Features, Foreign Policy, Russia

Trump’s Warsaw Speech: Defending the West or Defending Illiberalism?

The reaction to Donald Trump’s first major speech in Europe reminds me of the old Jewish joke in which two men ask a rabbi to resolve a dispute. After listening to the first one, the rabbi says, “You’re absolutely right!” Then the second man makes his case, and the rabbi replies, “Yes, you’re quite right!” The rabbi’s wife chimes in: “That makes no sense—how can they both be right?” The rabbi ponders her words and says, “You know what? You’re right, too!”

Responses to Trump’s Thursday speech in Warsaw, Poland, which focused on the need to preserve and defend Western civilization and its values, have been sharply polarized along partisan lines. On the liberal side, Sarah Wildman in Vox, Peter Beinart and James Fallows in The Atlantic, and Jeet Heer in The New Republic have argued that it was at best an appeal to tribalism and at worst practically an alt-right manifesto, full of dog-whistles for white nationalists. Conservatives, even Trump’s harshest critics such as Jonah Goldberg, David French, and William Kristol, have mostly praised the speech; National Review editor Richard Lowry called it “a triumph.” Many have also mocked what they see as the left’s bizarre and hysterical response. The Federalist’s David Harsaniy even sees the outcry as proof that “equating Western civilization and values with fascism and racism, once relegated to the leftist fringe, is increasingly prevalent among liberals.”

To be sure, labeling Trump’s speech an alt-right screed is a fairly absurd exaggeration, and to spot coded allusions to Leni Riefenstahl because it mentions the word “will” five times and the word “triumph” once borders on paranoia. (The main speechwriter was Stephen Miller, the Trump adviser whom some have accused of having white nationalist ties—though it’s worth noting that Miller disputes the claim, and that he also happens to be Jewish.) Much of what Trump said could have been said by any other president, though probably with more eloquence and without cringeworthy asides like “That’s trouble. That’s tough” as a comment on Poland’s 1939 invasion by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It had some very strong passages emphasizing Western and NATO solidarity and celebrating the Polish—and human—battle for freedom.

But I can also see why parts of the speech—especially in the overall context of Trump’s visit to Poland—would set off alarm bells for liberals who are not extreme or anti-Western. And while it’s true that rejection of American and Western culture as fundamentally oppressive and racist has been a creeping sickness in progressive circles, the liberal critiques of the Warsaw speech—some of which contrasted Trump’s rhetoric to Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill” vision of America as “a moral beacon for the world”—cannot be reduced to hatred of Western civilization.

No, of course it’s not racist or white nationalist to celebrate Western civilization, or recognize the Western—European and North American—roots of liberal democracy. Trump’s ode to the West and the “priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization” mostly deserves the plaudits, despite being a little heavy on faith (“works of art that honor God” describes a fairly small portion of Western art after 16th Century). This part of the Warsaw speech is a fine summation of the things that make modern Western culture unique:

We pursue innovation. … We strive for excellence. … We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. We empower women… And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves. And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are.

While Beinart and other critics charge that “Western” is code for “white and Christian,” Lowry retorts, “This is bizarre, given that countries everywhere can ‘Westernize,’ or adopt the norms and practices that were first adopted in the West and are uniquely suited to human flourishing.” And he’s right.

But here’s the problem. Trump’s speech was markedly bereft of any references to Western (or Western-born) values as a universal good: Not one mention of freedom-seeking aspirations in non-Western countries, and only one brief positive mention of immigrants “who share our values.” Indeed, fellow National Review writer French hails the speech precisely for “rejection of universalism,” which he sees as a harmful fiction embraced by earlier leaders from both parties—notably Barack Obama and George W. Bush—and responsible for disastrous foreign policy blunders, from Iraq to the “Arab Spring.”

French has a point; assuming that oppressed people everywhere will eagerly embrace liberty and tolerance if given a chance is at best naïve. (For the record, I questioned such optimism back in 2005 in a review of Nathan Sharansky’s democracy-building manifesto, The Case for Freedom). But to reject universalism altogether is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It means dismissing the very real impact of Western, and American, values across countries and cultures; one could even argue that it means rejecting a core part of those values. And it leaves us with openly amoral realpolitik as our only foreign policy guide. A vision of America and the West as the world’s moral beacon may be too idealistic, but what does Trumpism offer? A “clash of civilizations” in which the West dominates because it’s the strongest?

It is also true that, as French points out, one cannot defend liberal values without making it clear that their source—Western civilization—is worth defending. But this is where we get to the passages in Trump’s speech that probably caused the biggest backlash:

Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. 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. … If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.

The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?

There is little doubt that Trump was referring to immigration and the refugee problem, while speaking in a country whose leaders have steadfastly resisted European Union pressure to take in refugees. The benign interpretation is that he was stating plain facts increasingly recognized by plenty of people who are not fascists, white nationalists, or even conservatives: That the recent influx of refugees, mostly from countries with a strong presence of Islamic radicalism, poses serious problems for security and stability in Europe. (It is also widely recognized that the political establishment’s failure to address these issues has spurred the rise of Trump-style populism.) The less benign interpretation is that he was pandering to a mentality that views all Third World immigration as invasion by dark hordes from the South leading to the destruction of European civilization.

The actual words of the speech are compatible with both readings—perhaps, as conservative commentator Jay Cobb suggests, intentionally as a way to appeal to different audiences. But one can acknowledge the problems facing Europe due both to the mass movement of refugees and to the more general difficulties of integrating Muslim immigrants, and still find Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric alarming. What does self-defense “at any cost” mean when it comes to addressing complex issues of cultural change, migration and domestic threats, rather than resisting military aggression like the Polish heroes Trump invoked as a parallel? Would deporting immigrants from demographic groups most likely to produce terrorists—or even native-born children of immigrants at high risk for radicalization—be an acceptable cost? What behavior by citizens would be qualify as subverting the national spirit and the will to self-defense, and how will such behavior be dealt with? Talk of collective will and internal subversion is generally associated with authoritarian populism, not liberal democracy.

Some see Trump’s support for illiberalism as a natural outcome of conservative views. In his commentary in Quillette, neo-realist foreign policy scholar Sumantra Maitra chides writer and political consultant Molly McKew for lamenting that Trump’s visit to Poland was a boon for “illiberal democracies”; Maitra notes that “if a democracy now needs to be a tool for spreading liberalism, conservatives are by definition, not democratic.” But ideological liberalism in the American sense is not the issue: liberal democracy is defined by individual rights and liberties and by checks on government powers that curb majority rule.

While Poland has a proud tradition of defending its freedom, there is broad agreement that it has been drifting in a disturbingly authoritarian direction—quite apart from its stance on immigration—under the stewardship of the populist Law and Justice party (PiS), which came to power in late 2015. Law and Justice passed legislation that hobbles Poland’s highest constitutional court and tightens government control over public television and radio, which account for a large share of the media market. (Interestingly, Law and Justice combines social conservatism with left-wing social policies, retreating from Poland’s post-communist free-market policies to promote a more generous welfare state.)

A controversy earlier this year over a Warsaw theater’s production of a play called The Curse, which lampoons the Catholic Church, illustrates these authoritarian trends. In February, Polish prosecutors launched an investigation under a blasphemy law that makes offenses to religious feeling punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. (There are also possible charges of incitement to the murder of Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski—because of joke about a law that treats any mention of assassinating a politician as incitement.) Meanwhile, an editor for the public TV channel Kultura was sacked for airing a report on the play.

Poland’s blasphemy laws—under which a pop singer was fined nearly $1,500 in 2012 for disparaging the Bible in an interview and an artist was sentenced to six months in jail in 2003 for an artwork in which a photo of male genitalia was displayed on a cross—are also a reminder of another problem with Trump’s speech: the clumsy attempt to stitch together Enlightenment values and religious conservatism. If we “debate everything” and “challenge everything,” doesn’t that undermine the “bonds of … faith and tradition”?

There was one other notable moment in Trump’s speech: his call for Russia to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes—including Syria and Iran.” This passage has been praised as evidence of Trump’s willingness to be tough with Vladimir Putin. But in his next breath, he invited Russia to “join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself,” with no other conditions such as lifting censorship or allowing free and fair elections. As McKew puts it:

This signal to Putin that there is a common “civilization” to which the U.S., European nations and Russia all belong—absent the usual rhetoric of democracy or shared Western values—is a critical gesture.

Between that and Trump’s attacks on the American news media during a joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump’s praise for “Western values” rings hollow.



  1. Anon says

    “…another problem with Trump’s speech: the clumsy attempt to stitch together Enlightenment values and religious conservatism. If we “debate everything” and “challenge everything,” doesn’t that undermine the “bonds of … faith and tradition”?”

    This is a tired argument often made by people who I can only assume have little understanding of the historical origins of their own “values”. There is no such thing as “Enlightenment values” in the abstract. Values are always and necessarily values *of* a people. It just happens that the civilizations of (mainly) England, France, and Germany hit upon some interesting ideas during an age when science and industry were in their infancy, and together all of these created the impression of a universal objectivity to which all of humanity could aspire.

    But all of this never was apart from the deeply Christian heritage of the Eureopean peoples where it took hold. Nor could it be; to think otherwise is to entirely misunderstand what values are and how they come to matter for human beings.

    Oh, we’ve told ourselves some very good stories, make no mistake about that. Since World War 2 we’ve managed to convince two or three generations that there’s a such thing as “uinversal values” and “moral obligations” and “human rights” that exist out there in the ether, and it’s just up to you to be a Good Enough Liberal and you, too, will discover this truth.

    Unfortunately this view of things has about as much substance as Plato’s Forms and (for the non-Christians) God’s *agape*. The first rule of liberalism is that if there are no liberal peoples, then there are no liberal values. Because we’ve mostly lost touch with the hows and whys of liberal thought, it’s become all but inconceiveable (literally, unthinkable) to contemporary liberals that there’s a non-abstract and wholly contingent connection between values and the people who live them.

    Failure to see this is part of the reason the Left, in both its insane identity-politicking form and its less-breathelss social democratic form, and those on the Right who see “difference blind” liberalism as viable, are heading us all off a cliff.

    But Trump says mean things, so…

    • I’m well aware of the Judeo-Christian roots of classical liberalism, actually. The paradox, however, is that classical liberalism does not come into its own until the power of religion is curbed. Enlightenment values and religious conservatism have at best an uneasy coexistence.

      • But the more republican members of the revolutionary generation, Adams, Jefferson and Franklin, consistently stated that the Constitution was suited only for a religious people.

        They held the same religious views as William Walwyn, Roger Williams, John Lilburn, Henry Martin, Henry Vane the Younger, Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and Thomas Rainborowe. Late in life, about the time he married Martha Rainborowe, John Winthrop came around to their way of thinking as well.

      • Anon says

        “The paradox”

        There is no paradox, unless you insist on repeating your mistaken assertion that there is such a thing as “classical liberalism” apart from the people (and their institutions) which actualize and instantiate it.

        This isn’t how these things work, unless you really think there’s an abstract realm of Ideas out there where “our universal values” exist.

        • Talk to a Taiwanese about China, see what happens. You are isolated from the consequences of your thoughts, that’s a bigger issue IMO.

      • Anon says

        Also I’m not sure where this “Judeo-Christian” rider comes from. Whatever part Judaism played in the development of liberalism is minimal at best.

        Most of the historical ideas under that label which are presently kicked around in the US have their origins in the Renaissance and the Reformation. It took specifically Christian thinking — thinking that understood itself historically, concerned with the peoples alive here and now, and not with abstract rules or higher forms of existence — in a particular people to make that jump.

        Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Hume, Mill and virtually any other influential figure you care to name in this tradition were not Jewish; they grew up as Christian men in a Christian civilization, and this is no accident.

        • Kazi Siddiqui says

          Actually, a lot of Enlightenment thinkers were deists. Not only were deists not orthodox Christians, they also saw much of value is Islamic civilization. In fact, recent conservatism in the West has moved closer to the opinions held by Islamic scholars of the time than Enlightenment thinkers. For example, Islamic scholars of the time opposed the Enlightenment doctrine of equality with the Islamic concept of qutub, i.e. pivots or great men.

          People who think freedom is necessarily a Christian or Protestant concept should look at… well, history. Here’s one event at random: What did Calvinists do when they gained power in the Netherlands? See for yourself: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/37659

          • ‘they also saw much of value is Islamic civilization’ I call BS on this one. Linda, is that you?

        • Kazi Siddiqui says

          It is because Christians were known for pulling shit like this THROUGHOUT HISTORY that Enlightenment thinkers pulled back from orthodox Christianity into deism. Besides, evolutionary arguments were unknown at the time, so believing in a hands-off creator was the rational belief at the time.

        • Kazi Siddiqui says

          What’s more, Christians CONTINUE to pull the same shit in underdeveloped places like Africa. Liberalism was created by deist philosophers as a solution to the wars between the Protestants and Catholics that had devastated Europe. If such devastation had occurred anywhere else, Europeans would be calling such people “barbarians”.

        • Kazi Siddiqui says

          Both English and French Enlightenment thinkers were mostly deists. Conservatives who love to hate the French (because they are insane, probably clinically) somehow always forget to mention that Voltaire was a monarchist. It’s mostly the ideas of the anti-rationalist populist Rousseau that led to the horrors of the Revolution.

        • Robert Bobson says

          “Also I’m not sure where this “Judeo-Christian” rider comes from. ”

          I think Cathy’s particular background may have a bit to do with her willingness to shoehorn Judaism as a guiding force in Western history 🙂

          A bit of a defensive measure for a people often under seige

      • That’s another way to put ‘thank God, Jesus Christ got whacked before he could write anything.’

      • Robert Bobson says

        What do you mean “Judeo-Christian’? unfamiliar with this term…

    • Truly, one does not have to rummage around for very long in the Clarke Papers, the Leveller tracts, Winthrop’s Journal and the doings in Parliament and the Bay Colony between 1628-60 before forming the opinion that the Anglo-American political enlightenment is nothing more than a restatement of revolutionary Presbyterian-Independent political thought leavened with just a bit of Erasmus and Epictetus and fine tuned just enough to suite the Grandees who ultimately prevailed in 1688.

      The American Revolution was fundamentally different from the French Revolution. Jefferson understood that and he exhibited none of the universalism implicit in the Declaration of Independence after he returned from France in 1789.

      Regarding Trump’s crude style, the people understand it and they like to hear him talk. That’s what makes him different and I think that’s what terrifies the elites most.

      • Kazi Siddiqui says

        None of this makes any sense to me.

        If liberal freedom is Independent Christianity, then why try to pull Russian into the orbit of “free” countries? Considering Russian Christianity is not Independent Christianity, why should Russia be more amenable to “freedom” than Arab nations?

        Also, I don’t agree that liberalism is particularly Judeo-Christian in its values. Arguably, liberalism reflects the values of the English nation, but Judeo-Christianity is mostly something that happened to be there at the time.

      • Kazi Siddiqui says

        For starters, the term “Judeo-Christianity” is problematic because Jewish values are practically identical to Islamic values. The differences between the two amount to things like Judaism valuing literacy more, Islam being evangelistic, and that’s about it.

        Christian values are slightly more Hellenic than Judeo-Islamic values, but Christianity is not that different from Islam. If you want to focus on the bad, then look at what the early Christians did to Hypatia, for example.

        Liberal values come from the traditional way of life of the Northern Germanic tribes rather than the Mediterranean peoples. That is the root cause of why French “liberalism” is different from Anglo-Scandinavian liberalism. The thing is that when the English were working out the principles of liberalism, it was not socially acceptable to be an atheist.

        • ‘Christianity is not that different from Islam.’ Islam is a pope with an army.

          unfortunately you are probably right, especially from an historical perspective about Islam’s inception.

          Hence the reason why it will become Europe ‘s main religion.

        • Kurt says

          Re: “For starters, the term “Judeo-Christianity” is problematic because Jewish values are practically identical to Islamic values.”

          Celberating death and suicidal murder, along with genocidal fantasies about pushing a whole civilization into the sea are Jewish values?

          • That would be the weaponized & universalistic version of Judaism. Note that the Quran clearly states that Islam is the last admissible flavor of Judaism.
            (Xiatinity was the 2nd one, just in case)

      • Kazi Siddiqui says

        Having said all that, I think all this newfangled emphasis on cultural holism is a wrong turn. Not only are cultures extremely complex, they are also mercurial and undergo sudden changes for what seem like trivial reasons. Basically, I’m a skeptic that the contemporary understanding of “culture” refers to something that exists in the real world.

  2. Kazi Siddiqui says

    If liberal values = Christian tradition, then why has Russia never been free under any government?

    • Those God damn brits went to war with the Russians all throughout the 19th century. Not exactly the best way to sell a product.

      And that’s probably why the Arab world says ‘thanks but no thanks’ as well. I don’t blame them.

  3. “Yes, you’re quite right!” 🙂

    But a very good post, a very balanced and equitable view on both Trump’s speech, and on the articles and essays of many others who have weighed in on it. And it was of significant value to emphasize that Poland, while having some claim to “a proud tradition of defending its freedom”, it is also prone to some of the same flaws if not cancers eating away at other countries that come in under the rubric of “Western civilization”.

    However, while it is encouraging that you, somewhat belatedly, recognize “the more general difficulties of integrating Muslim immigrants”, one might suggest that that is a bit too tepid, that not recognizing the existential danger of Islam itself is virtually tantamount to sitting idly by, fiddling while Rome burns, while Europe basically commits suicide – as Douglas Murray has been arguing lately [1] in various posts and in his recent book.

    More specifically, it has been pointed out [2] that Islam is predicated on a very different concept of society and human rights – a theocracy as opposed to a democracy. From that source (The UDHR and CDHRI: Their Ideals and Ours):

    It is one of the enduring myths of the great liberal delusion that all people aspire to the same values as the values of the Enlightenment. Our ideals, flowing from the Enlightenment, include universal Human Rights and equality for all. So firmly is this ideal built into our psyche that we measure our societal worth by our insistence on pursuing this ideal without exception (barring exceptions, of course). It should not be necessary to point out that these are my ideals, too. I may further add that I hold these ideals to be superior to anything else humanity has hitherto devised.

    It is, however, inescapable that Human Rights and equality for all are not ideals that all people share. What is more, significant sections of humanity are actively opposed to them. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the ideal of equality for all human beings are so strongly opposed by so many, that no fewer than 45 states signed the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), adopted in 1990, expressly to challenge the universality of the UDHR, and specifically its applicability to Muslims, and to instead safeguard the pre-mediaeval and inhuman Shari’a as the framework for human relations and interactions. It is neither a slight nor an insult to say that Muslims do not hold to the UDHR as an ideal, on the contrary, it is an affirmation.

    One might reasonably argue that, as Anthony Flew said in his review [3] of Ibn Warraq’s Why I’m Not A Muslim, “Islam is flatly incompatible with the establishment and maintenance of the equal individual rights and liberties of a liberal, democratic, secular state.” And if that is really the case – and current events and a virtually unending litany of Islamic terrorist acts and barbarisms provide ample evidence to justify that contention – then it seems remarkably short-sighted bordering on suicidal to be letting Muslim immigrants into Western countries or allowing Islam to get any type of a bridgehead therein, much less be able to prosper and grow.

    Trump’s speech may in fact be open to various interpretations, some of which may be more problematic than others. However, it is hard not to conclude that the basic principle behind it is a sound one, and that it should be developed further – particularly in the defense of Western civilization in contradistinction to, and in the face of, an Islamic one which is hardly deserving of the term.

    1) “_https://www.wsj.com/articles/europes-elites-seem-determined-to-commit-suicide-by-diversity-1497821665”;
    2) “_https://freethoughtblogs.com/anjuli/2017/04/01/the-udhr-and-the-cdhri-their-ideals-and-ours/”;
    3) “_https://web.archive.org/web/20160529034626/http://www.bharatvani.org/books/tfst/chiv3.htm”;

  4. Kazi Siddiqui says

    As I see it, “The Enlightenment” is the tradition to which humanity should aspire. According to that tradition, we should encourage humanity to aspire to it. This is not a novel idea. Christianity also seeks to convert humanity.

    • If someone came to me with ‘I’m going to make you happy’, I’d run in the opposite direction as well.
      Even more so if he added ‘resistance is futile ‘

  5. Kazi Siddiqui says

    I’m not particularly fond of Islam, but I don’t think the problem is as horrible as this comment section makes it appear.

    1. Islamic terrorism in the West is orders of magnitude rarer than the media makes it appear.

    2. Calling it “Islamic terrorism” obscures the fact that Muslim immigrants from non-Arab, non-Middle Eastern countries are rarely involved in violence.

    3. Atrocities are consistently denounced by Muslim authorities. For example, honor killings are regarded as particularly un-Islamic. Muslims constantly strive to eradicate it, but it is entrenched in societies that are regarded as “Islamic”.

    4. Western terrorists are consistently terrible Muslims. So much so that Western intelligence agencies regard being genuinely religious as an indication that an individual is not a terrorist. Western terrorists are drug addicts, rent boys, etc.

  6. Kazi Siddiqui says

    5. Middle Eastern terrorists are religious, but their terrorism follows the same pattern worldwide where we see that: Rich democracies reach low crime and low terrorism after a long, long time. Poor countries have crime, but no terrorism. Developing countries that emerge from poverty have very high terrorism. The West passed through this same phase, and it’s very difficult to overcome this hurdle. The people violently demand freedom, but more freedom can lead to more terrorism. Once started, terrorism becomes entrenched in society and can take a long, long time to overcome.

  7. Kazi Siddiqui says

    6. Barbarism is not a uniquely Islamic phenomenon. Look at how the West obtained its colonial empires. The Indian Empire was acquired by rogue actors with no supervision from the state. The empire was sustained by cruel acts of barbarism. Germany’s record is even worse than Britain’s. The West took centuries to finally get its act together. Who knows how long the Middle East might take.

    Once again: None of the above is intended as a defense of Islam, let alone barbarism.

    • Attaturk had a very different opinion, and for this reason made all immans illiterate overnight.

      The Enlightenment propagated all across Europe (with various success) but somehow never managed to get through the ottoman border.

      Greek philosophy (metaphysics) is illegal in Islam; if it were not for islam, the center of the world would be between Istanbul and Teheran.

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  10. Western Op says

    Trump offers A “clash of civilizations” in which the West thrives because it’s the best.

  11. Micha Elyi says

    “Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty.”–President Donald J. Trump

    With that remark, Trump included Russia out of “the nations of Europe”. Trump confirmed this in his very next sentence.

    Now you know why the Soviet-symps in the West are now answering the dog whistles of their Moscow masters by baying and snapping at the contents of Trump’s Warsaw speech.

  12. My impression is that the phrase you cite was was intended to support Poland, Hungary and the Slovak Republic in their ongoing disputes with the Eu and EC.

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