Before I address the text of Donald Trump’s speech yesterday in Poland, it’s worth pulling up two quotes from our two previous presidents. These quotes, I think, encapsulate the difference between the ideas Trump articulated yesterday and the core ideas of many of his liberal critics. First, let’s go with Barack Obama, in a speech to the British Parliament on May 25, 2011:
For both of our nations, living up to the ideals enshrined in [our] founding documents has always been a work in progress. The path has never been perfect. But through the struggles of slaves and immigrants, women and ethnic minorities, former colonies and persecuted religions, we have learned better than most that the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American or Western — it is universal, and it beats in every heart.
Next, let’s step into the wayback machine to George W. Bush’s first State of the Union address following the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom:
We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken and condescending to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government.
I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again.
These statements are remarkably similar, perfectly encapsulate a universalist view of human nature and human freedom, and are totally and completely wrong. Our previous presidents — and, indeed, much of the intellectual establishment left and right — have sold the American people a false bill of goods about human nature, their own history, and the role of culture in the inculcation of our civilizational values.
Trump, by contrast, located the values that other presidents have deemed universal squarely within a Western context, and he specifically rejected a universalism and moral equivalence, declaring that “there is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations.” He continued with a series of key questions:
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?
The response from thinkers on the left was swift and outraged. Sarah Wildman at Vox compared it to an “alt-right manifesto.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie was blunt. The speech was dog-whistle racism:
Imagine being a political writer in this moment and being utterly unable to identify clear white nationalist dogwhistles.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) July 7, 2017
Peter Beinart wrote a widely read piece at The Atlantic accusing Trump of voicing “racial and religious paranoia.” To Beinart, “the West is a racial and religious term,” and he called back — as I just did — to the universalism of presidents past:
Every president from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama emphasized the portability of America’s political and economic principles. The whole point was that democracy and capitalism were not uniquely “Western.” They were not the property of any particular religion or race but the universal aspiration of humankind.
But declaring that previous presidents disagreed does not make previous presidents right. They’ve been wrong. Dangerously wrong. And Trump’s “sin” here isn’t racism but rather calling out the false god of post–Cold War establishment utopianism. Ross Douthat is right. Trump’s speech wasn’t white nationalism, it was a rejection of universalism:
But it’s not white nationalism. It’s just … not. It’s a shift responsive to Bush and Obama-era dashings of universal-civilization hopes.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) July 7, 2017
The ideas that define and govern our nation come from a specific culture, and that culture comes from (and has defined) a specific place. The Founders were heirs to a specific intellectual and religious tradition — one that is both alien and superior to many competing cultures and faiths.
The fiction of the universalist Left and the universalist Right is the notion that the best human values, including that alleged “longing for freedom,” are somehow transcendent and universal. It’s one reason why so many otherwise- mart people fell head over heels for the Arab Spring. They thought the “longing for freedom” was emerging, as opposed to a will to power and a thirst for vengeance. Instead, the Arab Spring brought forth the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, ISIS in Syria, and a vicious war in Libya.
This universalism is a reason why both previous presidents made serious mistakes abroad. As I’ve written before, President Bush was idealistic about our alleged friends — believing they wanted liberty more than they wanted to settle old scores — and failed to adequately plan and prepare for the Iraq that would emerge after the American invasion. President Obama was idealistic about our enemies, believing that if you addressed their “legitimate grievances” against the U.S. and Israel, then the alleged universal values would have a chance to prevail against the forces of hate.
Yes the experience of immigrants (and a select few allied democracies across the globe) shows that men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation can embrace and build societies dedicated to constitutional governance and that also protect individual liberty. At the same time, millennia of human experience shows that entire societies and cultures have rejected those values and actively work to suppress human freedom. How do we deal with these twin realities?
Having read all the examples in Leaving Islam, about individuals brave enough to actually leave Islam, I would say the desire not to be enslaved by that totalitarian boot passing itself off as a religion, is pretty great, but nowhere near universal.
More people in Islam would hunt you down and kill you than would leave Islam.
It’s been said that s#!+ rolls downhill.
By having plenty of levels of control, Islam has plenty of places where individuals can hone their sadistic side….
They could be a charismatic jihadi imam, a jihadi team leader, a jiahdi, a jihadi bride, a jihadi mom, a jihadi oldest sibling even.
Or, they could just gather at the foot of the building where supposedly gay Muslims are thrown off.
Just like in North Korea, there are spies everywhere.
If you never show up for stuff like that, never talk up jihad, you could be the next supposedly gay guy they murder. Even if your heart longs for freedom how do your neighbors see you? As a loyal Muslim, they better see you.
That’s the problem.