The Trump administration has been gradually ramping up its talk about human rights for a while now, but I definitely didn’t expect to hear about “a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom” in a State of the Union address from a president who once said in defense of Vladimir Putin, “You think our country’s so innocent?” Lines like that were much more natural coming from President George W. Bush, as Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review noted, such as in his second inaugural address, a.k.a. “the freedom speech.”
Given the alarming rate at which the U.S. appears to be drifting toward military conflict with both North Korea and Iran, it is not at all encouraging that Trump is starting to frame our tensions as a moral crusade.
Trump talked about “restoring clarity about our adversaries,” notably Iran. He tied his opposition to the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal to the country’s recent protests, saying, “When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent. America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.” He talked about sanctioning “communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela.” Most of all, he talked about the “cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” pointing out guests including the parents of Otto Warmbier and Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector with a genuinely moving story of perseverance.
Trump has usually framed the urgency of the North Korea situation in terms of a security threat (if not a contest of masculinity). In last night’s speech, he linked the security threat to North Korea’s human rights practices, saying “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.”
A certain amount of hypocrisy is inevitable when it comes to the human rights rhetoric of U.S. presidents. But Trump is particularly hard to take seriously when he talks like this. There’s his famous fondness for autocratic leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. There’s his disregard for civilian casualties, his past support for torture, and his policy—announced in the very same speech–of continuing indefinite detention at an overseas prison. Perhaps most notable of all, there’s his habit, also very evident in the State of the Union, of demonizing immigrants and refugees as criminals. The best thing the U.S. has ever done to promote freedom and democracy is allowing people from unfree and undemocratic countries to move here. Anyone who thinks the U.S. should bar people from “shithole” countries isn’t serious about helping those human souls who yearn to live in freedom.