The speech delivered by President Donald Trump at the United Nations on September 24 provides a good introduction to politics. I recommend reading the actual transcript or watching the speech, not because it is especially surprising–many politicians say similar things in similar grandiloquent speeches–but because it is caricatural. It exemplifies many phenomena: collectivist political speech, the default philosophy in political discourse, and state propaganda through false or misleading statements. Let me give a few examples, starting with the last point. In his speech, Trump said: The United States, after having spent over two and a half trillion dollars since my election to completely rebuild our great military, is also, by far, the world’s most powerful nation.
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The speech delivered by President Donald Trump at the United Nations on September 24 provides a good introduction to politics. I recommend reading the actual transcript or watching the speech, not because it is especially surprising–many politicians say similar things in similar grandiloquent speeches–but because it is caricatural. It exemplifies many phenomena: collectivist political speech, the default philosophy in political discourse, and state propaganda through false or misleading statements. Let me give a few examples, starting with the last point.
In his speech, Trump said:
The United States, after having spent over two and a half trillion dollars since my election to completely rebuild our great military, is also, by far, the world’s most powerful nation.
This number is false or seriously misleading. In FY 2016, according to the official data of the Office of Management and Budget, the federal government spent $624 billion on the National Defense function (Department of Defense budget plus other, related expenses). In the three first three years of the Trump presidency, according to the same source, the federal government will have spent a bit less than $2.1 trillion for that function; that’s $689 billion per year or only about 10% more than if defense expenditures had continued at their 2016 level. To get anything close to “over two and a half trillion dollars,” one must add together all national defense expenditures (actual and forecasted) until the end of Trump’s first term, that is, $2.8 trillion. But this amount contains all defense expenditures and not only the “rebuilding” part; and it is barely 13% more than it would have been if such expenditures had continued at their cruising speed of 2016.
Friedrich Hayek devoted a chapter of his last book (The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, University of Chicago Press, 1988) to “Our Poisoned Language.” He emphasized the personification of society as if it were a living being with a collective mind. Another dimension of our poisoned language is that it takes “countries” and “nations” as existing wholes; moreover, it confounds these wholes with their governments.
What we meet in Trump’s speech are mainly, if not only, nations and countries, the governments identified with them, and the “leaders” and “patriots” who “love” these groupings. Where are ordinary individuals? A few relevant excerpts:
For decades, the international trading system has been easily exploited by nations acting in very bad faith.
Mass illegal migration is unfair, unsafe, and unsustainable for everyone involved: the sending countries and the depleted countries.
The true good of a nation can only be pursued by those who love it … Patriots see a nation and its destiny in ways no one else can.
The term “individual” does appear once in the speech, but in a special and somewhat unexpected context, probably required by a concession to political correctness or inspired by a speechwriter or other apparatchik:
We stand in solidarity with LGBTQ people who live in countries that punish, jail, or execute individuals based upon sexual orientation.
Of course, respect for individuals implies that no one should be persecuted by the government for his sexual preferences. If you listen to Trump’s speech, you will observe that he labored to pronounce the five consonants LGBTQ in sequence (personally, I feel his pain). Politicians want to be elected and will typically say anything useful and not too risky for that purpose. Yet, I doubt that, in future Trump electoral meetings, the crowd, instead of shouting “Lock her up” or “Build that Wall,” will start chanting “LGBTQ! LGBTQ!” At any rate, individuals don’t exist only in sexual situations.
In his UN appearance, Trump did mention “liberty,” “freedom,” or their derivatives a surprising number of times: I count 21 instances in a 3,800-word speech. This is as unusual for him as for any current political ruler. But how can liberty be reconciled with submission to a collective such as a nation? I suspect that Trump hasn’t thought much about this.
The problem is easy if one assumes that all individuals have the same preferences and values, and everybody in the collective wants what everybody else wants. Trump eschews this unrealistic assumption by suggesting that there are non-patriotic Americans such as “radical activists” and people in “non-governmental organizations that promote human smuggling,” in “social media giants” that “silence the voice of the people,” and in “media and academic institutions.”
Another way to attempt a reconciliation between liberty and subjection to the collective is to assume the existence of a “will of the people” (Trump uses this very expression in his speech) and to further imagine that a leader incarnating the people is tasked with enforcing this will against bad citizens and the “enemies of the people” who don’t share this will (this last expression, he only used in other occasions). I think this comes close to what Trump confusedly intuits.
For him, in other words, only collective liberty exists, defined by the power of a majority of a nation’s citizens to impose their will on the recalcitrant rest. The nation is independent but its constituent individuals are subjects. Recall the distinction that Benjamin Constant made between the liberty of the ancients, which is collective liberty, and the liberty of the moderns, which is individual liberty. In modern times, collective liberty was theorized by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his “general will.” Rousseau’s philosophy seems to be the default political philosophy around, both for democratic socialists and for confused politicians such as Mr. Trump. Like Mr. Jourdain, they do tyranny without knowing it.
I hope I am wrong, but I fear that Donald Trump, by pretending to defend liberty while he generally undermines individual liberty, will have given a Judas kiss to the latter. This may turn to be his more practical and troublesome legacy. It is true that sometimes, he appears to favor individual liberty, like in the case of the Second Amendment, but he is not consistent or effective. Many Americans (and foreigners) seem to be thinking that if individual liberty is so half-witted and incoherent, why not try something else and vote for unabashed socialism?