WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump, in the Rose Garden announcing U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate-change agreement, posed a rhetorical question:
“At what point does America get demeaned?”
That point, Mr. President, is now.
For the last fortnight, Trump has presented himself to the world as the caricature of the ugly American: loud, boorish and ill-informed. For nine days in Europe and the Middle East, Trump shoved, hectored and lectured, betraying confidences and demonstrating an ignorance of world affairs.
The French president applied a crushing grip to Trump’s tiny hands to show that he wouldn’t be bullied, and the German chancellor suggested that Europe may need to go it alone after 70 years, without its suddenly flaky ally. The pope gently conveyed disdain.
Trump would have been humiliated if he were capable of feeling shame, but on some level even he must have known he was being dismissed, for he responded as he does when ridiculed – with still more cartoonish bluster.
The withdrawal from the world climate accord itself wasn’t terribly surprising, but the way he did it was a thumb in the eye to the rest of humanity. Trump didn’t merely state a principled disagreement. He turned the Rose Garden, where Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat once joined hands, into a setting for a political rally, and he delivered a campaign speech against the world.
“The Paris agreement handicaps the United States economy in order to win praise from the very foreign capitals and global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country’s expense,” he charged.
“The same nations asking us to stay in the agreement are the countries that have collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices and in many cases lax contributions to our critical military alliance,” he alleged.
“Foreign lobbyists wished to keep our magnificent country tied up and bound down by this agreement,” he declared. “It’s to give their country an economic edge over the United States.”
It was less a statement of policy than a paranoid scream about devious foreigners scheming to cheat the United States. In reality, Trump was breaking with the whole world – more than 190 other nations that had made numerous concessions to U.S. demands – and siding with two outliers, war-ravaged Syria and Nicaragua (because the agreement didn’t go far enough).
Trump seemed to know little about the accord he was trashing. He proclaimed, “I’m willing to immediately work with Democratic leaders to … negotiate our way back into Paris.” Was he unaware that he had to negotiate with world leaders, not his domestic opponents?
The president served a buffet of dubious assertions and statistics about the costs and benefits of compliance while all but ignoring the central fact that the Paris accord is voluntary. Trump could have scaled back U.S. commitments without pulling out of the accord or demanding renegotiation. It’s not binding. It needn’t have cost America anything.
Instead, he chose to taunt world leaders with jingoistic rhetoric, mocking the accord’s “so-called Green Climate Fund – nice name” and announcing, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” He accused other signatories of being deadbeats who “went wild” when America agreed to this “massive redistribution of United States wealth.”
We have seen this behavior repeatedly from Trump. When he feels belittled – when he feels his manhood challenged – he lashes out. Pope Francis reproached him by giving him his encyclical on climate change. French President Emmanuel Macron probably threatened Trump’s alpha status with his handshake, which, Trump aides told The Post, “irritated and bewildered” our emotionally fragile leader.
And so Trump doubled down.
A similar pattern of belligerence has hobbled Trump’s presidency. His clumsy attempts to ram health care reform through Congress have stalled his agenda even though his party controls both chambers, and his ham-handed efforts to shut down the Russia investigation saddled him with a special counsel.
In foreign affairs, Trump’s undue bullying is breaking down alliances, undermining intelligence, economic, military and diplomatic cooperation. Trade, travel, tourism and foreign investment will inevitably suffer. Business leaders know this, which is why Trump’s climate move brought bitter protests from top U.S. corporations.
Trump is projecting retreat, which isolates America. Perhaps the most devastating response came from Macron, who told Trump on Thursday in a perfunctory phone call that the Paris accord is not renegotiable, and that France – and, likely, the world – will no longer work with the United States on climate change.
America, under Trump, has lost its seat at the table. Yes, this is the point at which America gets demeaned.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.