Midterm Time Capsule, 41 Days to Go: Laughter at the UN

Donald Trump at the United Nations (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

American presidents usually address the United Nations General Assembly in the fall—as you can see here, and as Donald Trump did on Tuesday. Sometimes they also do so in the spring*, or on other occasions as the need arises.

American presidents usually receive a respectful hearing at the UN.

-  Sometimes it is more than just respectful, as when John Kennedy made his speech in 1961 calling for a new series of nuclear test-ban treaties. (“The events and decisions of the next ten months may well decide the fate of man for the next ten thousand years… And we in this hall shall be remembered either as part of the generation that turned this planet into a flaming funeral pyre or the generation that met its vow ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’ ”)

- Sometimes the reception is merely polite, as when Richard Nixon spoke to the UN during the Vietnam war, or Ronald Reagan while pursuing his “Star Wars” / Strategic Defense Initiative program against the Soviet Union.

- Very occasionally the reaction has fallen short even of politeness, as when Hugo Chavez, then strongman of Venezuela, spoke one day after George W. Bush, during the Iraq War. Chavez said that the dais still reeked of sulfur after Bush’s speech, because “yesterday the devil came here.”

But two things were unusual about Trump’s speech on Tuesday.

It was, to the best of my knowledge, the first presidential UN speech that challenged the very idea of international cooperation and standards. Compare Ronald Reagan, 1985:  “America is committed to the world because so much of the world is inside America…. The blood of each nation courses through the American vein and feeds the spirit that compels us to involve ourselves in the fate of this good Earth.” And Donald Trump, 2018: “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”

And, it was the only one, ever, to be greeted by openly mocking laughter, including from representatives of America’s closest allies, as David Graham described here. Criticism and disagreement, yes — they go with the territory of representing America’s enormous power. But ridicule is something new. The moment is too obvious to belabor as a symbol, so I simply note it as a fact.

Republican senators who have said anything about this performance: to the best of my knowledge, none.

Forty-one days to go.

*To connect this UN theme with the subject of a dispatch yesterday: I happen to know about the occasional springtime schedule because I was working on a UN speech for the then-recently sworn in Jimmy Carter in March, 1977, on the night before Deb’s and my first son, Tom, was born.

This is the same son Tom whose own family news, the arrival of a third daughter, is noted here. More on Tom’s UN-speech background here.