The worst aspect of President Trump's speech at the United Nations on Tuesday was not his immature taunting of a dangerous foreign leader when the stakes far outweigh those of a schoolyard fight.
Calling North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” may make Trump happy by reminding him of the glory days of “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.” But it does nothing to win over the allies we need.
And his threat “to totally destroy North Korea” is what you’d expect to hear in a bar conversation from a well-lubricated armchair general, not from the leader of the world’s most powerful military.
But the most alarming part of an address that was supposed to be a serious formulation of the president’s grand strategy in the world was the utter incoherence of Trump’s “America first” doctrine.
The speech tried to rationalize “America first” as a great principle. But every effort Trump made to build an intellectual structure to support it only underscored that his favored phrase was either a trivial applause line or an argument that, if followed logically, was inimical to the United States’ interests and values.
The notion that “sovereignty” is in such danger that it demanded 21 mentions is absurd. No member state at the United Nations rejects national sovereignty, and many use it as a cover for dismissing the values of democracy and human rights, casting both as the impositions of outsiders.
No wonder Trump won applause when he said that “you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.” Selfishness is popular. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping no doubt nodded approvingly when they were briefed about Trump’s words.
But Trump was so selective and inconsistent in his application of sovereignty that the concept itself had collapsed before he finished. If sovereignty is the highest principle, what justification does he have for threatening to destroy North Korea (which asserts its sovereign right to nuclear weapons)?
How can he suggest intervention against Venezuela simply because we disapprove of its governing system? Trump’s criticism of Venezuela was clearly based on the idea that some things actually are more important than sovereignty.
Trump proudly invoked Harry S. Truman, a fine role model. But Truman was the antithesis of Trump’s us-above-everybody-always talk. The 33rd president understood that American power was more effective when exercised in cooperation with other nations, and he pioneered the creation of multilateral organizations that have endured for decades.
The Marshall Plan was very much in our country’s interests. But its passage required facing down the America-firsters of Truman’s day. Its opponents could not understand why we would spend so much of our own money to rebuild the economies of Western Europe.
Trump said that Polish, French and British resistance to Nazism was motivated by “patriotism,” and indeed it was. But patriotism is a richer and more complicated commitment than Trump’s offhand comment suggests.
Gen. Charles de Gaulle was condemned as a traitor for opposing France's Vichy collaborationist government — its nationalist slogan was "Work, Family, Country" — and joining with the British. De Gaulle was fighting for a genuinely free and democratic France and defending a view very different from Vichy's as to what patriotism meant.
The favorable reaction to Trump’s speech from his habitual defenders is not surprising. But he also won praise from a group who are not really Trump-friendly but whom I have come to see as inspired by a hope: They calculate that if enough people say enough encouraging things whenever Trump seems to offer relatively normal ideas or take normal actions, he will respond to positive reinforcement and do more normal things over time.
Perhaps this would prove to be true, but it sounds like a coping technique that parents of teenagers might employ, and that is disturbing.
Even worse, pulling punches about the many outlandish elements of Trump’s approach means throwing out every standard we have upheld to this point about how presidents of the United States should behave. It requires giving up on the idea that presidents should be eloquent, persuasive, responsible and thoughtful.
Any other president, Republican or Democrat, who gave a speech of the sort Trump delivered would have faced an avalanche of criticism. It just won’t do to smile indulgently and say, “Oh, that’s Trump being Trump,” or, “He’s just appealing to his base.”
Trump’s invocations of “America first” will ultimately leave our country behind in the world. His rhetoric sounds tough but will only make us weaker.