It’s a strange day when praising the Warsaw uprising, the Solidarity movement, and Pope John Paul II makes you a neo-Nazi, but that day is, apparently, today, following President Trump’s speech to an assemblage of dignitaries, alongside a cheering crowd, in Poland, on his way to the G20 summit.
When it comes to that elevated oratory associated with the dignity of the Oval Office, Donald Trump has often shown himself neither gifted nor inclined. Thursday’s speech was different. He praised the strength of spirit of the Polish nation, recalling its triumphs over invaders from both east and west during the 20th century. He celebrated Copernicus and Chopin. He noted the long friendship between the United States and Poland, beginning with the Polish soldiers who fought alongside colonial troops in America’s war for independence. “Let us all fight like the Poles,” he concluded: “for family, for freedom, for country, and for God.”
This, to a writer at Vox, was rhetoric ripped from the manifestos of the “alt-right.” To Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, the speech trafficked in “racial and religious paranoia,” and ultimately constituted little more than a dog-whistle: “In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred ten times to ‘the West’ and five times to ‘our civilization.’ His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means.” Other writers and pundits parroted these lines.
On the whole the president’s detractors have offered little more than an elaborate exercise in question-begging: Because Donald Trump is a bigot, what he said must be bigoted, even if they cannot find any clear example in the subject at hand. More sophisticated critics have observed that Trump’s invocation of “the West” is discontinuous with his recent predecessors: Barack Obama and George W. Bush used that terminology less frequently, preferring instead the language of “universal values.” But context is important. Bush very often was speaking to the Middle East in behalf of his freedom agenda. Trump understandably and appropriately spoke in a different key in his speech in Saudi Arabia than he did yesterday in Warsaw. Regardless, we’ve reached a very weird pass if our civilization and all its glories are effectively considered the property of Pepe the Frog.
In a more reasonable time, Trump’s speech would have been uncontroversial. The values to which “the West,” traditionally understood, has committed itself may be inscribed on the human heart, but it’s also a plain fact that the commitments Trump defended in his speech — to “the dignity of every human life,” the elevation of women “as pillars of our society,” the defense of “the rights of every person” — grew up in a particular part of the world and not in others, and that certain parts of the world are dedicated to defending those things and others are not. Taken too far, a defense of particularity can become a defense of atavistic modes of thinking. But it’s also simply true that the conditions for genuine liberty have been most successfully protected by those societies whose inheritance is in the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian tradition.
That inheritance is under threat. ISIS, to take the most obvious example, is not interested in “the dignity of every human life.” If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi & Co. had their way with France and the United Kingdom and the United States, the core commitments that have defined those countries and made them destinations for people across the world fleeing tyranny and oppression would be destroyed. This scenario is not some bogeyman that right-wingers have fabricated to gin up support for tighter immigration policies and more defense spending; this is what the people who are part of ISIS — and al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, and the government in Tehran — say. Another, albeit less dire, threat is posed by the destabilizing wave of migrants and refugees that Europe is accepting, and which should make the EU reconsider its casual distaste for borders.
When President Trump declared in his speech that “we must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the south or the east, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that make us who we are,” he was only stating a truth demonstrated throughout history: Societies that don’t want to survive won’t. And that would be a particular calamity in Europe and the Anglosphere, because it is there that the conditions of ordered liberty have been most spectacularly achieved, and that achievement is fragile. Securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity did not happen naturally or spontaneously, and it is not guaranteed, except by an unflagging commitment to maintaining them — if necessary, by force of arms.
This is not about race. It is one of the obvious achievements of Western civilization that its values and norms aren’t limited to its core countries, but have spread throughout the world, and wherever they have taken hold have contributed to the advance of human liberty and welfare.
All of this is apparently forgotten, though, when Donald Trump is involved. That the president’s critics would jettison altogether the foundations of their own liberty for dislike of him would seem to make the speech’s central question — namely, “whether the West has the will to survive” — all the more important.