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On Tuesday, as world leaders addressed the United Nations General Assembly, diplomats were lectured by an authoritarian, a torture apologist, a pillage enthusiast, a race-baiter, and a sectarian demagogue. At the U.N., that’s an ordinary day. But this time, the despot, the demagogue, and the war-crimes advocate had something unusual in common. This time, they were all the president of the United States.
Most Americans, in both parties, like to think of our country as the good guy. Yes, we have an ugly history of racism, we’ve cut deals with dictators, and we’ve fought bad wars. But we’ve also promoted democracy and human rights, and on more than one occasion, we’ve helped to save the world. Every year, our president goes to the U.N. to talk about values. We don’t always live up to the talk. But it’s still a worthy mission statement.
That tradition ended Tuesday. For the first time, the American president was just another populist thug. Donald Trump used his 40 minutes not to make a case for universal rights, but to glorify nationalism. He appealed not to justice, but to the volk.
Eight months into Trump’s presidency, we’ve gotten used to such barbarism. We mustn’t forget how different our country used to be. In November 2001, when George W. Bush delivered his first address to the U.N., he was speaking in a city that had just been struck by the worst terror attack the nation had ever seen. Nevertheless, Bush embraced people of all nationalities. He spoke about three 9/11 victims: a Gambian, a Mexican, and a Pakistani Muslim. “The war against terror must not serve as an excuse to persecute ethnic and religious minorities in any country,” said the president. “Innocent people must be allowed to live their own lives. … And every nation must have avenues for the peaceful expression of opinion and dissent.”
Bush defined the United States not by national origin or ethnic heritage, but by respect for political freedom and human rights. He noted that terrorists sought to challenge “the tolerance of openness and creative culture that defines us.” The best response to 9/11, Bush argued, was to preserve our ethics: “Unlike the enemy, we seek to minimize, not maximize, the loss of innocent life.”
Eight years later, Barack Obama began his first U.N. address by reaffirming America’s commitment to international law:
For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months. On my first day in office, I prohibited, without exception or equivocation, the use of torture by the United States of America. I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law. Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we will lead by example.
As a presidential candidate, Trump renounced these principles. He openly advocated oil theft, religious discrimination, mob violence, retributive torture, and the lethal targeting of civilians. As president, he has subverted the rule of law by endorsing police brutality, pardoning a sheriff who defied court orders, and firing an FBI director who defied Trump’s attempts to corrupt him.
In his speech to the General Assembly, Trump all but ignored human rights. He focused instead on “sovereignty, security, and prosperity,” avoiding questions of freedom or fairness. The perils he addressed—“decay, domination, and defeat”—were about national weakness and humiliation, not justice. “The nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” Trump declared. He called for “strong, sovereign, and independent nations—nations that are rooted in their histories and invested in their destinies … nations that are home to patriots, to men and women who are willing to sacrifice for their countries.” In Trump’s mind, the purpose of individuals, other than himself, is to serve the state.
In a moment of lip service, Trump averred, “America stands with every person living under a brutal regime.” But he scoffed at “international tribunals” and signaled that the United States, on his watch, would do nothing about domestic oppression by allied governments. “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government,” said the president. He emphasized the autonomy of nations and peoples, not of individuals. “We must protect our nations, their interests, and their futures,” said Trump. “We must reject threats to sovereignty. … We must uphold respect for law, respect for borders, and respect for culture.”
Like previous American presidents, Trump cited the Constitution as a model for other nations. But he ignored the Bill of Rights, framing the document instead as an assertion of collective power:
The greatest [phrase] in the United States Constitution is its first three beautiful words. They are: “We the people.” Generations of Americans have sacrificed to maintain the promise of those words, the promise of our country, and of our great history. In America, the people govern, the people rule, and the people are sovereign.
A libertarian might have heard these words as a declaration of people’s rights against their government. Trump, however, construed them as a duty to fight for the American public, as a unit, against other nations. “Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens—to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values,” he argued. “I will defend America’s interests above all else.” Trump is right, of course, that defending America is his job. But it’s bizarre to tout our Constitution as just another country’s statement of nationalism, ignoring the freedoms it pioneered.
Past presidents recognized moral standards as obligatory, even if America often fell short. But to Trump, every concession to international law is an indulgence. “It is an eternal credit to the American character that even after we and our allies emerged victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion,” he told the General Assembly. Those nice-guy days are over, the president suggested. He boasted that he had “totally changed the rules of engagement” in Iraq—ignoring (or perhaps implicitly embracing) reports that these changes have increased civilian casualties.
In his closing remarks, Trump turned Bush’s moral code upside down. Bush had argued that war should be constrained by human rights, not just by national will. Trump said the opposite:
We must never forget that those heroes who fought against evil also fought for the nations that they loved. Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain. … The true question for the United Nations today, for people all over the world who hope for better lives for themselves and their children, is a basic one: Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their futures? Do we revere them enough to defend their interests, preserve their cultures? … We are calling for a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people, and their patriotism. History is asking us whether we are up to the task. Our answer will be a renewal of will, a rediscovery of resolve, and a rebirth of devotion.
Culture, spirit, national will. We’ve heard those appeals before. We know where they led. That’s why we have a United Nations.
Trump understands none of this. Reading from his script, he uttered just one sentence about human rights, in mockery of his hosts. “It is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations,” he said, “that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.” Yes, it is. Bush made the same point 16 years ago. But now there’s a new embarrassment: The president who stands before the General Assembly, flaunting his disregard for human rights, is ours.