What does America stand for? This week, the world heard two very different answers to that question.
The first answer was delivered on Saturday by former President Donald Trump in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. The second was offered on Tuesday by President Joe Biden in his State of the Union Address. These two men, having faced off in the 2020 presidential election, are on track to meet again in 2024. Biden, in his remarks, defended American values. Trump derided and dismissed them.
Biden aimed his address at Vladimir Putin, calling the Russian president a “dictator” and condemning his invasion of Ukraine. Trump, by contrast, repeated his praise of Putin (“He’s smart”) and boasted, “I spent a lot of time with him. I got along with him.” This followed Trump’s effusive comments about Putin in a Fox News interview last week—shortly after the invasion began—in which the former president crowed, “I got along with him fantastically.” In the interview, Trump defended Putin’s motives for the invasion—“I really don’t believe he wanted to do this initially”—and instead blamed Biden for somehow tempting Putin into invading Ukraine.
Biden urged America to stand up for the principle of sovereignty: that no country, without provocation, should invade another. Trump belittled that principle, arguing that America should worry about its own borders instead of pretending that “Ukraine’s borders are sacred.” “The Biden administration has spent months obsessing over how to stop an invasion of a foreign country thousands of miles away,” Trump sneered. “The Biden administration cares more about helping citizens of a distant foreign nation than it does about our own citizens.”
Biden distinguished authoritarianism from democracy. He applauded “the free world” for coming to Ukraine’s defense, and he proclaimed that “in the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment.” Trump, conversely, flaunted his friendships with autocrats. “I got along with President Xi. I got along with Kim Jong-un,” he bragged. “President Xi liked me and respected me, and I liked and respected him. We got along great.” Speaking to reporters after his CPAC speech, Trump faulted Biden for displeasing Kim, who, according to Trump, “seems not to like President Biden very much.”
In a bizarre pitch straight out of South Park, Trump encouraged Americans to direct their anger at Canada, not Russia. “If the radical Democrats truly want to fight for democracy abroad,” he proposed, “they should start with the democracy that is under threat right next door: a place called Canada.” He claimed, absurdly, that Canada’s temporary invocation of emergency powers to disperse protesters who had shut down parts of the country—mostly because they opposed vaccine mandates and other public health measures—was “tyranny.” While fretting that “a line has been crossed,” Trump located that line in Ottawa, not Kyiv: “We stand with the Canadian people in their noble quest to reclaim their freedom.”
Biden reaffirmed America’s commitment to NATO. He warned Putin that “the United States and our allies will defend every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power.” Trump sought to undercut that commitment. He ridiculed “the NATO nations,” calling them “not so smart,” and he proudly reminded the CPAC audience of his threats to withhold American protection from NATO allies who “don’t pay” enough.
Biden asked Americans to maintain “unwavering resolve” in the confrontation with Putin, even if sanctions against Russia caused higher gas prices in the United States. Trump scorned such appeals to solidarity, advising Americans to turn against their own government. “Unbelievably, Biden is now claiming that you must sacrifice through higher energy prices to foot the cost of his failed foreign policy in Europe,” said the former president.
Biden extolled America. “We are the only nation on Earth that has always turned every crisis we have faced into an opportunity,” he declared. “The state of the Union is strong because you, the American people, are strong.” Trump disparaged America. “We were a smart country; now we’re a stupid country,” he said. “We are a laughingstock all over the world . . . We are a laughingstock.”
Biden asked his countrymen to put aside their differences. “Let’s stop looking at COVID-19 as a partisan dividing line and see it for what it is: a God-awful disease,” said the president. “Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies and start seeing each other for who we really are: fellow Americans.” Trump, conversely, prodded Americans to turn against one another. “Our country is being poisoned from within,” he warned, calling his domestic opponents “truly evil” and “vicious people.” “As grave as the dangers are abroad, it’s the destruction within that spells our doom,” said Trump. “Our most dangerous people are people from within.”
Biden defended the rule of law. He called for more funding of police departments, and he announced that the Department of Justice would crack down on financial fraud and “the crimes of Russian oligarchs.” Trump, on the other hand, smeared prosecutors as Democratic partisans and accused them of mistreating the January 6 insurrectionists. He suggested that “perhaps Republicans should pack the Supreme Court,” and he insisted that if Republicans regained power, they must make “every executive branch employee fireable by the president.”
Many Republicans pretend that Trump doesn’t represent their party. But they suck up to him, refuse to renounce his arguments, and often parrot them. On Sunday, Sen. Tom Cotton repeatedly ducked questions about Trump’s praise of Putin. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did the same on Tuesday. Meanwhile, in a 75-minute forum to lay out their agenda, House Republicans barely mentioned Ukraine. They applied terms such as “dictator,” “regime,” and “communist countries” not to Putin, but to Democrats who enforced vaccine mandates or mask mandates.
Biden has his faults. He botched the negotiations on his Build Back Better plan, misjudged the pullout from Afghanistan, and underrated the severity of inflation. But the gap between his vision of America and Trump’s vision of America makes those faults insignificant. Biden believes in democracy and the rule of law. He believes that the free world must stand together. He believes that Americans should treat one another as compatriots, not enemies, and that they should care about people in other countries.
Trump believes none of this.
It’s a simple choice.