Trump's 'Choose Your Own Adventure' United Nations Speech

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President Trump speaks to the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, in New York. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump speaks to the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, in New York. (Evan Vucci/AP)

This week on Freak Out And Carry On, Ron Suskind and Heather Cox Richardson analyze President Donald Trump's first speech at the United Nations. They're joined by Susan Glasser, Politico's chief international affairs columnist and host of the podcast The Global Politico. They look at the long debate around internationalism versus isolationism in the United States, from the League of Nations to the United Nations.


Heather Cox Richardson: Well President Trump's whole approach to international affairs has a long history. But what happened in front of the United Nations, with President Trump, I think it's important to look at this moment. We know that Donald Trump is in trouble. We know that the news had hit the presses the night before. We learned that the team investigating the Trump administration for its connections to Russia actually had wiretapped the campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. So when he went into that speech, Donald Trump felt like his back was against the wall. And whenever he feels that way, he attacks. He has always felt like the best defense is a good offense. That's what he does. He goes after his opponents, he invents names for them, he attacks anybody who is nearby and that's exactly what we heard in that speech. You're right that he does a couple of things in that speech that are historically significant. First of all, he says he puts America first. But he also did something very interesting and that's tapping into a longstanding fear, from the right, for the idea that any kind of dialogue, any kind of cooperation with foreign countries meant that America was being invaded by communists that somehow we were going to turn communist.

Susan Glasser: Well, it was Trump in full, as they say. There's always a "Choose Your Own Adventure" quality to this presidency and there was a sort of "Choose Your Own Adventure" version of this speech, his debut on the world stage to the United Nations General Assembly. There were many different messages embedded in it. In part, I think, that's the strategy of the White House. The comparison here is obviously to previous American presidents. I would say that on some of the substance it wasn't radically different than what a hawkish-minded Republican president might say. In other elements however it was not only different but radically different both in the style of presentation and the overall message.  The United Nations, of course, was founded by the United States, largely, and reflects a commitment to an international system of order that Donald Trump does not seem to share. It's inherently such a dissonant and shocking thing to see him delivering this message, aspects of which would be much more believable or plausible in the past coming from the leader of Russia or China or an embattled outcast state than from the United States. The United States, after all, created this international order and has rigged the system to its benefit. Now, here we are complaining about it.

President Trump is not sitting around thinking about what school of foreign policy thought will his presidency be remembered for. You know what he's thinking? He's thinking "Gee, that rocket man tweet went over really well on Sunday! So, I'm going to make my aides stick it into my speech on Tuesday." And that really happened!

Heather Cox Richardson: Isn't it interesting that in his speech about internationalism President Trump goes to Venezuela and to the concept of socialism and communism in Venezuela, which was really kind of out of the blue. And I actually think that's a really interesting moment because he links the idea of American sovereignty to the idea that we have to keep the country away from communism and socialism and that idea actually goes right back to the very founding of the U.N. and to a major fight that Americans had way back in 1953. There was a significant portion of the Republican Party in America who loathed the United Nations and wanted to stand against it. And what they argued in 1953 was that if America joined an international cooperative body, what would happen is that local laws, sovereign laws--and in the 1950s what they were really talking about was segregation laws--would be overrun by foreigners who didn't like those laws. And, they said, it would destroy American sovereignty. And the threat was that they would, in fact, be overtaken by communism, which of course, was a huge message in the 1950s. So somehow we got in the 1950s this linkage of sovereignty and communism that it seems to me we might be able to argue Trump was picking up quite deliberately.

Susan Glasser: The push and pull between isolationism and engagement is an old song but I think Donald Trump is something new in the sense that he is also bringing populism to the mix. These oligarchic Republican isolationist figures were not really populists. In fact, they were kind of the antithesis of populists in some ways. And we've never really had, in modern times, a populist figure like Trump who doesn't command the base of support from the establishment of his own party in fact is at odds with his own party. 

Ron Suskind: Let's dive into the last three presidents and their foreign policy. We had Bill Clinton, the first president to served when the U.S. was the unchallenged world power after the end of the Cold War. Then President George W. Bush who, after 9/11, is remembered for war and attempted nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who said, standing on the rubble, essentially, either you're with us or against us in this new global war on terror. Then you get Obama who pulls back and is criticized for wanting to lead from behind. He certainly is a believer in the United States working in a cooperative way, though the lone leader to build world order, to build security arrangements, trade alliances, the kind of things that bond nations together. And now, finally, Trump. He seems in some ways to have come out of nowhere with his American first ideas. But of course it's not so. What did the last three presidents not do that in a way left this opening for Trump?

Susan Glasser: I do think that you're right that there turns out to be, in some ways, much more in common between Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama than we thought. We thought that Obama and Bush were the polar opposites but it turned out they were both operating within the same spectrum. The way I look at it is that they were all three of a generation. They were the post-Cold War leaders of the United States. This unipolar superpower moment that we had with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's now been a full generation, it's been 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So to me this is what the Trump thing is about. Basically, we had three presidents of that era. They had different responses obviously to the challenges that the post-9/11 world brought. They saw the rise over the horizon of new competitors in Russia and China. I was just having this conversation before I came to this podcast with a historian and a national security expert who said, basically, we're never going to go back to the way that it was on November 8, 2016, to that era that Obama and those other two presidents represented. That door has now shut. I agree with that.

Ron Suskind: Let's just square the circle a little bit. We've talked about this contradiction between Trump speaking about sovereignty, the need for sovereignty, which is really a song of nationalism. At the same time, even in this speech he talks of alliances and countries establishing certain standards of order. They seem contradictory. But I think that something we've talked about sort of helps unfold that equation. Left behind Americans who Trump feels he speaks for, don't feel sovereign. Many Americans don't feel the uplift of this sovereignty. Of course America has all this might but they don't feel mighty at all. And in some ways what Trump is talking about as to this re-establishment of sovereignty is to establish that sense of primacy, that sense of independence, that sense of agency, among that community. Just like citizens of the UK and other countries feel that the global order has left them behind and leaders are speaking directly to them. And, as Trump said, acting as their voice which is I think something that happened this week at the United Nations.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the participants and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.



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