Odd juxtapositions, absurd contrasts — these are the stuff of humor. People sometimes laugh, nervously, when someone states something that is both true and unacceptable. People sometimes laugh, uproariously, when someone states something that is both false and exaggerated. “In less than two years,” said President Trump at the U.N. General Assembly, “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” And, no, those who chuckled in response were not laughing “with” the president.
But there was a much darker form of humor to be found in Trump’s speech as well. It was not only his pomposity and his narcissism that were grimly funny. It was his entire worldview, which is both naive and incoherent — and which contrasts, sharply, with his stated belief in “principled realism.”
Repeatedly, the president — or, more accurately, his entourage, advisers and speechwriters — issued rousing praise for an ill-defined notion of “sovereignty.” The United States, he said solemnly, “will not tell you how to live or work or worship.” If it means anything at all, that phrase surely implies the United States is not interested in how other countries run their governments, or how they treat their people: Dictatorship, democracy, it’s all the same to us.
Except, of course, that Trump’s administration is not indifferent at all. A few paragraphs later, the president denounced the government of Venezuela: “All nations of the world should resist socialism,” he concluded. He denounced the leaders of Iran, who have “embezzled billions of dollars from Iran’s treasury, seized valuable portions of the economy, and looted the people’s religious endowments.” He objected to a German gas deal with Russia. I am not here arguing in favor of Venezuela, Iran or Germany — but surely, if their sovereignty is inviolable, then Venezuela’s socialism, Iran’s corruption and Germany’s energy policy should not be of any interest to the U.S. president.
Repeatedly, the president also attacked an equally ill-defined notion of “globalism” and “global governance.” In the United States, he said, “we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” making clear he believes that love of country and international cooperation are not compatible. He criticized several international organizations by name, including the World Trade Organization. He was unequivocal about the negative impact of international trade and the terrible damage it has done to Americans: “The United States will not be taken advantage of any longer.”
Yet, almost in the same breath, the president made grand proposals for coordinated, international actions. He wants sanctions against Venezuela and sanctions against Iran. He wants Middle Eastern states to cooperate to fight terrorism. He wants cooperation with countries to help “better screen foreign investments in our country for national security threats.” He also wants trade, if it means that people will buy American: “The United States stands ready to export our abundant, affordable supply of oil, clean coal and natural gas.”
But what’s to stop other countries from declaring that they, too, “will not be taken advantage of any longer” and slapping tariffs or trade barriers on U.S. energy? And if everyone agrees that “globalism” and “global governance” are “outdated ideologies,” then why should anyone feel compelled to cooperate in areas of interest to the United States? In truth, Trump and the Trumpists are in an unfortunate position: Every problem they claim to care about the most requires, at least in part, an international solution. Terrorism cannot be stopped without organized efforts in Europe and the Middle East. Blue-collar factory jobs often depend on the export of American goods abroad, or the import of foreign parts. A sanctions regime imposed by the United States alone, on anyone, is meaningless. International cooperation of some kind is even required to control immigration, if only because foreign countries issue the passports needed to police the border.
This isn’t to say that there are not dysfunctional international organizations — the United Nations houses several of them — or that existing trade deals should last forever. U.S. presidents are constantly renegotiating America’s engagement with the world. But Trump — or Stephen Miller, or Stephen K. Bannon — goes well beyond that, instead creating black-and-white division between “patriotic” policies and “globalist” policies, using hyped-up, ideological language that has nothing to do with the real choices faced by actual people.
An authentic “realism” would acknowledge that, for better or worse, the world is profoundly interconnected, so much so that Russia can manipulate Internet debate in the United States, and decisions taken in China can affect farmers in Iowa. But this White House does not contain realists. It is run by a small, elite team of ideological anti-globalists who are very distant from the real world inhabited by millions of ordinary people trying to conduct diplomacy, negotiations and trade. Which is, if you think about it, pretty funny.