As a speechmaker, President Trump is either in the gutter or the stratosphere. He has one mode for riling his base, a style defined by boorish epithets (“crooked Hillary”), colorful insults (“bad hombres”), petulance (“very, very unfair”), and improvised asides. And he has another mode for the global spotlight—delivering his inauguration address, for instance—when he gropes for florid Romanticism, the kind of rhetoric that roils with souls and carnage and valleys of disrepair.
Trump’s remarks to the General Assembly of the United Nations on Tuesday fell squarely into the second category, which he might call “presidential” and which George W. Bush would probably term “weird shit.” The finale of the 40-minute speech resembled nothing so much as a sermon from 1720s Protestant New England (“North Korea in the Hands of an Angry President”) or a B-movie incantation to raise zombies. “Now,” Trump proclaimed, “we are calling for a great reawakening of nations. For the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people and their patriotism.” After this alliterative jambalaya came an invocation of history-as-onlooker, who “is asking us whether we are up to the task.” “Our answer,” Trump said, “will be a renewal of will, a rediscovery of resolve, and a rebirth of devotion.” (Strong nouns! But why not a “renewal of resolve, a rediscovery of devotion, and a rebirth of will”?) Having gestured mystically toward some heroic yesterday, the president set himself and his audience a modest goal for the future: “We need to defeat the enemies of humanity and unlock the potential of life itself.”
It’s often said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Trump campaigned in insult comedy and, at least on the world stage, wants to govern in Wagnerian opera. He intoned that his was “the true vision of the United Nations, the ancient wish of every people, and the deepest yearning that lives inside every sacred soul.” He spoke of “immense promise and great peril.” He warned of “the scourge of our planet,” that “if the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph.”
Reconciling such lofty rhetoric with the enfant terrible who taunts celebrities on Twitter is a bit of a head trip. Does the guy who retweeted a doctored GIF of himself nailing Hillary Clinton with a golf ball have much insight into the aching contents of every sacred soul? (Or does he simply have a speechwriter, Stephen Miller, who jerks off to Ptolemy’s history of Alexander the Great?) Occasionally on Tuesday, the grubby real-estate developer from Queens peeked through the gauze. Trump used an immature nickname, “Rocket Man,” for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He mentioned “loser terrorists.” He whined that Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement was “a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return.”
These moments of candor only made the entire address more bizarre. As mindboggling as it is to hear a modern politician adopt the overheated tones of a Tolkien character on his deathbed, it’s especially mindboggling when that register coexists with reality-TV pettiness. But the truth is that Trump’s rhetorical extremes are opposite sides of the same coin. He likes Miller’s grandiose window dressing because it makes him feel important, just as his bullying makes him feel powerful. Ad hominem attacks are intended to distract listeners from problems he is unqualified to solve; likewise, oracular pronouncements about national destiny obscure those problems outright. When it comes to disguising his inability to do the job, he is happy to either transcend politics-as-usual or tunnel under it.
Trump doesn’t seem to realize how jarring this all is. There is nothing inconsistent, to him, in fulminating on global “decay, domination, and defeat”—or even advocating for “peace for the people of this wonderful Earth”—the day after he used his sacred pulpit to plug Trump World Tower. “Are we still patriots?” he asked on Tuesday morning. Also, would we care to invest in his latest skyscraper?