Not Truman

Donald Trump, hyper-nationalist, loves the word “sovereignty”. With and without the -ty he deployed it 21 times in his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. Andrew Jackson, his favourite president (other than himself), was also a fan, relying on it to justify all manner of unconscionable behaviour.

Jackson, first elected in 1828, held that in America “the people” were sovereign (not exactly what the founders had in mind). He saw himself as the people’s instrument, entitled to act on their behalf in disregard of Congress and the courts whenever the need arose.

Here was Trump on Tuesday: “In America…the people are sovereign. I was elected not to take power, but to give power to the American people, where it belongs.”

Jackson’s “people” — the “we” endowed with inalienable rights by their Creator and the Declaration of Independence — did not include the millions of involuntary immigrants from Africa then resident in the US, free or unfree, or the native population, or women of any colour or provenance.

If white men wanted land that belonged Indian tribes under treaties signed with the federal government and ratified by the Senate, then, by God, white men must have it, the law be damned. If white men wanted to extend slavery into every state added to the growing Union, that was their decision to make, not Washington’s. The people ruled. Not the law. Beastliness ensued.

A fitting icon, this Jackson, for his latest successor.

As for the foreign policy Trump enunciated at the UN on the American people’s behalf, no one could accuse his speechwriter — principally Goebbels re-enactor Stephen Miller — of being elite. To be fair, this was not quite the “some weird s..t” George W Bush was quoted calling Trump’s inaugural address. But it came close.

It will chiefly be remembered for the bit where Trump went verbally Valley Girl and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if “Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un didn’t “denuclearize”.

Asked whether wiping out an entire nation might perhaps be construed as a crime against humanity, Trump’s hapless press secretary Sarah Sanders just managed to get some racquet on the ball. Barack Obama, she tried, had said the same thing. Out. His actual words: “We could obviously destroy North Korea with our arsenal, but aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally (South Korea)”.

What really raised the bile, though, was Trump’s call for all right-thinking countries join in a great “reawakening” of “patriotically” reasserted sovereignty as the path to global peace and prosperity.

Trump tried to portray himself as a new Harry Truman, on whose watch the post-World War II order was founded, multilateral institutions like the UN, IMF and World Bank created, and the Marshall Plan launched — all to resuscitate a world ravaged by nationalisms cynically inflamed by demagogues like Trump who saw themselves as incarnations of national will. Truman was the anti-Trump.

Trump, of course, is an identity freak as we learnt from his crusade to prove that Obama was not an American but a Kenyan. Were he a man of logic and conviction as well, one could see him having been an avid apologist for the bantustan policy, advocating for free what the Nationalists paid his mentor, the McCarthyite lizard Roy Cohn, millions of rands to defend.

How seriously to take this boob? There was tight-jawed stoicism on the faces of his secretary of state and UN ambassador, and face-palming by his chief of staff, as they contemplated the size of the shovels they would need when he was done. The General Assembly applauded politely. Politeness is what the UN is all about. The whole point of the institution is to render, through process and protocol, dangerous fools harmless and murderous passions inert.

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