Certainly, there is an argument for the president’s invocation of Western civilization. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues at American universities, I sympathize with the concern that contemporary educational norms pass too lightly over the accomplishments of America and the West in favor of a fashionable multiculturalism. Indeed I have joked after reading multiple issues of its flagship journal that the American Studies Association should be renamed the anti-American Studies Association since it sees America largely through its sins against minority groups.
The president, though, has a staggering hypocrisy problem in rooting his foreign policy in the Western values and the survival of the West.
First, if the West is a coherent entity under siege one would think that maintaining its unity was a paramount value. Yet Trump has consciously driven the largest wedges in generations between the United States and its continental European allies.
Second, if the West stands for anything it is values of freedom, democracy and human rights. American presidents differ in the emphasis they put on promotion of these values vs. supporting states whose security interests align with ours. From Russia, to Turkey to Saudi Arabia, to the decision to stand proudly with the current Polish government, Trump has shown more fondness for autocrats and less regard for human rights than any president since the beginning of the 20th century.
Third, much of what has defined the West have been the values of the Enlightenment. Important among those values has been the idea that there are truths that are rooted in and can be ascertained through empirical observation. Trump has instead taken the view that truth is a social construction of the powerful. Whether it was crowd sizes at his inauguration, scientific nonsense on vaccines or climate change, or brazen lies about his past actions, the president has rejected the idea of empirically verifiable truth. This, too, is the opposite of upholding Western values.
If there is any silver lining in the president’s approach it is this: Perhaps Trump’s determined invocation of the West as a common entity can serve as a spur to European leaders, especially in France and Germany, to rise above local European preoccupations and suggest ways forward on global issues. Far better that they fill the gap Trump is leaving than that it be filled with by aspiring autocrats.