Mr. Trump’s widely criticized UN address contains an easily overlooked version of “the people” that should give a democratic citizenry cause for concern. The speech was coarse, boorish, brassy, combative, and self-contradictory. That was readily apparent. It groped for power, which is Trump’s style. But it was also a three-card monte con that deceptively proclaimed presidential sovereignty in the name of the people. The rhetorical kitsch was a distraction that diminished and deposed the public it pretended to glorify.
The perverse subtlety of Trump’s brash rhetoric is hidden in plain sight, if we pause to look for it amid the clutter of cliché and misdirection of diatribe. Placed in perspective, the diversion implies (points away from) a deft filching of popular sovereignty.
Trump’s first UN speech has been characterized, justly in my opinion, as a tirade, a speech marked by intemperate, vituperative, and censorious language. Candidate Trump, rather than President Trump, showed up at the UN, noted Vox’s Yochi Breazen. It was a vulgar performance, unprecedented by a US president addressing the members of the UN General Assembly.
The New York Times editorialized that “there was hardly a hint of compromise or interest in negotiations” conveyed by “Mr. Trump’s dark tone” and “relentlessly bellicose approach.” The Guardian’s headline for Julian Borger’s critique of the address read, “A blunt, fearful rant: Trump’s UN speech left presidential norms in the dust.” The speech, Borger observed, left “a sense of incoherence and a capricious menace hanging in the air.”
Instead of “Crooked Hillary,” Trump taunted “Rocket Man,” counterposed the “righteous many” to the “wicked few,” and threatened to obliterate North Korea. Opinion writer E.J. Dionne Jr. observed that this “outlandish” speech—especially if we say it’s just Trump appealing to his base—“requires giving up on the idea that presidents should be eloquent, persuasive, responsible and thoughtful.” But “the most alarming part” of the address,” Dionne insisted, was the “utter incoherence of Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine,” which “if followed logically, was inimical to the United States’ interests and values.” This was “the deep contradiction at the heart of the speech” noted by Breazen.
Similarly, Washington Post writers Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung commented on a speech “animated by a bellicosity and swagger” that “echoed much of the nationalist language” of Trump’s campaign rhetoric but “outlined a far more expansive role—albeit a contradictory one—for the United States in the world” than was entailed in his previous versions of “America First.” Trump’s UN rendering of “America First” was a “president with grand and global ambitions.”
All of this resonates with my sense of the man and his speech, but something else caught my eye, which I think is perhaps less obvious but equally troublesome, equally contradictory and incoherent, but also a clue to Trump’s undemocratic proclivities. The vulgarity of his tirade promulgates a crude conception of the American people he feigns to represent, signaling the devolution of authority to an aspiring tyrant, intentionally or not. No one knows, maybe not even Trump, whether he wants to be a despot, but his way of talking about “the people” surely is democratically disinclined.
The second sentence of Trump’s speech decrees that he comes to the UN “as a representative of the American people.” Eight hundred and seventeen words into the 4,588-word speech he refers to “celebrating the 230th anniversary of our beloved Constitution,” declaring that its “first three beautiful words” are the greatest: “We the people,” which means, “In America, the people govern, the people rule, and the people are sovereign.”
Thus, Trump concludes, “I was elected not to take power, but to give power to the American people, where it belongs.” This is the “founding principle of sovereignty. Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens—to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values.”
Accordingly, “If we desire to lift up our citizens, if we aspire to the approval of history, then we must fulfill our sovereign duties to the people we faithfully represent.”
This notion of representing the people’s sovereignty recurs throughout the speech as the rhetorical basis on which Trump suggests the need to intervene in North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and other places where “rogue regimes . . . neither respect their own citizens nor the sovereign rights of their countries.” In the name of the people, Trump promises to “crush the loser terrorists,” asserts that the US “cannot stand by and watch” the “socialist dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro” inflicting “terrible suffering and pain on the good people” of Venezuela, and proclaims that “the depraved regime in North Korea” is “on a suicide mission.”
Somehow the constitutional sovereignty of “the people” becomes the premise for Trump’s militarism and imperial rule. That somehow is by rhetorical sleight of hand. To say the people are sovereign, in Trumpspeak, is to give power to the people (as if they do not already possess it), to lift them up (as if they cannot stand on their own feet), and to represent their needs for them (as if they need a father protector). In Trumpspeak, the people are rendered mute and moot. They exist in name only, at least as a body politic.
Perhaps the people Trump has in mind are those he courts in his political base to the exclusion of the voting majority. There is no room in Trump’s rhetorical surround for deliberation. His sovereign duty is to rule. And he likes military parades.