President Trump delivered perhaps the most explicitly nationalist speech of his presidency at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, a 30-minute address apparently intended both to rouse U.S. voters ahead of the 2020 election and to articulate his “America First” foreign policy to the world.
“If you want freedom, take pride in your country. If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty. And if you want peace, love your nation. Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first,” Trump said. “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”
The speech hit many of the same notes as his 2017 and 2018 addresses to the annual gathering of international leaders; he boasted about the strength of the U.S. military under his command and issued a robust defense of national “sovereignty.” As in the past, Trump criticized Iran and China, but also demanded that U.S. allies and partner governments pay their “fair share” of mutual defense spending.
But many of Trump’s warnings about “globalism” and its threat to “the people” were aimed at listeners in the the United States, which he said has “embarked on an exciting program of national renewal.”
The speech comes at a particularly fraught moment for the president. On Monday, multiple news organizations reported that Trump personally ordered his staff to freeze almost $400 million in security aid to Ukraine just days before he urged the Ukrainian president to investigate the son of a potential 2020 opponent. Trump and his allies have derided the scrutiny of the incident — and the whistleblower complaint that led to its public revelation — as a political witch hunt. But the news has drawn yet more lawmakers into the impeach-Trump camp, flipping a number of moderate Democrats who had previously opposed attempting his removal.
Trump defended his tough-on-immigration policies, — one of the core issues of his 2016 campaign — calling “mass illegal migration… unfair, unsafe and unsustainable for everyone involved” and attacking “open-borders activists who cloak themselves in the rhetoric of justice” for putting “your own false sense of virtue before the lives and well-being of countless innocent people.”
“Your policies are not just. Your policies are cruel and evil,” he said. “When you undermine border security, you are undermining human rights and human dignity.”
Trump also used his UN speech to ruminate darkly: on social-media platforms with “immense power over what we can see and what we are allowed to say”; on a “permanent political class [that] is openly disdainful, dismissive and defiant of the will of the people”; on a “faceless bureaucracy [that] operates in secret and weakens democratic rule”; and on “media and academic institutions [that] push flat-out assaults on his histories, traditions and values.” All four are frequent targets for the president on Twitter and in public remarks: he backs conservative claims that they are censored on social media, casts himself as an outsider in Washington, elevates the idea of a “deep state” attempting to take down his presidency and decries the press as “the enemy of the people.”
The United States and other nations must protect their “history, culture and heritage,” Trump said, “not attempt to erase them or replace them” — language heard most often in the debate over what to do with Confederate statues standing in towns primarily across the South. Trump has stood behind those who argue for keeping the statues in place.
Trump also stuck to his firmly populist messaging on trade policy, accusing other nations of acting in “bad faith” to exploit international trading rules and vowing not to accept a “bad” trade deal with China. He accused Beijing of engaging in currency manipulation, forced technology transfers, product dumping and intellectual property theft.
“Globalism exerted a religious pull over past leaders causing them to ignore their own national interests,” Trump said. “But as far as America is concerned, those days are over.”
The president made a few appeals to the international community, particularly on the subject of Iran. He called on “all nations” to act to deter Iran, and insisted that “no responsible government should subsidize Iran’s bloodlust” — an apparent reference to recent European efforts to help ease some of the pain of U.S.-implemented sanctions on Tehran as a means of kickstarting negotiations.
Trump spoke briefly and blandly about North Korea, saying that the country needed to “denuclearize” to receive relief from sanctions and realize its full promise. It was a far cry from 2017, when the president dubbed Kim Jong-Un “Little Rocket Man,” and 2018, when he praised the North Korean dictator for his “courage.”
On Tuesday, Trump sought to frame his foreign policy as principled, not reactionary or self-dealing. He repeated a case he has made at UNGA before: that the globe prospers when every nation puts its own parochial interests before multilateral initiatives. And he appeared to add one more layer: that patriotism is key to national prosperity and security.
“The true good of the nation can only be pursued by those who love it, by citizens who are rooted in its history, who are nourished by its culture, committed to its values, attached to its people, and who know its future is theirs to build or theirs to lose,” Trump said. “Liberty is only preserved, sovereignty is only secured, democracy is only sustained, greatness is only realized by the will and devotion of patriots.”