Donald Trump used to be a laughing stock, but then he became president, and America stopped laughing. The United States has often been a butt of ridicule abroad, especially among Europeans who consider themselves too sophisticated to have ideals, and among postcolonial peoples caught beneath the footsteps of a blundering giant. You still hear laughter, but it’s nervous, like laughter in the dark.
Neither Trump nor the United States has, however, ever come close to the consistent absurdity, the knockabout ridiculousness, the side-splitting irrelevance, of the UN’s General Assembly. They laughed at him yesterday, but he will have the last laugh on them, just as he has it on everyone.
Remember the White House Correspondents’ dinner from 2011? President Obama made Trump a laughing stock, and openly derided Trump’s presidential ambitions. Many of the laughing guests had been drinking, and Obama was as usual, inebriated with his own wonderfulness. Watch the footage, and you see Trump, a teetotaler, looking like a man coldly determined to wipe everyone’s smile off their faces. Which he did.
Yesterday, some members of the UNGA laughed when Trump said, “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished almost more than any other administration in the history of our country.”
Trump was talking about the remarkable economic figures of the last two years: the Dow Jones at record highs, quarterly GDP growth over 4 per cent, unemployment at historic lows. To be fair to the mockers, his administration has been less productive when it comes to legislation. Apart from an initial barrage of executive orders undoing Obama’s executive orders, Trump’s presidency has so far produced one major piece of legislation. And that’s the punchline: tax reform.
“So true,” Trump said after the whispering and chuckling began. This elicited open laughter. “Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK,” he continued. The laughter grew, and turned into applause. The look on his face turned from surprise to disbelief to contempt to amusement.
If you are Donald Trump, you already consider the UN’s assertions of authority an affront to his dignity as an American. Worse, you already consider the UN’s site at Turtle Bay a terrible waste of prime real estate and well overdue for a Trump Organization makeover. Yesterday, the UNGA couldn’t even work out whether it wanted to mock him or applaud him. What a joke.
The secret of comedy is timing, and the times are on Trump’s side. The US is losing its share of global markets to the rising economies and nationalist publics of Asia. By electing first Obama, the acceptable face of retrenchment, and then Trump, its unacceptable backside, the American public has twice repudiated the idea of America as a liberal empire so liberal than sometimes it hardly seems to resemble an empire at all.
While Americans may yet recover their liberal internationalism, they have never been enthusiastic about international law. Trump is right to call the UN’s Human Rights Council a “grave embarrassment”, and right to reject the authority of the International Criminal Court. The history of the UNGA shows exactly how that court will be politicised.
Americans, as Trump said, no longer feel they can afford to allow “foreign goods from all over the world to flow freely across our borders”, while other countries deny “reciprocal access to their markets in return”, and even “abuse their openness to manipulate their currency”. If the UN stands for a rules-based system, then it should endorse Trump’s objections to the abuse of WTO rules, to massive “product dumping, forced technology transfer and the theft of intellectual property”, and to OPEC’s price-fixing.
Not that UN endorsement means much to Trump. Nationalism is back at the ballot box of liberal democracies, and it never went away in states which dispensed with the ballot. Once, American presidents lectured the UNGA in the assumption that the further states arose, the more their politics would come to resemble those of the United States. This is now the case, but not in the way we expected. The United States, like Russia, China and Turkey, is now led by a scoundrel patriot: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we accept the doctrine of patriotism.”
So much for the arc of history. After the jokes, the serious matter of Trump’s speech was a realistic response to this changed world, even if it was obviously written by someone else. We reached the high water mark of post-1945 supranational liberalism some time in the late Nineties. The United States cannot afford to overreach any more, and certainly not on its own:
“Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us, and, frankly, our friends,” Trump said. “And we expect other countries to pay their fair share for the cost of their defence.”
He’s not joking. Ask the Palestinian Authority, or the UNWRA, or NATO, or Angela Merkel, who has looked outraged for the cameras but nevertheless promised to raise Germany’s NATO contribution in the direction of the agreed 2 per cent of GDP.
So there is no reason to think that Trump was joking when he said he wanted the UN to be “more effective and accountable”. The UN is notorious for corruption, waste, inefficiency and not paying its parking tickets. The UNGA is the quintessence of the UN in its failed meta-state aspect: a fake parliament dominated by thugs and dictators. As so often, Trump gets away with playing the role of truth-teller less because of his candour than because of everyone else’s refusal to look reality in the face.
It is obvious that, as Trump said, the only way to stem migration from poor countries to rich countries is to raise the standards of living and opportunity in the poor countries. It is obvious that Venezuela-style economics are a road to disaster.
It is obvious that “patriotism, prosperity and pride”, and a shared sense of past and purpose, are solid foundations for a society and a state — much more solid than the clouds of platitude that obscure the view from Turtle Bay.
Trump may have emitted platitudes of his own, but they have the virtue of truth, whether he believes them or not. He spoke in defence of the national interest, which is what he, unlike many of his listeners, was elected to do. He also spoke in condemnation of a disordered global order.
For it is also obvious that the United States, if it is to retain its eminence, must rally its friends and recalibrate its budgets and objectives, in order to build a sustainable “constellation” of allies against Chinese, Russian and Iranian expansionism, and the forms of political illiberalism that advance in their shadow.
Trump is the messenger of disfunction, and the message too. He is no more a stand-up comic than he is a stand-up guy. He is no isolationist: the world, as the Trump Organization’s branding activities in Central Asia show, is America’s business. He is threatening to leverage America’s power while it still has enough of it to leverage.
Yesterday, the world’s leaders and the UNGA laughed at the messenger and ignored this message. Tomorrow, Trump will laugh last, and best. The joke, as ever with Trump, is on us. Because while there never will be a world state, the president of the United States has still got the whole wide world in his hands. For now, at least.