By any conventional standard of rhetorical criticism, President Trump’s speech in Poland was a great success — even a triumph or smash hit. It received a genuinely enthusiastic reception from its audience of Polish political notables. That’s not a small matter; a cheering crowd influences how people watching and listening from afar will respond to a speech. It was a well-structured argument and therefore easy to follow, and a well-written speech and therefore pleasant to listen to. It was made even more listenable by the president’s own speaking style, which, when he is self-disciplined, combines sticking mainly to the script with occasional ad-libs that soften its written formality along the lines of “That’s terrific” or “Isn’t she great?” Considered as a vehicle for policy points, it addressed all the questions that a serious audience in and outside of Poland would want answered, in the main satisfactorily, and it soothed the principal anxieties — would he endorse NATO’s Article Five? — left over from his previous European visit. But it was never dull, formulaic, pedestrian, or “more of the same.” In fact it said new things. It tackled familiar problems with arguments that were somewhat novel and effectively pushed the conventional wisdom of NATO and Europe in Trump’s direction. And it contained no outrages — at least none has yet exploded.
In the main the speech got the good coverage it deserved. Some reporters were puzzled by it — why was he talking about God and bureaucracy? How were they relevant to modern life? — but they guessed he would be forced to deal with more pressing “real” problems such as climate change when he reached the G20 summit in Hamburg. In addition, though, there was a strong hostile reaction to it from some writers on the Left, such as Peter Beinart in The Atlantic and Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post — hostile but also odd and revealing. It would have been possible, after all, for such critics to respond to the speech by smiling indulgently and pointing out that the president had finally done what they had been urging for months: namely, endorsing Article Five and criticizing Russia. My sense is that the critics have exaggerated these points in the past, but they would have had at least a good debating argument. Instead, they went off the deep end in the opposite direction. They fussed and fumed about the racist, chauvinist, exclusionary, and other vicious implications of the terms “the West” and “Western civilization” and accused Trump of directing NATO and Europe into another “world” of “walls” and Huntingtonian opposites that no longer exists and that would be undesirable if it did.
Mostly this is nonsense, and in its extreme formulation — that Trump’s speech amounts to an alt-right version of history — it’s nonsense on stilts. Give these critics the credit, however, of seeing that Trump was attempting in some way to shift alliance politics in his direction. What was he doing?
As Peggy Noonan has noted in the Wall Street Journal, he was explicitly riding on the coat-tails of John Paul II’s great pilgrimage to Communist Poland in 1979, when the pope told the crowds “Be Not Afraid” and they responded “We want God.” It was this pilgrimage that, via a series of religious sermons that inevitably had political implications in an officially atheist society, revealed to the Polish people that they were united in their faith and patriotism against the small coterie of Communist apparatchiks ruling them. In the rest of a speech soaked in Polish history, Trump celebrated the courage and fortitude that had enabled the Poles to survive a long history of invasion, occupation, persecution, and at times abolition. Naturally the Poles, who have a deep consciousness of this history, which they fear outsiders know little about, responded enthusiastically to this admiration. It was the kind of speech that would arouse any and all Poles, not merely sympathizers with the present conservative Law and Justice government. Having established that Poland’s Catholic patriotism had preserved the nation through past perils, therefore, Trump went on to outline the present threats to Poland’s future. These were Islamist terrorism and Russian adventurism, not surprisingly, but also two more intriguing threats: the creeping bureaucracy that saps a nation’s energies, and the lack of moral and civilizational self-confidence in the West — a lack of self-confidence that was all the more mysterious because it was unjustified by the actual record of the West’s cultural and moral achievements.
Most Western reporters couldn’t quite see what all this weird stuff meant — apart from the minority of insightful leftists who instinctively hated it. But it would have been broadly clear to the Polish audience in Warsaw and the countryside. The bureaucracy is the kind of government that Brussels is gradually imposing on the continent with a plethora of regulations both economic and moral that obstruct growth at least as much as encouraging it; and the lack of civilizational self-confidence is illustrated by the various ways in which Brussels, Merkel’s Germany, and most other Western European governments are responding with feeble ineffectiveness to the migration crisis, the terrorism crisis, and the Euro crisis. There is a crisis of faith in today’s Europe, but it isn’t the crisis of religious faith or national sovereignty that most commentators discern. It’s a crisis of faith in European governance, and it’s prompted by the fact that Brussels is neither delivering the goods nor allowing national governments to do so. Trump was telling them that they would do better to depend upon their own fellow citizens, their own religious traditions, and their own economic energies in dealing with most of life’s problems.
But he pointedly excluded NATO from this criticism of utopian post-national politics — NATO being an intergovernmental alliance that manages the practical matter of the common defense by sovereign nation-states (provided the nation-states pay for it, as he noted, with heavy significance, Poland does). Similarly his celebration of Western civilization recognized that NATO and individual Western nations were rooted in a broad Western cultural fellowship — much as the Truman administration established a Congress for Cultural Freedom to accompany and support the foundation of NATO in the late 1940s. Celebrating the West also served as a rebuke to the European Union’s downplaying of Europe’s specific cultures and their achievements in the interests of a vapid multiculturalism that might make non-Western migrants feel more welcome or at least less distinct. (A leader of the German Green party recently suggested that Germans should in future be known as Non-Migrants. The voters are unlikely to agree.)
Taken together, Trump’s various themes imply a looser, less centralized, and less uniform system of Western-alliance unity. NATO would be largely unaffected, even strengthened, but the EU would have to hand back powers and regulations to national capitals. That would be unappealing to Brussels and most Western European political leaders, who happily foresee a future of greater federalism. But it would enjoy support in all European countries (hence the recent rise of “populism”) and probably modest majority support in Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries for some time to come. Which tendencies are likely to prevail? Post-Brexit Europe will shortly be examining its options; we’ll see what happens.
Taken together, Trump’s various themes imply a looser, less centralized, and less uniform system of Western-alliance unity.
One can see that the Trumpian vision of the West is not what the American Left might ideally want. It’s not multicultural, it’s not post-national, it’s not post-democratic, and it’s not secularist, let alone post-religious. That’s a lot of bad things not to be against. But the vehemence of the criticisms of “the West” and “Western civilization” as racist and religiously exclusionary is overheated, and the claim itself is both false and rooted in an ethnic essentialism that treats culture as something transmitted genetically.
To begin with, what follow are the statements of successive presidents who use both terms to describe the civilization of which the U.S. is a part. They could be multiplied many times:
Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far-reaching to the West as well as to the East. Harry S. Truman, the Declaration of the Truman Doctrine, 1947
The Risorgimento which gave birth to modern Italy, like the Amerrican Revolution that led to the birth of country, was the reawakening of the most deeply held ideals of Western civilization: the desire for freedom, the protection of the rights of the individual. John F. Kennedy, March 1961
I look forward to my visit to France, and to my discussion with a great Captain of the Western World, President de Gaulle, as a meeting of particular significance, permitting the kind of close and ranging consultation that will strengthen both our countries and serve the common purposes of world-wide peace and liberty. John F. Kennedy, Address to a Joint Session of Congress, May 1961
The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain Communism, it will transcend Communism. Ronald Reagan, commencement address at Notre Dame, 1982
Some years ago, an Australian prime minister, John Gorton, said, “I wonder if anybody ever thought what the situation for the comparatively small nations in the world would be if there were not in existence the United States, if there were not this giant country prepared to make so many sacrifices.” This is the noble and rich heritage rooted in great civil ideas of the West, and it is yours. Ronald Reagan, in the same speech.
Notice that Ronald Reagan did not say that the great civil ideas of the West were the property of those Notre Dame graduates who were descended from the Founding Fathers and their generation. Nor did he say that they were the property of white Anglophone Protestants who had fetched up on these shores in the meantime — since that would have excluded the son of an Irish Catholic father like himself. Nor that the children of black slaves or other non-white migrants were excluded from that same moral and intellectual Western inheritance which the black former slave and passionate reader, Frederick Douglass, so cherished and claimed as his own.
On what grounds, then, are non-white native-born Americans excluded from this civilizational heritage, if not on the grounds that you have to be white (even, strictly speaking, an Anglo-Protestant) in order to participate fully in it? Leave aside voluntary individual decisions to embrace a different civilizational identity, which occur rarely. The only obvious basis for collective exclusion is ethnic essentialism: the belief that culture is indissolubly attached to race, ethnicity, or religion and transmitted by genetic inheritance. This would be a false, absurd, and indeed racist idea even if Western “civilization” were the closed and haughty system that some of its critics seem to think. In fact, however, as Samuel Huntington (accused in this debate of building walls to separate cultures) actually argues in his Who Are We?, American culture begins as an Anglo-Protestant one, firmly in the Anglophone wing of Western civilization, but gradually absorbs the cultural influences of the civilizations from which new immigrants arrive, so that over time it becomes a richer and more complex mix without losing its original character. His metaphor was that of a tomato soup that gradually becomes a spicy gazpacho.
We absorb innumerable cultural insights along with the people who bring them in their luggage.
Eugene Robinson misses this point, it seems to me, when he argues that it makes little sense for Trump to argue that Western civilization should stand proud in the world, since it constantly borrows words, ideas, and cultural traditions from elsewhere. On the borrowing he is entirely correct: The British and American wings of Western civilization are particularly flagrant cases of magpie culture. But that is what distinguishes them from other cultures and civilizations that have a more purist and protectionist approach to the preservation of their own cultural practices and identity. We absorb innumerable cultural insights along with the people who bring them in their luggage, and they become part of us along with the more obvious traditional influences, which the newcomers themselves absorb in their own cultural DNA. Recently, for instance, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was absorbed by radical political theater in a way that, as yet, Japanese Noh theatre is still too strange for. Jazz performances were by far the most popular programs in the Cold War broadcasts that VOA and Radio Liberty addressed to Russians, who were otherwise steeped in their own musical and literary classics. And — my personal favorite — some years ago a black gospel rap singer came up with the great line: “I’m gonna zap that Satan with my King James Uzi.”
All of which signifies that American culture and the Western civilization of which it is manifestly a part are the opposite of exclusionary and racist. They are absorbent and racially open. Polish and East European cultures have different cultural mixes from the U.S., reflecting different national tastes and experiences, but their experimental theater and our new jazz idioms cross the Atlantic with surprising speed — though perhaps our political intellectuals are a little more parochial.
And all of which, in turn, fatally undermines the argument that to celebrate Western Civ is to promote white nationalism or racial exclusivity in light disguise. Such rhetoric, however, does have a serious political impact. It tells all those Americans who have always thought of America as a “Western” country that they are suspected of racist sympathies by the more progressive elements of academia, the media, and the Democratic party. It divides progressives from those who are culturally and historically literate without being necessarily conservative — the audiences for NPR and Masterpiece Theatre, for instance. It puts them on the opposite side from all the nation’s presidents, including those cited above, who saw America not only as part of the West but, like Reagan and John Gorton, as the power that most strongly represented the highest ideals of Western civilization. That’s quite a lot to sacrifice politically.
If they are to carry through this program of creating a non-Western (and potentially an anti-Western) America to a logical conclusion, however, they will have to come up with a name for those Americans who currently see themselves as part of America’s traditional Western civilizational identity.
How about Non-Migrants?