Sometimes outwardly unrelated events in domestic and international politics come together in a way that suggests both are part of a single, bigger story. That was the impression I had last Friday morning as I sat reading US President Donald Trump’s speech in Warsaw.
I thought it a good speech, and in view of the obvious limitations of the man who pronounced it and the urgency of its subject, perhaps a great speech.
I understand the criticism it has received. In the words of The Atlantic’s David Frum, ‘the most troubling thing about the speech was the falsehood at its core; the problem is not with the speech, but with the speaker'. I would have preferred someone whose life more obviously reflected the virtues of family, patriotism, and Christian faith to serve as messenger of them. The triumphalism of the speech’s conclusion was consistent with Trump the reality TV star and property tycoon, but undercut the more important elements of his message. (‘We are the fastest and greatest community…The world has never known anything like our community of nations.’ These were more the boasts of the builders of the Tower of Babel than the prayers of the ‘Polish pope’, John-Paul II, whom Trump had earlier praised.)
In essence, Trump’s speech was a mythic telling of Polish national history, consciously held up as an ‘example for others who seek freedom and…wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization'.
Episodes from Poland’s past were drawn with considerable skill and artistry: its victory, after 120 years of partition (1793-1919), over a Bolshevik army (supervised by an ambitious Stalin) on the Vistula in 1920; double occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941; the crimes of Hitler’s Waffen-SS and Stalin’s NKVD; the Holocaust of Polish Jews; the Warsaw Uprising of 1944; Soviet occupation; and forty-year rule by the Polish Workers’ Party.
This part of the speech was informative, evocative and moving. Such careful engagement with another country’s history should earn an American president praise. It didn’t last week because, unlike his predecessor, Trump refused to separate the universal from the particular. At the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings in 2014, Obama declared D-Day ‘democracy’s beachhead’. Trump dared to remind us that what Poles died for was something altogether more particular: Poland, its land, its culture, its history, its Catholic faith.
The jolting dose of historical realism was refreshing. It is courting controversy to say it, but Trump deserves credit for daring to talk about two things that the West seems in denial about today.
Nationalism and Christianity are inseparable from the historical sources of a Western political settlement – viz. the liberal, democratic nation-state – that has expanded both the rights of active participation in the polis and access to the elements of material comfort in a way unprecedented in human history. That Trump even mentioning these things engendered such outrage shows how completely both are being driven from the public domain.
As RR Reno, editor of the mainly Catholic journal First Things, puts it, ‘political struggles over nations and nationalisms’ are ‘referenda on the West’s meta-politics over the last three generations’. This ‘meta-crisis’ he describes as a semi-conscious program of ‘disenchantment’: the discrediting of the inherited institutions of church, nation and family, the better to weaken ‘sacred’ loyalties to them in favour of rational-choice theory, mass consumption and individual emancipation/self-realisation. Rising populism is a reaction against this pallid technocratic centrism, he writes, and 'reflects a desire for a return of the strong gods to public life'.
That doesn’t make every manifestation of those ‘gods’ worthy of our embrace. But to write off Trump’s extended hymn to family, nation and the historical role of Christianity in Western civilisation as nothing more than a ‘dog whistle’ for white supremacists is to duck the question of what will sustain our institutions and lend meaning and coherence to our lives when they’re gone.
Probably the most moving passage in the speech was Trump’s description of the ‘million Poles gathered round Victory Square’ for an open-air mass during John-Paul II’s 1979 visit to Poland, his first since his election as pope. ‘When a million Polish men, women and children raised their voices in a single prayer’, said Trump, ‘Poles reasserted their identity as a nation devoted to God.’
‘Every communist in town’, he remarked, ‘must have known that their oppressive system would soon come crashing down'.
In contrast, a week before Trump’s speech Australian census data confirmed that the collapse of Australian Christianity has been nothing short of catastrophic. Slightly more than half of Australians describe themselves Christians. Almost a third say they possess ‘no religion’. The decline of Protestantism, which in the King James Bible and Anglican Book of Common Prayer gave the world’s English-speaking peoples a common language and world of metaphor, has been particularly striking.
We can only guess at the long-term effects of this shift. But as Paul Kelly observed in The Australian, there is a correlation between the collapse of public identification with Christianity and falling trust in the political, social and cultural institutions that once gave form and substance to our common lives as Australians: from parliament, to the political parties, police, courts, and press.
One of the other remarkable things about Trump’s speech was how heavy it was on history. ‘As long as we know our history’, said Trump, ‘we will know how to build our future...Our freedom, our civilisation, and our very survival depend on these bonds of history, culture and memory'. To those who, along with Edmund Burke, see in the nation a covenant between the dead, living and unborn, these are deeply-held conservative truths. But the spirit of the age is to think of history only as something to be deconstructed, tradition to be uprooted. Obama’s favoured put-down was that a person or idea was ‘on the wrong side of history’. The past thus became something oppressive, something not to honour but to flee.
Trump said in Warsaw that we ‘celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs’. He’s wrong. From Oxford to New Orleans, the contemporary impulse is not to erect monuments to our forebears but to tear them down. With certain few exceptions (Anzac Day comes to mind), we find little to venerate in our past. Our ancestors, it seems, shame us. Perhaps the mere effort of remembering them weighs us down with a duty we’d prefer not to shoulder.
The problem is that an identity capable of encouraging us to think politically about the future requires an approach to history that allows us to see ourselves as the beneficiaries of a specific national past, not just victims or liberators of its hidden oppressions and hegemonies.
Trump's summons to ‘defend’ our civilisation was the hardest part for his critics to swallow. To do that, you first have to believe it is under threat. To The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, the suggestion was nothing but ‘racial and religious paranoia’. Yet the more active a political community we wish to inhabit, the greater the degree of trust and cultural cohesion we need. If the national form is what makes politics possible, it’s the nation’s foundation in deeper ‘civilisational soil’ – the holistic ‘worldview’ of life and death provided by religion – that gives those politics coherence, orienting them around a consensus about the nature of the good and praiseworthy.
As French philosopher Pierre Manent has argued, the main challenge presented by Islam comes not from its historical identity as a rival and antagonist to ‘Christendom’. Rather, it derives from the way the issue of attitudes towards Muslim migration has come to operate as an unspoken test of the public’s commitment to the new, post-national and post-(Judeo-)Christian self-understanding its liberal technocratic managers have fashioned for it.
Those who decide what we have the right to say and do do not engage Islam as a social reality. It is not considered in itself. Instead, 'Islam' becomes a test of our post-political resolve. It must be accepted without either reservation or question in order to verify that Europe is indeed empty of any national or religious substance that might get in the way of human universality. The refusal to treat Islam as a social or, more generally, a human reality therefore has nothing to do with Islam but instead with Europe’s self-image.
To cite such an observation is, I realise, is to go out on a limb. On the other hand, issues of social solidarity and how it is generated must arise in a multicultural society that no longer posits a single unifying culture, ethnicity or creed. As we celebrate ‘diversity’, the possibility of discerning the common good – even its status as the goal of the political process – fades from view.
In this sense, Trump’s praise for ‘the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilisation’ seems to be a proper conservative recognition that an unbridled goal of ‘liberation’ (whether of the market from society or of the individual from politics) can only go so far. As social, political and spiritual animals (as well as economic and [post-]biological ones), human beings suffer without the bonds to bind them to each other.
This isn’t just about psychic consolation. As Georgetown professor Anatol Lieven has argued in The National Interest, those alarmed by the return of nationalism overlook its essential role in generating the sense of shared destiny and loyalty that allowed Western nations to bridge the conflict between labour and capital precipitated by industrialisation. Today, a similar conflict is upon us. In meeting the challenges posed by the rise of Asia, de-industrialisation, automation and climate change, Western societies need resources that can generate similar levels of solidarity.
According to David Goodhart (author of The Road to Somewhere), a solid quarter of Western citizens resent the limiting carapace of ‘arbitrary’ and ‘unjust’ (if not ‘racist’) national borders. But looked at differently, attitudes towards nationalism are a test of the ambitions we have for our democracy. Athens did not exist in unbounded space; in becoming a universal empire, Rome ceased to be a republic. In the most visible way possible, a nation’s borders tell us who we owe a duty to; a civilisation (Greco-Roman, Christian, Islamic, etc.) informs us of the content of that duty. Politics in the Aristotelian sense, both as a rational, deliberative practice among friends and as an endeavour to implement a collectively-agreed vision of the Good, is impossible without both.
In the uproar over Trump’s speech, is it the borders and civilisations that are resented, or the political duties they imply?
Photo courtesy of the White House.