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In a speech in Warsaw, Poland yesterday, U.S. President Donald Trump powerfully asserted an unabashed belief in Western (indeed, Christian) values and expressed a traditional American sense of optimism and determination in promising to defend those values and the people who hold them:
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 speech demonstrates a rather surprising mastery of rhetoric, using a visit to a foreign nation to emphasize the commonalities of the two nations’ struggle for liberty while continually directing a strong defense of American values to the audience at home in the United States. In addition to his usual pithy, simple wording, Trump includes some longer sentences, less-familiar words, and more complex thoughts than U.S. audiences are accustomed to hearing from him.
Trump begins his speech by praising the Polish people and mentioning the Three Seas Initiative and other contemporary efforts to keep Poland safe from invasion and ensure access to sufficient energy to fuel economic growth. Trump then turns to the true theme of his speech: what really makes a nation, a question particularly relevant to the United States today:
[W]hile Poland could be invaded and occupied, and its borders even erased from the map, it could never be erased from history or from your hearts. In those dark days, you have lost your land but you never lost your pride.
The strength of a nation, Trump argues, is in the devotion of its people to it, and in particular to its traditional common values. In Poland, those foundations are largely religious and ethnic, as the president acknowledged, and in the United States those foundations are religious and ethical, in particular a devotion to John Locke’s conception of natural law.
Trump speaks at length—and with rather surprising eloquence—of Poland’s proud history, including the Polish people’s having “endured evils beyond description” after the Nazi invasion that prompted World War II only to only to rise up “amid that hell on Earth” in 1944 to defend their homeland in the Polish Uprising. The president’s unembarrassed endorsement of national pride received loud applause and chants of assent from the Polish crowd, and it was clearly also meant to speak to Trump’s countrymen at home.
Speaking of Poland’s decades of resistance against occupation by the Soviet Union, Trump characterizes the nation’s religious unity as of critical importance, discussing the 1979 gathering in Victory Square when a million Poles gathered for a mass held by a Polish pope, John Paul II, and “a million Polish men, women, and children suddenly raised their voices in a single prayer. A million Polish people did not ask for wealth. They did not ask for privilege. Instead, one million Poles sang three simple words: ‘We Want God.’” Trump affirms that sentiment and offers it as a universal truth: “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.’”
Earlier in the speech, Trump mentioned the current need to defend civilization from outside forces bent on exploiting and enjoying Western accomplishments while working for the destruction of that civilization, and he offered Poland as an example of persistence in the defense of both one’s homeland and its values:
And so I am here today not just to visit an old ally, but to hold it up as an example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization. (Applause.) 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.
The implication that there are people in the United States and other European nations who have “forgotten who they are” is quite clear. This is in fact the central contrast that Trump clearly wants to make: between those who love their nation and Western civilization, and those who would gladly see these structures “fundamentally transformed,” as Barack Obama phrased it
The former do not deny that their nations and the West have always been imperfect, but they accept the idea that the world of human affairs will never be perfect and it is the aspiration toward universality of liberty and equal (blind) justice that make for greatness. The latter, by contrast, seek perfection in human institutions and openly denigrate Western civilization because reality perpetually fails to meet their lofty standards, especially when these people have political power and implement their perfectionist schemes.
The consequences of those “progressive” political schemes are economic stagnation, cultural deterioration, and vulnerability to invasion, Trump says, in another formulation that will be familiar to American audiences:
[O]n both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted by yet another danger—one firmly within our control. This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles: the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people. The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.
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.
The only solution, Trump argues, is for the people to return to the values on which their nation is based:
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? (Applause.)
We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive. (Applause.) If anyone forgets the critical importance of these things, let them come to one country that never has. Let them come to Poland. (Applause.) And let them come here, to Warsaw, and learn the story of the Warsaw Uprising.
In response to those who might “forget the critical importance of these things,” Trump outlines some of the accomplishments of Western civilization, stressing that the Western heritage is something to be cherished and defended, not an object of shame:
We are the fastest and the greatest community. There is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations.
We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.
We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. (Applause.)
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 we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves (Applause.)
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. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.
To those in the West and elsewhere who claim their nations have not fully manifested these values and that these accomplishments are not unique, Trump has this to say:
What we have, what we inherited from our—and you know this better than anybody, and you see it today with this incredible group of people—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.
Failure is certainly an option, however, as the experience of the twenty-first century has surely taught us. That failure of will in the United States is in fact what led to Trump’s presidency: the people have been increasingly disappointed in their leaders across all or nearly all of the nation’s institutions, and they called for real change in electing a newcomer to politics as their president. Tying his populist domestic politics to a strong defense of the nation and of Western civilization, Trump’s speech endorses that call for change by emphasizing that the people of the West hold their destiny in their own hands:
This great community of nations has something else in common: In every one of them, it is the people, not the powerful, who have always formed the foundation of freedom and the cornerstone of our defense. The people have been that foundation here in Poland—as they were right here in Warsaw—and they were the foundation from the very, very beginning in America.
Our citizens did not win freedom together, did not survive horrors together, did not face down evil together, only to lose our freedom to a lack of pride and confidence in our values. We did not and we will not. We will never back down. (Applause.)
Referring to Polish heroes of World War II, Trump once again emphasizes that the great honor is in defense of one’s homeland as opposed to ventures abroad, and that the real war is for the very existence of Western civilization, ending with the words quoted at the beginning of this article:
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—(applause)—and that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.
Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield—it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls. Today, the ties that unite our civilization are no less vital, and demand no less defense, than that bare shred of land on which the hope of Poland once totally rested. Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory.
And today as ever, Poland is in our heart, and its people are in that fight. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.)
It’s an extraordinary speech. What is most interesting of all is that it strikes us as unusual for an American president openly to defend Western civilization from its detractors both within and outside. Instead of an apology tour or a crusade to bring democracy to nations where it has no chance of surviving, Trump goes to another nation and praises the heroism of the common people in defending their homeland and fighting to retain their religion, language, and traditional institutions. In so doing, he clearly endorses such endeavors for his own nation.
In observing that the strength of a nation is in the character of its people, Trump is telling his own country just where we have gone wrong and how we can get right again: “So, together, let us all fight like the Poles—for family, for freedom, for country, and for God.” Yes, let’s.