Last week before the G20 summit in Hamburg, President Trump gave a speech in Poland that seemingly recast American ideals, and our role in the world. Trump’s Stephen Miller/Steve Bannon-fed Weltanschauung eschews the optimism and idealism of democracy and liberty in favor of something more exclusionary, authoritarian, and sinister. Trumpism isn’t so much about freedom, but about a “West” where hatred and fear fuel an epic clash of civilizations, which can only be won through sheer force of will.
ISIS, al Qaeda, and other jihadist terrorist organizations themselves couldn’t have written a better third act. This is exactly what they want.
James Fallows writes in the Atlantic, comparing past Presidents’ rhetoric with Trump’s. Reagan, Carter, Bush, and Obama all spoke of the idea – and ideals – of America, and how the postwar expansion of pluralist democracy throughout western Europe united us as people who aspire – almost as one – to liberty and equality. If you look at the world wars that laid waste to Europe’s humanity and property twice in the first half of the last century, America and her ideals came in to help rebuild the countries that wanted it, and to protect them from the competing ideology of expansionist Stalinist oppression.
America is an immigrant nation. We aren’t brought together by blood, race, ethnicity, or religion, but by the law and ideas. Europe is different. Generally speaking, European national boundaries are – more or less – drawn around an ethnicity, with nationality intertwined with statehood. The history of multiethnic European states is about hereditary monarchy, oppression, ownership, and submission. The notion of national self-determination was popularized after WWI, although not applied with care. Since at least the end of the cold war, however, Czechs, Croats, Serbs, and Slovaks have their own nation-states. Albanians live in Albania and Kosovo. The French live in France. The Portuguese live in Portugal. The Norwegians live in Norway. The Italians live in Italy. These states aren’t just political constructs, but have their own shared language, ethnicity, and – in many cases – religion. Some have monarchs, but all have pluralist democracies of one sort or another.
Historians believe that the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy is due, in part, to the fact that those countries were late to unite under one flag. Germany only united its various principalities and city-states to become a nation-state in the mid-19th century. Italy followed a similar timeline. The idea of being “Italian” or “German” was relatively new in the 1920s and 30s, so totalitarian ultra-nationalism became a popular and viable choice, especially as a reaction to the rise of the Soviet Union.
America is a nation united by our laws and ideals. We pledge allegiance to a flag – not a person. Our elected officials pledge to uphold the Constitution, not to do the will of some potentate. Anyone can be an American, regardless of their nationality.
As Fallows writes,
When John F. Kennedy gave his celebrated remarks in Berlin a few months before his death, he presented both the United States and free West Berlin as proud illustrations of a larger idea: “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’” (You can read the text of the speech, and see a video of its still-remarkable five-minute entirety, here.)
Nearly 25 years later, when Ronald Reagan went to the Berlin Wall, he gave a speech that became famous for its rhetorical plea, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But the surrounding tone was like Kennedy’s.
There’s been a change since January.
But the major departure in Trump’s speech was its seeming indifference to the American idea. At least when speaking to the world, American presidents have emphasized an expanded “us.” All men are created equal. Every man is a German. Ich bin ein Berliner. Our realities in America have always been flawed, but our idea is in principle limitless. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Trump gave grace-note nods to goals of liberty and free expression. Mainly, though, he spoke not about an expanded us but instead about us and them. He spoke repeatedly about our “heritage,” our “blood,” our “civilization,” our “ancestors” and “families,” our “will” and “way of life.” Every one of these of course has perfectly noble connotations. But combined and in practice, they amount to the way the Japanese nationalists of the early 20th century onward spoke, about the purity of “we Japanese” and the need to stick together as a tribe. They were the way Mussolini spoke, glorifying the Roman heritage—but again in a tribal sense, to elevate 20th-century Italians as a group, rather than in John F. Kennedy’s allusion to a system of rules that could include outsiders as civis romanus as well. They are the way French nationalists supporting Marine LePen speak now, and Nigel Farage’s pro-Brexit forces in the U.K., and “alt-right” activists in the United States, and of course the Breitbart empire under presidential counselor Steve Bannon. They rest on basic distinctions between us and them as peoples—that is, as tribes—rather than as the contending ideas and systems that presidents from our first to our 44th had emphasized.
Here is the theme of Trumpism, from his speech in Warsaw:
We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have.
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?
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.
This clash of civilizations isn’t about freedom vs. totalitarianism or liberty vs. communism. It’s about the triumph of the will against the savages. This is Bannon’s and Miller’s America – what they see as the last bastion of white Judeo-Christian – but mostly Christian – people against the atheist socialist libtards and the brown Muslim people who would destroy it. It’s not even nationalism so much as it is tribalism.
Whatever best distracts from, e.g., ripping health coverage away from 22 million Americans, I guess.
Poland is, indeed, one of America’s closest European allies. A member of NATO and the European Union, Poland sees America as a bulwark against the constant threat from the east. It was America that supported the Solidarity trade union against Soviet-compelled martial law. It was America that helped Poland’s transition from failed communist planned economy and one-party totalitarianism to regulated free markets and pluralist democracy.
In recent years, however, Poland has been governed by a right-wing nationalist party that doesn’t necessarily abide the freedoms that come along with the American ideal. The press has been harassed and suppressed, and the “Law and Justice Party” is emblematic of the backlash against liberalism that has popped up in Europe since the 2008 global financial meltdown. Trumpism reflects what the Poles and Hungarians will abide, but the French recently rejected.
What hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Israeli press, for instance, is Trump’s historic refusal to visit Warsaw’s memorial to the Ghetto Uprising. Polish Jewish leaders specifically condemned this as a “slight”.
…ever since the fall of Communism in 1989, all U.S. presidents and vice presidents visiting Warsaw had made a point of visiting” that site, representing Americans “who had played such a central role in bringing down Fascism,” at a “universal commemoration of the victims of the Shoah, and condemnation of its perpetrators.”
Ivanka went, and placed a wreath at the memorial, but her father didn’t. The “Law and Justice” party thereby scored a win, according to Politico.
The Law and Justice party has been highlighting the role of the Poles who fought against Nazi Germany while downplaying the persecution of 3 million Polish Jews who perished in the Holocaust. After all, if you believe in blood and soil, and you call for the will to triumph against the savages, you have to keep up appearances.
In the days following this re-configuration of “Western” ideals, Trump held a pathetic love-in with murderous dictator Vladimir Putin in Hamburg, and the news came of the first concrete evidence of possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia in 2016, or at least a willingness to collude.
On June 9, 2016, Donald Trump, Jr. met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-linked lawyer, who promised harmful intel on the Clinton campaign. He attended that meeting at the urging of a mutual friend, alongside campaign chief Paul Manafort and his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner. The meeting, according to Trump, Jr., soon turned to issues surrounding adoption and the Magnitsky Act. After the Act was enacted, Russia blocked all American adoptions of Russian orphans. You can read more about what the Magnitsky Act was, and what it was a reaction to, here.
What can be easily inferred from Trump, Jr.’s own releases is that the meeting at Trump Tower on June 9th was to set up the parameters of a quid-pro-quo whereby Russia would provide anti-Clinton intel to Trump (or Wikileaks) in exchange for a reversal of the Magnitsky Act. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, later on June 9th that Trump first Tweeted about Hillary Clinton’s “33,000 emails”. After all, the email he received to set up the meeting specifically informed him that it was part of a Russian government effort to help his father; he took the meeting. Trump, Jr. has since lawyered up, retaining a guy who specializes in defending a different kind of don.
The first page of the Steele Dossier – dated June 20, 2016 – which contains raw intelligence concerning alleged ties between Trump and the Russian regime reads,
[Trump] and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.”
Richard Painter, who served as an ethics counsel for George W. Bush, says that this is all getting very close to treason,
This was an effort to get opposition research on an opponent in an American political campaign from the Russians, who were known to be engaged in spying inside the United States…If this story is true, we’d have one of them if not both of them in custody by now, and we’d be asking them a lot of questions…This is unacceptable. This borders on treason, if it is not itself treason.
It bears mentioning that when someone leaked Bush’s debate prep materials to the Gore campaign, Gore’s debate advisor called the FBI. By contrast, when a Kremlin lawyer offered negative intel on the Clinton campaign to Donald Trump’s campaign, Trump’s people took the meeting and kept it secret until very recently.
Day by day, it grows clearer that the Trumps are more Bluth than Gotti.
All of this raises a serious question: what does Trump think the West stands for, exactly? Which values & civilization is he talking about? How does his dalliance with Putin advance either one?