In his Warsaw speech on Thursday, Donald Trump threw down the gauntlet on the meaning and essence of Western Civilization, and it fell at the feet of two writers for The Atlantic—Peter Beinart and James Fallows. They avidly took it up, and in the process distilled a fundamental debate of our time. Of course, Beinart and Fallows don’t see it as a legitimate debate, and they want to snuff it out. But it will continue to roil politics in America and Europe, much to the consternation of media elite figures such as these two writers.
The debate centers on whether American values, however they may be defined, are a legacy of the Western heritage or whether America is “an idea,” as Fallows puts it, that transcends any concept of civilization or the people who created it. Indeed, in the Beinart-Fallows view, merely an overly abundant mention of “the West”’ or “our civilization” constitutes a kind of white nationalism or tribalism.
Trump, as Beinart is anxious to let us know, referred 10 times to “the West’” in his speech and five times to “our civilization.” What business does a U.S. president have in a foreign land, he wonders, tying American values to the civilizational heritage that is also the American heritage? Fallows assaults Trump for giving a speech “that minimized the role of ideals in American identity, and maximized the importance of what he called ‘civilization’ but which boils down to ties of ethnicity and blood.”
Fallows calls Trump’s speech a “shocking departure,” while Beinart, responding to Trump’s question of whether the West has the will to survive, saw that as “perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime.”
So what was it precisely that stirred these men to recoil in shock in essentially the same way? First, they both score the president for what Fallows called a “seeming indifference to the American idea,” with only “grace note nods to goals of liberty and free expression.” Beinart complains that Trump, unlike George W. Bush, didn’t sufficiently extol the universality of American values or the imperative of promoting them throughout the world as a way of increasing U.S. security. Fallows adds that previous presidents, when speaking on foreign soil, emphasized “an expanded ‘us.’”
In surveying the underlying debate here, we begin with a brief summary of the Trump speech, which The Wall Street Journal called a “determined and affirmative defense of the Western tradition.” The president began by extolling the indomitable spirit of the Polish people, seen repeatedly throughout a history that included multiple and long periods of existential adversity. “The triumph of the Polish spirit over centuries of hardship,” declared the president, “gives us all hope for a future in which good conquers evil, and peace achieves victory over war.” The president portrayed the Polish story as an inspiration.
And he made glancing references to what he seems to consider an essential element of that inspiring story—a sense of identity. “You are a people,” he said, “who know the true value of what you defend.” At another point, he said, “The story of Poland is the story of a people who have never lost hope, who have never been broken, and who have never, ever forgotten who they are.”
Trump then pivoted to a celebration of postwar Europe as “a strong alliance of free nations in the West that defied tyranny.” Now, he said, we have “a Europe that is strong, whole, and free”—and no longer threatened by the specter of communism.
But it does face “another oppressive ideology,” the rise of Islamist radicalism bent on killing Westerners and undermining their fundamental societal institutions. These people “use hatred to justify violence against the innocent” and thus must be kept out of the West. He added: “While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind.”
Trump then identified two other threats to the West—first, “the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people”; and second, “powers that seek to test our will, undermine our confidence, and challenge our interests”—a veiled reference to Russia. The president elaborated:
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. (Applause) If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.
Then Trump unleashed a peroration clearly designed to nettle the likes of Messrs. Beinart and Fallows. He extolled “our community of nations” made up of people who “celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers….cherish inspiring works of art that honor God….value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.” And this heritage, he declared, is central to both our identity as a civilization and to our survival. We must, therefore, know and appreciate our history in order to protect our future. “What…we’ve inherited from our ancestors has never existed to this extent before. And if we fail to preserve it, it will never, ever exist again. So we cannot fail.”
Now let’s parse the critiques of Beinart and Fallows as representative globalist nostrums and reactions that are, at their foundation, anti-Western. Beinart is, by all the evidence, an educated man, but the sophistry he descends to in his effort to define the West is something to behold. He notes with patronizing cleverness that Poland, France and Australia are east of, respectively, Morocco, Haiti and Egypt, and yet Morocco, Haiti and Egypt are not considered part of the West. Imagine that!
So “the West,” as he says, is not a geographic term. Neither, he continues, is it an ideological or economic term, since India is a democracy and Japan is economically advanced, and yet neither is part of the West. But it is, he avers, a racial and religious term, encompassing people who are “largely Christian…and largely white.” There is, however, a tension between these two characteristics, reflected in ambiguities in the Western heritage of, say, Latin America (not clearly white) or Albania (not Christian).
What’s missing is any recognition of—or certainly any manifest appreciation for—the fundamental elements of the Western heritage: the theology of Christianity; Western artistic painting, employing light and shadow to burst throughs space and time; the soaring Baroque music; the Gothic cathedrals with their relentless drive toward space; the penetrating sense of tragedy in literature; the regard for the individual, for freedom, for carefully crafted government, free expression, and free markets.
It’s difficult to discern what point Beinart is trying to make with his insipid and puny effort to define the West, unless it is to deny any definitional essence of Western civilization at all. For from there he goes on to a curious effort to discredit Trump’s philosophical mentor, Steve Bannon, by quoting a 2014 Bannon reference to “the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam.” He notes Bannon’s expressed respect for “our forefathers” who “bequeathed to us the great institution that is the church of the West.” Beinart lets this little expose hang in his prose in apparent confidence that he has just delivered a mighty blow.
But the long struggle between the West and Islam is undeniable, recognized by scholars far more accomplished than Bannon—or Beinart. The late Samuel Huntington of Harvard, hardly an alt-right provocateur, once wrote, “Some Westerners…have argued that the West does not have problems with Islam but only with violent Islamist extremists. Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise.” And what is so wrong with respecting “our forefathers” who developed and nurtured Western Christianity over a couple millennia? Just because Beinart can’t muster any apparent respect for that civilizational accomplishment doesn’t mean that those who do are somehow beyond the pale.
But Beinart is most mystifying in heralding George W. Bush as exemplar of rhetorical rectitude when it comes to speaking in foreign lands. When he first visited Poland as president in 2001, says Beinart, Bush never uttered the term “the West.” True, he notes, the president did say “We share a civilization.” But in his next sentence he declared, “Its values are universal.” Then, to Beinart’s delight, Bush unfurled his cherished litany of good works called forward by the universality of those civilizational values—bringing peace and health to Africa, an expansive freedom project sure to generate widespread global prosperity, protection of the environment, lifting “the quality of life for all.”
Two years later Bush returned to elaborate, this time eschewing not only the term “the West” but even “civilization.” Again, he unleashed a message of global do-goodism, with America and Europe joining hands to spread prosperity and purpose throughout the world, to “spread freedom and alleviate suffering…and protect the health of the world’s people.”
Adds Beinart: “Bush’s vision echoed Francis Fukuyama’s.”
Wow. Fukuyama’s famous essay—heralding the West’s looming Cold War victory as the culmination of mankind’s civic development, “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”—hit the Western consciousness nearly 30 years ago. And one wonders what kind of evidence Beinart needs to grasp just how hairbrained it was and remains. Does the disaster of the Iraq war not do it? The utter destabilization of the Middle East? The angers generated throughout Islam at the West’s efforts to remake their societies along the lines of Bush’s and Fukuyama’s vision? The sad trajectory of the so-called Arab Spring? The legacy of the effort to improve life for Libyans by deposing and killing their leader? The rise of China as a major power proud of its distinctively non-Western system of government and commerce?
Beinart writes that, given America’s diversity, Trump’s celebration of the country’s Western heritage puts him in the position of “defining America in opposition to some of its own people.” The president’s view of the West, adds Beinart, represents “racial and religious paranoia.” But why is this the case? For decades America welcomed immigrants who, it was presumed, would embrace America’s heritage along with its material and political gifts. Theodore Roosevelt and many other revered American leaders of the past demanded this reciprocity in the starkest of language. It was only recently that commentators such as Beinart and Fallows attacked the Western heritage as an impediment to new arrivals being who they want to be, retaining their own cultural sensibilities and impulses while diminishing America’s through numbers and defiance.
Fallows’s article contains many of the same points as Beinart’s, but he truly reveals himself in savaging Trump’s suggestion that the West must muster “the will to survive.” Aha! Fallows clearly thinks he has nailed it here. This, he informs us, was a not-too-subtle reference to Leni Reifenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. Fallows speculates that Trump’s speechwriters (including Bannon) certainly knew of Riefenstahl and probably understood “how it would sound, in a Europe that also remembers connotations of national ‘will,’ to have an American president say this.”
Is it really still necessary, some 80 years later, to forswear any use of the word “will” in discussing politics or geopolitics because of this German film? And, if someone uses the term, is that prima facie evidence of fascistic tendencies?
Trump used the term mostly to extol the Polish spirit as reflected in the Poles’ will to conquer adversity, to resist conquest and occupation, to survive in the face of overwhelming struggle. These are inspiring passages, and it would have been a shame to excise the word simply because some literary slyboots would use it to cast aspersions of latent Nazism.
But, true, Trump also used it in discussing the future challenges facing America and the West, and therein lies the political animosities and angers he unleashed. There are elements within the West bent on destroying any civilizational consciousness because they don’t consider their civilization to be particularly hallowed. And of course we see this polemical assault on the American and Western heritage every day. In fact, on our campuses it is going beyond polemics to social intimidation and, increasingly, even violence.
Many Americans, perhaps most, hate to see their national and civilizational heritage coming under attack, with those who speak up in its behalf running the risk of being labeled Nazis or racists. They don’t understand why they can’t talk about America as part of the West, with its distinctive attributes and accomplishments and legacy, like their grandparents did and those who came before. And because of the calumny it unleashes when they speak up, many of them keep quiet about it; but many of them also quietly voted for Donald Trump last November in part because of this societal cleavage.
Essentially, it is about the definition of America, and definitional issues are very difficult to adjudicate. This matter, reflected in the Trump speech and the inevitable reaction from commentators such as Beinart and Fallows, lies at the heart of the country’s current deadlock crisis. It isn’t going away anytime soon.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century , is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.