It’s anyone’s guess whether the latest round of Russia revelations will flame out or bring the administration toppling to the ground. But either way, the drama is only one act in an ongoing cycle of outrages involving Trump and Russia that will, one way or another, come to an end. That is not true of the controversy over the President’s remarks in Warsaw last week, which exposed a crucial contest over ideas that will continue to influence our politics until long after this administration has left office. And the responses from Trump’s liberal critics were revealing — and dangerous.
The speech — a call to arms for a Western civilization ostensibly menaced by decadence and bloat from within and hostile powers from without — was received across the center-left as a thinly veiled apologia for white nationalism. “Trump did everything but cite Pepe the Frog,” tweeted the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart. “Trump’s speech in Poland sounded like an alt-right manifesto,” read a Vox headline. According the New Republic’s Jeet Heer, Trump’s “alt-right speech” “redefined the West in nativist terms.”
Thus, the intelligentsia is now flirting with an intellectually indefensible linguistic coup: Characterizing any appeal to the coherence or distinctiveness of Western civilization as evidence of white nationalist sympathies. Such a shift, if accepted, would so expand the scope of the term “alt-right” that it would lose its meaning. Its genuinely ugly ideas would continue to fester, but we would lose the rhetorical tools to identify and repudiate them as distinct from legitimate admiration for the Western tradition. To use a favorite term of the resistance, the alt-right would become normalized.
There is no shortage of fair criticism of Trump’s speech: For example, that he shouldn’t have delivered it in Poland because of Warsaw’s recent authoritarian tilt; that his criticism of Russia should have been more pointed; or that he would have better served America’s interests by sounding a more Wilsonian tone when it came to promoting democracy around the world. And, yes, Trump has proven himself a clever manipulator of white identity politics during his short political career, so it is understandable that critics would scrutinize his remarks for any hint of bigotry. But by identifying Western civilization itself with white nationalism, the center-left is unwittingly empowering its enemies and imperiling its values.
How did progressive intellectuals get themselves into this mess? The confusion comes in part from loose language: in particular, a conflation of “liberalism” and “the West.” Liberalism is an ideology — defined by, among other things, freedom of religion, the rule of law, private property, popular sovereignty and equal dignity of all people. The West is the geographically delimited area where those values were first realized on a large scale during and after the European Enlightenment.
So to appeal to “the West” in highlighting the importance of liberal values, as Trump did, is not to suggest that those values are the exclusive property of whites or Christians. Rather, it is to accurately recognize that the seeds of these values were forged in the context of the West’s wars, religions and classical inheritances hundreds of years ago. Since then, they have spread far beyond their geographic place of birth and have won tremendous prestige across the world.
What is at stake now is whether Americans will surrender the idea of “the West” to liberalism’s enemies on the alt-right — that is, whether we will allow people who deny the equal citizenship of women and minorities and Jews to lay claim to the legacy of Western civilization. This would amount to a major and potentially suicidal concession, because the alt-right — not in the opportunistically watered-down sense of “immigration skeptic,” or “social conservative,” but in the sense of genuine white male political supremacism — is anti-Western. It is hostile to the once-radical ideals of pluralism and self-governance and individual rights that were developed during the Western Enlightenment and its offshoots. It represents an attack on, not a defense of, of the West’s greatest achievements.
As any alt-rightist will be quick to point out, many Enlightenment philosophers were racist by current standards. (Have you even read what Voltaire said about the Jews?) But this is a non-sequitur: The Enlightenment is today remembered and celebrated not for the flaws of its principals but for laying the intellectual foundations that have allowed today’s conception of liberalism to develop and prosper.
As Dimitri Halikias pointed out on Twitter, there is a strange convergence between the extreme left and the extreme right when it comes to understanding the Western political tradition. The campus left (hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go) rejects Western Civilization because it is racist. The alt-right, meanwhile, accepts Western civilization only insofar as it is racist — they fashion themselves defenders of “the West,” but reject the ideas of equality and human dignity that are the West’s principal achievements. But both, crucially, deny the connection between the West and the liberal tradition.
To critics, one of the most offending lines in Trump’s speech was his remark that “the fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” Trump clearly intended this to refer to the threat from Islamic extremism — and, presumably, the politically correct liberals who he believes are enabling it. But there is another threat to the West’s survival in the form of a far-right politics that would replace liberalism and the rule of law with tribalism and white ethnic patronage.
The best defense we have against this threat is the Western liberal tradition. But by trying to turn the “West” into a slur, Trump’s critics are disarming. Perhaps the president’s dire warning wasn’t so exaggerated, after all.