Ugly Americans

by Michael Brendan Dougherty

Sarah Wildman at Vox has criticisms of President Trump’s speech in Warsaw, Poland. They are strange.

Coming to the conclusion of his speech, Donald Trump recalled the heroism Poles showed in the failed Warsaw uprising and said,

Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.

Wildman comments:

He did not mention that in 1944, the Polish patriots, while valiant, were not, ultimately, the saviors of the state. Nor did he note that Europeans widely see the Polish ruling party of today, which has tried to clamp down on the media and judiciary, as itself a threat to Western values. Some 90,000 Poles marched against the Polish government in early May, protesting its anti-democratic trajectory. That Poland was absent in Trump’s speech.

The last time Trump went to Europe, he was widely criticized for not flattering NATO allies. But Wildman chooses to criticize Trump for not criticizing his hosts, for not noting that their bravery still ended in national humiliation. Or for not highlighting dissent from the current government.

Imagine if a foreign leader treated America the way Wildman suggests America treat Poland. What if President Duda of Poland gave a speech last year in Washington in which he recalled the bravery of the American Revolution but noted sourly that this bravery couldn’t prevent the British from returning to burn the White House in 1814. And then went on to praise the Tea Party protests against President Obama’s health-care law. We would think him mad for trying to interfere with our internal politics.

It’s possible to criticize and praise at the same time. Obama gave a decent speech in Poland last year, after Law and Justice (PiS) came to power and began its altering of state media and the courts. He slipped in a criticism of  PiS reforms, but only after he celebrated Poland’s quarter-century of freedom from Soviet domination, and praised it on the 225th anniversary of its written Constitution. He wrapped his expressed “concerns” about the impasse over its Constitutional Court, with paeans to American-Polish friendship, and promises of further cooperation.

Vox contends that Trump’s speech “resorted to the rhetorical conceit typically used by the European and American Alt-right.” I’m not so sure. Trump said that Polish and American troops are, in Afghanistan and Iraq, combating the enemies of all civilization. Is this some dramatic rhetorical turn toward the fringe right? Hardly. It’s anodyne. France’s former president, Francois Hollande, spoke about combating terror in precisely the same terms. “It cannot be said that we are engaged in a war of civilizations, for these assassins do not represent one.” Trump’s addition is in linking the defense against terror to the defense of borders, a primary concern of the current Polish government and theme of the Trump campaign.  

To invoke our countries common membership in “the West” is also a commonplace, and in Poland reads as a partial guarantee against domination from beyond the Urals. If Steve Bannon authored this speech it shows that even he isn’t yet beyond conservatism. The line, “Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory,” is about as orthodox and commonplace as conservative thought gets. The only thing I thought truly odd or funny about the speech was the section in which thrice-married Donald Trump had to speak about the strength of families as the strength of the nation. 

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