The concluding passages of President Donald Trump’s address to the U.N. General Assembly sought to define and defend patriotism—not only for Americans, although naturally his focus was on the patriotic history of his own country.
Trump called for a revival of patriotic spirit around the world, in the process delivering a backhanded slap to globalism without calling it out by name.
Trump began by saying a bright future for the world demands “strong, sovereign, and independent nations,” defining them as nations “rooted in their histories and invested in their destinies,” seeking “allies to befriend, not enemies to conquer,” and “most important of all, nations that are home to patriots, to men and women who are willing to sacrifice for their countries, their fellow citizens, and for all that is best in the human spirit.”
That’s an intriguing definition of patriotism. As with most of the ideas Trump laid out in his speech, it has three vital components. (Trump and his speechwriters are clearly great believers in the Rule of Three.) The third component illuminates the other two, making it clear that devotion to national identity and a commitment to make sacrifices on behalf of fellow citizens are not virtues unless the nation itself strives to elevate “all that is best in the human spirit.”
This is another way of saying that legitimate governments recognize a duty to all of their citizens, a point Trump made in several different ways throughout the speech. Evil governments are obsessed with the power and wealth of the ruler and his cronies, elevating the regime above its people, or they brutally oppress portions of the populace to benefit favored groups. Squalid dictatorships like North Korea and Iran cannot claim to pursue “all that is best in the human spirit.” Neither can their patrons in upscale authoritarian states like China and Russia.
“In remembering the great victory that led to this body’s founding, we must never forget that those heroes who fought against evil also fought for the nations that they loved,” said Trump, in one of several times he looked back to World War 2. “Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain.”
Then he lowered the boom on globalism, saying:
Today, if we do not invest ourselves, our hearts, and our minds in our nations, if we will not build strong families, safe communities, and healthy societies for ourselves, no one can do it for us.
We cannot wait for someone else, for faraway countries or far-off bureaucrats. We can’t do it. We must solve our problems, to build our prosperity, to secure our futures, or we will be vulnerable to decay, domination, and defeat.
The true question for the United Nations today, for people all over the world who hope for better lives for themselves and their children, is a basic one: Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their futures? Do we revere them enough to defend their interests, preserve their cultures, and ensure a peaceful world for their citizens?
Critics of globalism are often castigated for using it as a vague boogeyman, a devil word as loosely defined as “racism,” “sexism,” or the other calumnies in modern America’s sloppy political lexicon. By defining patriotism as a positive and constructive expression of nationalism, Trump provided a negative definition of harmful globalism, distinguishing it from beneficial international trade and cultural exchange, which the president praised several times in his speech.
Earlier in his address, Trump offered a pointed critique of how diminished sovereignty and ill-conceived trade deals have harmed the American middle class:
For too long, the American people were told that mammoth multinational trade deals, unaccountable international tribunals, and powerful global bureaucracies were the best way to promote their success. But as those promises flowed, millions of jobs vanished and thousands of factories disappeared. Others gamed the system and broke the rules. And our great middle class, once the bedrock of American prosperity, was forgotten and left behind, but they are forgotten no more and they will never be forgotten again.
While America will pursue cooperation and commerce with other nations, we are renewing our commitment to the first duty of every government: the duty of our citizens. This bond is the source of America’s strength and that of every responsible nation represented here today.
In other words, one could say these trade deals and sacrifices of sovereign authority fail the test of legitimate government Trump outlined because such governments honor their duties to all of the people they represent. Sacrificing politically disfavored blocks of workers in some areas for the benefit of more politically attractive constituencies and influential donors is wrong. For that matter, so is selling out the interests of 20 percent of the country so the other 80 percent can enjoy lower consumer prices. That only works if the 20 percent can be shamed and intimidated into political irrelevance, a strategy that suddenly stopped working in November of 2016.
Trump’s definition of patriotism also implies a willingness to accept short-term hardships in exchange for long-term prosperity, and for older patriotic Americans to make sacrifices on behalf of generations to come. That’s the opposite of how things have been working in the United States for a long time, and it has led us to the abyss of ruinous debt and economic chaos. No fiscal debacle or market chaos America has yet experienced, including the 2008 financial crisis, measures up against what lies ahead unless we learn to stop taxing and trading the future to satisfy our short-term demands.
Trump recalled John Adams’ contention that the American Revolution lived “in the minds and hearts of the people” before a single declaration was written, or shot was fired.
“That was the moment when America awoke, when we looked around and understood that we were a nation. We realized who we were, what we valued, and what we would give our lives to defend. From its very first moments, the American story is the story of what is possible when people take ownership of their future,” Trump said.
How much “ownership of the future” does anyone see in America’s current course? A sizable portion of our ruling elite doesn’t even think we have the right to control our own borders or define the terms of American citizenship. Our politics will be shaped by irresistible demands for entitlement funding that will soon eclipse everything we’re still allowed to vote on.
Who owns the future when working men and women work for the government over six months out of every year? What remains of capitalism when so much of our manufacturing capital has moved beyond our borders, while our human capital is price-controlled and regulated so severely—and its quality so compromised by an expensive but inadequate education system—that foreign labor is irresistibly attractive to American employers?
Speaking of the education system, Trump lost the college faculty vote forever by declaring America “has been among the greatest forces for good in the history of the world, and the greatest defenders of sovereignty, security, and prosperity for all.”
Trump concluded by calling for “a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people, and their patriotism.” He envisioned a world of “proud, independent nations that embrace their duties, seek friendship, respect others, and make common cause in the greatest shared interest of all: a future of dignity and peace for the people of this wonderful Earth.”
Much of postwar history has been shaped by the deep suspicion of intellectuals towards the nation-state, which they saw as a vehicle for war and rapacious greed. The only path to peace lay in creating supranational institutions, teaching people to see themselves as “citizens of Earth.” No more borders, no more war.
This idea was naive in its inception, and horribly dishonest in execution. In truth, the dissolution of borders also breaks the chains of duty and responsibility binding governments and large special interests. The demise of federalism leaves us at the mercy of bureaucrats in Washington, and the demise of national sovereignty leaves us uncertain where we could even find the bureaucrats we are at the mercy of. The authority of the national constitution is shredded, while the power of the vote is watered down into nothing. Our ability to escape tyranny, corruption, and incompetence by voting with our feet is wiped out.
Only patriotic nationalism can restore that vital sense of duty to the people that not only restrains but illuminates government. It’s also the only way to restore the sense of shared purpose, discipline, and fellowship that makes a great people. We’ve allowed patriotism to be mischaracterized as mindless jingoism and xenophobia, as part of a strategy to make average Americans feel they have no moral standing to demand duty, restraint, and humility from the elite.
Instead of a unified world, erasing national sovereignty gave us countless warring tribes. In the more civilized regions, they use politicians as instruments of conquest and plunder. Elsewhere, they’re prone to using bullets, bombs, and knives.