This must be what’s called an “irony of history.” Donald J. Trump, leading offender of Western civilization, just tried to pass himself off as its leading defender?
In his recent speech in Warsaw, Poland, the president served up a bookend to his inaugural address, the one describing “American carnage.” Outlining the glories of Western civilization ― “we write symphonies” ― he cast those glories as under siege: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” Then, in defense of that civilization, this supremely uncivilized man went full Churchillian, about which, more later.
With history coursing onward at dizzying speed ― due in no small part to Trump the anarchic disrupter - -the commentariat, lacking time and perspective, was relatively quiet about Trump’s astonishing claim. And now we’re deep into another Trumpian media frenzy, this one about the president’s son, Donald, Jr., and his alleged ties to the Russian government ― the same government our intelligence community says tried to disrupt our last election ― so the focus again is on collusion, possible treason or impeachment, not Western civilization.
But any lover of the humanities and Western civilization cannot let the moment pass. Donald Trump cannot ever be normalized as Western civilization’s defender. In his Warsaw speech, the hypocrisies, the offenses, began immediately.
Early on, Trump invoked the Polish people’s joy when, after communism fell, they were free to celebrate mass with their Polish pope, John Paul II, saying with one voice, “We want God.” Casting himself as one of them, Trump declared, “As I stand here today … their message is as true today as ever. The people of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out, ‘We want God.’” This, from the un-godliest man in Christendom.
Then, after extolling a strong Europe as a “blessing to the West and to the world” (when has our crude president used the word “blessing” before?), Trump extolled “the transatlantic bond between the United States and Europe,” claiming it to be stronger than ever. This would be the bond Trump assailed in his campaign, calling NATO “obsolete,” whose Article 5, the mutual defense commitment, he coyly refused to endorse in his previous visit to Europe but coyly endorsed, in passing, in this visit.
Further on, Trump cited the glories of Western civilization, its symphonies among them. We “cherish inspiring works of art that honor God”: again the God reference from this un-godly man. (It must be noted Western art also honors the human being.) “We treasure the rule of law”: This, from the man who welshed on business deals and now has lawyered up to counter investigations into the Russia allegations. Warming to his theme, Trump then said we in the West “treasure the right to free speech and free expression”: This, from the man who’s declared the press “the enemy of the American people” and assails news critical of him as “fake news.”
Warming further to his themes of truth and freedom, Trump then voiced this howler: “We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success.” How did our Groper-in-Chief manage not to smirk?
(Little noted by the media, after Trump spoke of women empowered, he went on to say, “We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.” This certainly sounds like the Western spirit of inquiry, but coming from this man who’s a complete stranger to himself? Sad.)
As hypocritical, even sacrilegious, as anything Trump uttered in Warsaw was this:
Trump delivered his speech in Krasinski Square, a sacred place memorializing the valiant members of the Warsaw Uprising (also here) in their doomed efforts to throw off their Nazi occupiers in World War II. “Those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense, and that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.” Pretty words, and blasphemous, from a man who ducked military service and who, during his campaign, scorned a genuine war hero, Sen. John McCain, saying he likes heroes who “weren’t captured.”
Its glories notwithstanding, all is not well in the West. As Trump said in Warsaw, the West, especially Europe, is under siege from “dire threats to our security and to our way of life” ― principally, in his view, “radical Islamic terrorism.” He declared: “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?”
Going full Churchillian, Trump concluded: “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.”
But: Trump’s definition of civilization is narrow and dark, the antithesis of the humanist definition of Western Civilization, as it’s properly understood―-which Trump doesn’t.
Martin Luther’s Reformation created space for the practice of religions other than Roman Catholicism ― but Trump would prioritize Christianity. Concluding the Thirty Years’ War with the first peace conference, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) established the system of sovereign nation states enduring to this day―-which Trump seems determined to upend with his disdain for treaties and alliances, his allergy to peace, his preference for walls over bridges, his approval of torture. The Enlightenment extolled and normalized scientific inquiry and reason―-but Trump disdains science, having pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord because he deems climate change a “hoax” and having installed a rabidly anti-science administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency. As for reason, it is to laugh. As for the beauties of Renaissance painting, sculpture, and architecture, Trump remains untouched.
Strangely, tellingly, nowhere in his speech did Trump cite Western Civilization’s crowning triumphs ― democracy and human rights. Instead, Trump stresses religion, tradition, and, as we know by now from his dog-whistle appeals, white rights.
Of course Western Civilization has its black marks ― for one, exercising dominance without proper regard for less powerful states (e.g., colonialism); in other words, it hasn’t always played well with others. Western Civilization has had its breakdowns, most recently and egregiously, World War I and II. And, at present, it is under siege from various forces ― globalization and sagging economies, weakening democratic institutions, creeping decadence and cynicism, loss of faith, and, yes, radical Islamic terrorism and the droves of refugees its depredations have disgorged into Europe.
But Western Civilization, and civilization in general, is also under siege from another force: base leaders posing as saviors, like Trump, who manipulate their public’s fear and unease for their own autocratic, and ultimately uncivilized, ends. It is the habit of autocrats to wrap themselves in civilization’s trappings, the better to hide their malfeasance. Purporting to be a defender of Western Civilization, as Trump did in Warsaw, is classic.
Finally, it must be said: The very notion of “civilized,” whether in the West or anywhere else in the world, carries with it the universally-recognized qualities of honesty, decency, honorableness, trustworthiness, tolerance, empathy, ethical consciousness, simple kindness, and, importantly, the ability to play well with others ― none of which qualities our base president possesses.
Taking heart, let us remember that the Renaissance ― rebirth ― arose out of the Dark Ages. Employing the qualities of character and the habits of mind gifted us by Western Civilization, let us work toward our rebirth.
For the transcript of Trump’s Warsaw speech, see here, and for the video, see here. For related commentary, see here, here, here, here, and here.
Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death,” which include “Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks” and “Kate and Kafka,” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”