Jesse Helms + Hugo Chávez = Donald Trump
Two wrongs at the United Nations sure as hell don’t make a right.
Amid all the fanfare about Donald Trump’s maiden address before the U.N. General Assembly, what’s been lost is that, in many respects, the audience had seen this kind of thing before. Trump’s performance yesterday was vintage Jesse Helms — with a healthy dose of Hugo Chávez.
The words and ideas were straight from the Helms songbook. In January 2000, the North Carolina senator — then the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — traveled to New York to speak to the U.N. Security Council. This was the first time a sitting U.S. senator — or a legislator from anywhere — took a seat around the famous horseshoe-shaped table, and the world took notice. The unusual event was part of a campaign orchestrated by then U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to broker peace between Helms and the U.N. over the same issues that remain atop of the agenda today: sovereignty, U.N. reform, and overall U.S. support for the organization.
Like Trump’s, Helms’s was front-page news, and it hit on many of the same themes. He complained the U.N. was a bloated, ineffective bureaucracy that took advantage of the United States; he stressed that the U.N. must respect national sovereignty and that it had no legal authority over the United State or competence to “judge [its] foreign policy and national security decisions”; he said that Americans don’t want the U.N. to be an “entangling alliance”; and he even questioned the accuracy of public opinion polls showing substantial public support the U.N. Sound familiar?
I don’t know if Trump and Helms ever met, but they share the same fiery nationalist outlook and suspicion of “globalism” (and, of course, are both dogged by charges of racism). In many ways, Helms is the intellectual godfather to the ideologues around Trump — one can imagine a dog-eared copy of Helms’s 1977 book Where Free Men Shall Stand on speechwriter Steven Miller’s bookshelf — and it is no surprise that Trump’s words earned plaudits from close Helms allies like John Bolton. So to the extent that Trump’s speech was “conventional” — as some pundits are arguing — it is in the way that is tapped into this lineage of conservative thinking.
Helms himself took great pride in his speech. He later published the text in full as an appendix in his memoirs, and the museum at the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, North Carolina, features an exhibit recreating his famous visit, including a replica of the Security Council chamber. One could easily see something similar, but far more grandiose, in the gargantuan Trump presidential museum that we will enjoy in years to come.
I was in the room for Helms’s speech over 17 years ago, and the mood was tense. Helms came to New York to speak plainly, so the tough words were expected. But Helms cloaked his extreme nationalism in a courtly, genteel manner; he was exceedingly courteous and gracious (in this way, he is much like Attorney General Jeff Sessions). And in the Security Council, he quickly won the room over. His arguments might not have been convincing, but his presence was seen as a sign of respect and a willingness to bargain.
Trump has never been accused of having an abundance of courtesy, and his performance will likely be remembered less for its Helmsian echoes than its chest-thumping about North Korea and Iran and buffoonish “rocket man” taunts. Here’s where the Chávez comparison applies.
Over a decade ago, the Venezuelan populist strongman garnered headlines for a U.N. General Assembly speech that subjected an American president to the same schoolyard tactics. He repeatedly called George W. Bush the “devil,” said that only a psychiatrist could understand the thinking behind Bush’s speech the day before, and complained that Bush had left behind a stench of sulfur at the podium. Chavez’s speech was dismissed for the clownish embarrassment that it was, with such officials as — you guessed it — then U.N. Ambassador John Bolton calling it “insulting.”
So Trump’s first UNGA address was more of a throwback than a breakthrough. Change a few words and replace the insults with courtesies, and it is pretty much the same thing Helms delivered years ago. That makes the speech wrong on two counts — substantively reflecting the same suspicions about the U.N. and well-worn conservative arguments about protecting American “sovereignty,” while stylistically dressed up in way that turned the whole thing into a joke.
Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images