President Trump gave a stirring defense of western civilization on Thursday morning in Warsaw ahead of the G-20 summit in Germany. In a remarkably candid speech about the threats facing the West, Trump praised Poland for resisting communist and Nazi efforts “to demolish freedom, your faith, your laws, your history, your identity—indeed the very essence of your culture and your humanity.”
Speaking at Krasinski Square in front of the iconic Warsaw Uprising monument marking Poland’s 1944 resistance to Nazi occupation, Trump proclaimed, somewhat dramatically, “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.”
The world hasn’t heard such language from a U.S. president since Ronald Reagan inveighed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But apparently it’s racist and fascist these days to talk about resisting tyranny and defending western values—or even to talk about western civilization as such. The Guardian worried about Trump’s use of the word “civilization,” noting that he used it ten times, and claiming the speech “pits western world against barbarians at the gates” and calls for “a clash of civilisations.”
Vox blurted out the headline, “Trump’s speech in Poland sounded like an alt-right manifesto,” calling it “a speech that often resorted to rhetorical conceits typically used by the European and American alt-right. It sounded, at times, not just like the populists of the present but the populists of the past.” The New Republic’s Jeet Heer tweeted that Trump’s speech, “is evidence of how alt right still has a voice in White House” and later posted a commentary saying it “redefined the West in nativist terms.”
Even The Atlantic’s James Fallows compared Trump’s rhetoric to the Nazi propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will,” saying Trump “represents our country as just another tribe.”
JFK Also Praised Poland’s History and Culture
These reactions belie a worldview that rejects entirely the very idea of “western civilization,” and insists that appeals to Enlightenment principles and cultural cohesion are inherently racist and fascist. And there’s a reason for that. As my colleague David Harsanyi noted, “many of the same people who believe Western values are alt-right dog-whistles want you to adopt a new set of values that have nothing to do with the founding principles and everything to do with their policy preferences.”
Trump was espousing what used to be considered a fairly standard understanding of western values. “We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression,” he said. “We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives… 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.”
Progressives today reject almost all of this—not because Trump is invoking the rhetoric of the alt-right, but because they have moved so far to the left. In fact, far from echoing the blood-and-soil language of the alt-right, Trump’s rhetoric here sounds a lot like the rhetoric deployed in speeches about Poland by Reagan or John F. Kennedy during the Cold War.
Back then, Poland was under communist control, its government a puppet of the Soviet Union and its people prisoners of a tyrannical regime. In a 1960 speech to the Polish-American Congress, then-senator Kennedy recalled his time in Poland in 1939, and Poland’s history fighting the Nazis during World War Two: “After the war, I visited the Polish cemetery in Italy. Some of you who have been there may recall that at the cemetery are written the words, ‘These Polish soldiers for your freedom and theirs have given their bodies to the soil of Italy, their hearts to Poland, and their souls to God.’”
He went on to address the oppression of Poland by the Soviet Union, saying, “we must never… recognize the Soviet domination of eastern Europe as permanent. We must never do it. Poland’s claim to independence and liberty is not based on sentiment or politics. It is rooted in history, and it is to history that we must address ourselves.”
Kennedy called not only for a defensive military buildup so that the Russians would know “that the route of military force can no longer be open to them,” but also for increasing cultural ties to Poland, saying the United States must “strive to restore the traditional identification which Poland has had with the Western European community, which goes back into history. It is tied by culture ties. Poland has always looked to the West, never to the East.” The Polish people, he said, “have not accepted the idea that their culture, their religious heritage, their traditions, can be destroyed by domination by a foreign power.”
Reagan Invoked God, Heritage, and History
Two decades later, Poland was still under communist rule, its government still a puppet of the Soviet Union, but things had begun to change. When Reagan took office in 1981, the Solidarity movement in Poland was building steam. Led by future Polish president Lech Wałęsa and supported by members of the Catholic Church and the anti-Soviet left, Solidarity organized as a free trade union in opposition to communist rule.
By the end of 1981, Poland’s authoritarian government would declare martial law in an effort to crush Solidarity. Reagan gave a speech on December 23 addressing the situation, and praised the Polish people for showing their resistance by placing lit candles in their windows. He said the exiled former Polish ambassador, Romuald Spasowski, had requested that on Christmas Eve a lighted candle burn in the White House window as a “small but certain beacon of our solidarity with the Polish people,” and urged all Americans to do the same that Christmas Eve, invoking God, heritage, and history:
Once, earlier in this century, an evil influence threatened that the lights were going out all over the world. Let the light of millions of candles in American homes give notice that the light of freedom is not going to be extinguished. We are blessed with a freedom and abundance denied to so many. Let those candles remind us that these blessings bring with them a solid obligation, an obligation to the God who guides us, an obligation to the heritage of liberty and dignity handed down to us by our forefathers and an obligation to the children of the world, whose future will be shaped by the way we live our lives today.
Six months later, in his famous Westminster speech to members of the British Parliament, Reagan cast the Soviet Union in the same stark terms that Trump today reserves for ISIS and North Korea. He warned of “totalitarian forces in the world who seek subversion and conflict around the globe to further their barbarous assault on the human spirit. What, then, is our course? Must civilization perish in a hail of fiery atoms? Must freedom wither in a quiet, deadening accommodation with totalitarian evil?”
Reagan’s answer was an emphatic “no.” He again spoke of about Poland’s role in western civilization and its cultural lineage, saying, “Poland is at the center of European civilization. It has contributed mightily to that civilization. It is doing so today by being magnificently unreconciled to oppression.”
He closed that speech with language that would surely scandalize the progressives at Vox and The New Republic, calling the contest against totalitarianism “a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation. For the sake of peace and justice, let us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny.”
Europe’s Political Elites Are a Threat to The West
Trump’s Warsaw speech should be understood in this historical context. The president rightly sees the contest between radical Islamic terrorism and the West as a contest between totalitarianism and freedom. He also rightly sees the growing tension between the European Union and the citizenry of European nations as a contest between authoritarian bureaucracy and representative, limited government. His remarks Thursday were aimed at ISIS, but also at a European elite that doesn’t have the inclination or will to defend its borders or cultural heritage.
That’s why Trump said: “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?”
Trump isn’t just referring to ISIS when he alludes to those who would destroy western civilization. He’s also pointing to European political elites who undermine their own societies by cultural relativism and its resulting slavish and destructive adherence to open borders and mass migration.
Reagan and JFK understood that communism sought ultimately to destroy western civilization and replace it with something else. That’s why they often spoke of civilization and cultural heritage during the Cold War. Trump is saying something similar about the political elites who now rule Europe, and he’s not wrong. That mainstream media outlets like Vox and The Atlantic are scandalized by this is evidence not of Trump’s radicalism, but of their own.