating to protect its own uniqueness and sovereignty from encroaching supranational bodies … such as the U.N. This year’s General Assembly offered a demonstration of how this view is spreading among fellow world leaders (though most gave the U.S. president an icy reception). Trump was preceded by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who alternated praise for Trump with attacks on indigenous Brazilians for allegedly burning down their own rain forest and being in league with neo-imperialist attacks on Brazil’s sovereignty. He was followed by Egyptian President Abdeh Fatteh el-Sisi, who rushed to congratulate Trump after his speech, either impervious to mounting protests against his regime at home or hopeful that Trump will help him suppress them.
A massive outpouring of climate concern won’t sway Trump
Never mind all the activism surrounding the United Nations Climate Action Summit — Trump and his team still don’t think the U.S. even has to acknowledge the issue. Quite a bit of the president’s language criticizing bureaucracies, socialism, and shadowy big international powers was in line with his supporters’ reasons for fearing an international response to climate change — and shows why they see Greta Thunberg and her fellow young activists as pawns of nefarious powers.
Trump isn’t interested in lowering the temperature on his trade war
Economic concerns don’t often take center stage at the U.N. General Assembly, except in times of crisis. Of course, Trump’s domestic woes did reach crisis territory later in the day, so perhaps it makes sense that he took the opportunity to unload on China. The section of his speech directed at China was quite confrontational, and his call for Beijing to respect the rights of people in Hong Kong was stronger than anything he’s previously said on the subject. He did suggest that the U.S. and China could make a great deal, but on both the economic and security beats, increasingly hostile policies will make it harder and harder to smooth things over with rhetoric.
Trump had no successes to report in other parts of the world. He referenced a forthcoming meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, but apparently he hasn’t been able to finalize the U.S.-Japan trade deal he’s been promising for months. And his confidence on a post-Brexit deal with the U.K. rang more than a little hollow hours after the U.K. Supreme Court had voided Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to dissolve Parliament ahead of the next Brexit deadline.
Humanitarian advocates are now the enemy
Trump directed some of his sharpest rhetoric toward “open-border advocates,” a term he used to lump together everyone who helps migrants navigate their way to safety in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere.
“Your policies are not just. Your policies are cruel and evil,” he said. “You are empowering criminal organizations that prey on innocent men, women, and children. You put your own false sense of virtue before the lives, wellbeing and countless innocent people. When you undermine border security, you are undermining human rights and human dignity.”
Plenty of past U.S. presidents have been frustrated by the activities and criticism of human-rights activists, but none has ever take to the U.N. to attack their fellow citizens — though that is something dictators do often. We can expect to hear this language in the 2020 campaign and, more concerning, to have it picked up by armed vigilante groups who patrol the U.S.-Mexico border and are already frighteningly close to violence.
We should remain vigilant — even if Trump is distracted
For a man who has, in the past, treated the world body like just another college-gymnasium rally site, Trump was extraordinarily low on energy. He spoke softly and slowly, and in several sections worked his way through the text as if he had never seen it before. Which he may not have — while the opening and a few other segments employed his standard phrases and cadences, others sounded as if they had been lifted entirely from right-of-center magazine articles about the dangers of big social-media companies capturing public debate, and thus freedom of speech. The president read his lines about supporting decriminalization of homosexuality almost with incredulity, pausing over every letter of “LGBTQ.” He didn’t seem to believe what he was reading — and neither did his listeners.
It’s tempting to use this poor performance to argue that the whole speech was irrelevant. But while Trump may have been preoccupied, it provided a handy blueprint for the disturbing attitudes and tactics of the people in his administration, and their partners in resurgent nationalism around the world.