Addressing the United Nations on September 25, Donald Trump said, “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” There was laughter from the assembled world leaders.
Mainstream media commentaries largely interpreted this reaction to Trump’s absurd claims as a moment of global unity in resistance, perhaps as the most effective way to resist Trump — to laugh at him, to ridicule him. To embarrass him personally is being described as an effective political tool. The laughter of the assembled delegates is a ray of light for liberal audiences, which exclaim, “See! The rest of the world will act as a check on Trump’s powers! There are other countries, other leaders that recognize how base and vulgar Trump is, how ridiculous his claims are.”
But look a little more closely to the actual video of what transpired at the United Nations. What happened is much subtler, and signifies a much more terrifying geopolitical reality. What happened at the UN is structurally analogous to the trope of an old gangster film, where the boss breaks into laughter instead of violence, evaporating the tension in the room, as his capos and lieutenants were expecting the godfather’s wrath.
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Trump initiates the laughter, a seemingly small detail. A detail entirely overlooked in all coverage. As Trump began asserting that “in less than two years …” he begins to sheepishly smile. It is not a confident assertion that he makes, almost like a child trying to tell a whopper, and hedging his bets beforehand by signaling recognition of its absurdity. He begins to laugh and thus breaks the tension in the room, and only then do the assembled world leaders begin to laugh along with him in a mutual recognition of the absurdity of his claims.
One must contextualize this utterance. He was not speaking at a campaign rally or to Fox News with his ready-to-accept-anything audience. He was not making absurd claims to a generally politically ignorant, heavily propagandized and and/or apolitical audience, nor to its tepid so-called liberal Democrat resistance. He was not in the domestic political sphere, where he makes outlandish claims with confidence and not an ounce of self-criticality. He was speaking in front of the United Nations to a set of world leaders, highly educated, cosmopolitan and more experienced than he is. He displayed some self-doubt, an elementary stage of self-awareness about who he was, and recognition of the room he stood within.
So, Trump makes a sheepish assertion and the audience takes the cue and begins to laugh. This was not a laughing “at” Donald Trump. This was a “laughing with.” What this laughter revealed is that the space in which this laughter occurred was structured by hegemonic power: You may resist, you may laugh, only when I allow it, when I initiate it.
He was granting world leaders the right to poke fun, effectively dictating the terms by which one is allowed to resist. World leaders took his signal and began to laugh along with Trump at the absurdity of his claims, an absurdity that he himself recognizes, as demonstrated by his smile and sheepishness. The structure of the relationship between Trump and world leaders exactly parallels that between the mob boss and his lieutenants.
The meeting was anticipated with fear and apprehension, similar to the capos walking into the boss’s sit-down: Would Trump escalate tensions with North Korea? Further alienate allies? Will Trump recognize the International Criminal Court? Are the pressures of the Mueller investigation and the Russia probe getting to him?
Trump breaks this tension. Trump invites them along with him.
As noted by an analysis from The Washington Post,
Trump chuckled and said, “Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s okay.” Then more laughter, accompanied by some applause. The laughter was not 100 percent at Trump’s expense.
It is exactly what he was expecting. He was playing from their discomfort in making these claims, and they bought it in its entirety.
And in utter political abdication of responsibility, news coverage disappears the most important part of the story: that Trump initiated the laughter. The laughter is described as more powerful, as being more resistant than it was — more aligned against Trump. In reality, world leaders were granted permission by the boss to laugh and laughed with him. This then becomes the story, and is held up as an act of global unified resistance. It was anything but.
Despite his buffoon-like performance, to focus on it is to miss the point that, geopolitically, the United States is functioning as the effective mob boss of the United Nations, the hegemonic power.
Let’s look at the content of his speech (paraphrased here): The United States will not be constrained by the UN. We act alone. We don’t recognize the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction; therefore, can commit war crimes with impunity. We will upset trade balances and alienate our allies. Moves away from fossil fuels like Germany’s program for energy independence are foolhardy. Simultaneously, ramping up Cold War rhetoric by asserting a perceived threat from Russian oil dominance.
These contents are terrifying and signify that the hegemon of global order is abandoning the tenuous international social contract, returning to a Hobbesian state of nature, state against state, where the most brutal rule by force. The proper response to this is not laughter, it is terror.
The laughter at Trump is much more dire than mainstream analysis recognizes because such a performance by Trump indicates that he is, on some level, in on the joke. He knows that his claims won’t fly with this audience, that they are absurd and propagandistic. Yet, he says them anyway. He doesn’t need world leaders to accept these claims, just to sit through them. He needs to be allowed to say them, for these claims are directed at the domestic audience anyway. They function as consistent messaging within a strategy to stay in power. For the rest of the world, it’s a generally Hobbesian set of principles of war of all against all.
To assert that laughing at Trump is an effective form of resistance entirely misses the point — that the role of the United States and its policies aren’t rooted in the individuality of Donald Trump. He can be laughed at all day long, and nothing will change in terms of the role the United States plays within the global order. The United States will continue to “go rogue,” thus further entrenching global threats like climate change, military threat and economic instability.
Trump gave the audience of world leaders the permission to laugh; he let them in on the joke. And we know what happens when the mob boss lets the capos in on the joke. Once they are all laughing and the defenses are down, the godfather takes a baseball bat to someone’s head.