In the past, US presidents speaking from the green marble dais in the United Nations' General Assembly Hall have focused on calling for the gathered leaders and diplomats to focus on what brings us together — and how only together can the world move forward.
And then there's President Donald Trump, who in his third appearance at the annual opening of the UN General Assembly was more forceful than ever in declaring the importance of not just nationalism, but a devotion to country and history, in a speech that repeated tropes used by the white nationalist and anti-Semitic portions of his base.
"Like my beloved country, each nation represented in this hall has a cherished history, culture, and heritage that is worth defending and celebrating and which gives us our singular potential and strength," Trump said. "The free world must embrace its national foundations. It must not attempt to erase them or replace them."
"The future does not belong to globalists," he continued, "the future belongs to patriots."
And in an extended section about the dangers that unchecked immigration represents, he provided "a message for those open-border activists, who cloak themselves in the rhetoric of social justice. These policies are not just. Your policies are cruel and evil."
"When you undermine border security, you are undermining human rights and dignity," he said. "Many of the countries here today are coping with the challenges of uncontrolled migration. Each of you has the absolute right to protect your borders. And so, of course, does our country."
While the words may have been wrapped up in the patina of an international address, the rhetoric at its core has gained a certain familiarity in recent years. Members of the so-called alt-right and white supremacists in the dark corners of the internet have targeted Jewish public figures as "globalists" with increasing volume since the run-up to the 2016 election. The phrase on its face refers to those who would see international bodies, like the United Nations, able to impose rules on otherwise independent countries or otherwise support a less nationalistic trade system economically. But in linking it with Jews, it takes on a connection to long-standing and hateful stereotypes that Jews are a people without a home who seek to infiltrate and conquer free (read: white and Christian) countries as part of a global plot. Use of the term "cosmopolitan" in the 1930s and 1940s shared a similar history of paranoia and animosity toward Jews.
The shooter in El Paso last month was convinced that immigrants and asylum-seekers from Latin America were part of a plot intended to replace white Americans. "I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion," he wrote (emphasis added) in the manifesto that has been attributed to him.
And at the University of Virginia in 2017, white protesters carrying tiki torches declared, "You will not replace us." That march and the next day's protests in Charlottesville — where a woman was killed while protesting against hate — were organized to oppose the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces. In the fate of that relatively recent set of monuments to a group of people willing to fight a war to uphold their right to claim other humans as personal property, they saw their history being erased. But in their chanting, they were repeating a "blood and soil" argument that says that only a people who have inherited a land from their fathers can truly be counted as citizens. Trump has been criticized since then for his response to the white supremacist–led violence: "There were some very fine people on both sides."
While he did cover some of the more traditional issues that the US tends to bring up at the UN — he spoke about trade, upholding the rights of women and LGBTQ people, and North Korea's nuclear program during his time at the podium — Trump shifted back into his emphasis on nationalism toward the end of his speech, leaning into the criteria of just who gets to be a citizen and who does not.
"The true good of a nation can only be pursued but those who love it, by citizens who are rooted in its history, who nourished by its culture, committed to its values, attached to its people, and know that its future is theirs to build or theirs to lose," Trump said. That phrase, "rooted in its history," would seem a high bar to reach for immigrants recently arrived from Mexico or Honduras in the eyes of many of the president's listeners, even as their culture permeates what we think of as the mainstream in the US today.
White House aide Stephen Miller is both the architect of the administration's harsh immigration policies and one of the primary writers of many of Trump's international addresses over the years. It was his hand that wrote a speech for delivery at NATO that refused to uphold that organization's commitment for its members to defend each other. It was reportedly his voice that came out of Trump's mouth at the UN last year. And despite the fact that Miller himself is Jewish, a fact often mentioned along with Jared Kushner and Ivanka's Judaism to defend the president from calls of anti-Semitism, it tracks that this year's speech would double-down on the themes we heard in 2018, taking on a more intense and sinister edge in the face of what's happened in the intervening months.
In its totality, the speech Trump gave to the UN was one that pushes the Westphalian system — where states live in perpetual anarchy, doing as they will within their borders, agreeing that sovereignty within those borders is second only to God's will — to its limits. Gone are the times of the responsibility to protect innocents in the face of mass atrocities and the idea of fundamental human rights that go beyond borders. In its place we have a slavish devotion to the walls — invisible and physical — that anchor the concepts of statehood and nationality in Trump and his administration's eyes.