At a time when the world is watching a horrific war unfold before our very eyes in Europe, one might expect that a formal speech given by a former president of the United States would be a serious discussion of world events. And if it was a former president who was clearly intent upon running again it would seem to be imperative. To be sure, he might want to give a critique of the current president's politics under those circumstances but they would be carefully considered and heavily couched in rhetoric of national unity, patriotism and support for America's allies. For instance we can look back to a speech given by former vice president Al Gore after 9/11. The election results the previous year were very dubious and there was widespread anticipation that Gore might run again in a rematch in 2004. But beyond expressing support for President George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath, Gore waited for three months before giving any extended remarks. He opened that speech with this:
A lot of people have let me know they wished I had been speaking out on public affairs long before now. But in the aftermath of a very divisive election, I thought it would be graceless to do so and possibly damaging to the nation. And then came September 11th.
Gore went on to praise Bush's handling of the Afghanistan operation and declared his loyalty to the country in the War on Terror, which seemed to be required in those first months. And there was plenty of jingoism too. But he also went on to give a thoughtful speech about the underlying causes of the problem and made the case for a holistic approach to dealing with the problem of terrorism:
"Draining the swamp" of terrorism must of course in the first instance mean destroying the ability of terrorist networks to function. But drying it up at its source must also mean draining the aquifer of anger that underlies terrorism: anger that enflames the hearts of so many young men, and makes them willing, dedicated recruits for terror. Anger at perceived historical injustices involving a mass-memory throughout the Islamic world of past glory and more recent centuries of decline and oppression at the hands of the West.
Like it or hate it, it was a sober, intelligent speech by the man a majority of Americans had voted to be president at that moment. There were no jokes, no whining about the lost election, no insults. It was the speech of a statesman, which anyone would expect from a former vice president and presidential candidate at such a serious time.
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I know that for Americans the Ukraine war is not the equivalent of 9/11, although it certainly is for Ukrainians. But it's a dangerous moment for the planet with a nuclear power testing the limits of the post-war international order and nuclear war being openly threatened. It's already had an effect on the institutions and agreements we've depended upon for more than 75 years. European nations like Finland and Sweden are considering joining the NATO alliance for the first time, Switzerland has given up the neutrality and banking secrecy that defined it for many decades and both Germany and Japan are rapidly arming up.
The world order we've known has been under strain for some time. Trump's turn as the leader of the United States accelerated the meltdown. This war in Ukraine may have finally forced world leaders to grapple with the consequences. This is not fun and games about "NATO dues" or ostentatious flattery and pageantry. This is serious business.
Unfortunately, the undisputed leader of the Republican Party, the front runner for the presidential nomination in 2024, the man who spent four years in the White House and should be expected to understand the stakes for the nation and the world at this juncture, simply cannot rise to the occasion.
Over the weekend (when he wasn't dashing off angry letters to NBC's Lester Holt complaining about former Attorney General Bill Barr) Donald Trump gave a major keynote speech to a group of deep pocketed GOP donors. Rather than take the opportunity to make a serious speech about foreign policy and national security, he gave a typical Donald Trump speech, which is to say (paraphrasing Joe Biden) a noun, a verb and rigged election. He did mention foreign policy but it was typically shallow and self-serving. The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey wrote it up:
Former president Donald Trump mused Saturday to the GOP's top donors that the United States should label its F-22 planes with the Chinese flag and "bomb the s--t out of Russia."
He also praised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as "seriously tough," claimed he was harder on Vladimir Putin than any other president, reiterated his false claims that he won the 2020 election, urged his party to be "tougher" on supposed election fraud, disparaged a range of prominent party opponents and called global warming "a great hoax" that could actually bring a welcome development: more waterfront property.
I guess they all had a great time yukking it up about war and dictators. The crowd laughed at his sophomoric "joke" about bombing the shit out of Moscow thought it was hilarious when he said how much he admired North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's hold on his people who "sat at attention" saying he wanted his people to do the same. (That's not the first time he's said that.)
He also reiterated his tiresome trope that Putin would never have invaded Ukraine when he was in office while also saying that the U.S. should do much more to stop the carnage without offering what that might be. In other words, he could have been any average guy calling in to a right-wing talk radio show.
Again, this man was president of the United States just a little over a year ago and this is the best he can do in a moment of crisis? Of course, we watched his ridiculous antics during the pandemic but at that point we didn't know for sure that he would attempt a coup, incite an insurrection and then spend the next few years plotting his revenge. Observing him after all that in this particular crisis, with the threat of WWIII hanging in the balance, is downright terrifying.
I would just offer up this little clue as to what we should expect in a second term. Trump won't be hiring any swamp creatures, he will be hiring people like this man, whom he previously nominated to be the Ambassador to Germany and installed in a senior position in the Pentagon right after the election.
Imagine that fellow as the National Security Adviser. Actually, you don't have to. Trump's first choice for that job was Ret. Gen. Michael Flynn, who is even nuttier than he is.
If we thought that Trump might have gained some wisdom from his four years as president, maybe the thought of him gaining the White House once more wouldn't send chills down my spine. But he's made it crystal clear, over and over again, that he is incapable of learning anything. Sadly, that seems to be what his followers love and admire about him.