The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the idea of civilization does (and doesn’t) mean to Trump

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It was no accident that President Trump chose Poland's capital to offer his latest jeremiad about the perils facing the West. The country's right-wing nationalist government gave the American leader a platform to plant his flag ahead of what may be a testy Group of 20 summit in Germany.

Poland's obliging ruling party bused Trump supporters to Warsaw from rural areas of the country — a move familiar to most populist strongmen. “A large crowd carrying Polish and American flags gathered in the square for Trump's remarks,” wrote my colleagues. “At least one person waved a campaign-style 'Make America Great Again' banner, and another waved a Confederate flag.”

Then, Trump pronounced upon what is now a familiar theme. He warned of the perils facing his country and Europe, particularly those of Islamist extremism and immigration. They are, in his thinking, existential challenges. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump said.

This sense of almost apocalyptic fatalism has possessed Trump's rhetoric for months, including during his inauguration speech, in which he invoked the specter of “American carnage.” His perennial message is one of fear of a dark and dangerous world.

President Trump said the "fundamental question" of today is whether the West has the will to survive and defend its values, during a speech in Warsaw on July 6. (Video: Reuters)

An undisguised hostility to Islam and swarthy immigrants seems deeply ingrained among the nationalist ideologues in the White House, including advisers Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller, who scripted the latest speech. In an essay published last year, Michael Anton, the director of communications for the National Security Council, suggested that increased immigration into a country is a sign of “a people, a civilization that wants to die.”

In Warsaw, Trump appealed to the blood-and-soil nationalism and Christian triumphalism that has defined his political brand and that of the far right in Europe. “We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons of anywhere on Earth. But if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive,” he said.

“I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever, be broken,” Trump said in a closing fit of bravado. “Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.”

But what values? Which people? And what civilization? Trump, after all, has made it clear that his vision of the West is different from the one invoked by the prevailing establishment.

“I will work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions,” Trump said on the campaign trail last April. “Instead of trying to spread 'universal values' that not everyone shares, we should understand that strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions.”

Anton, Bannon, Miller and their colleagues are not just right-wing nationalists, but also profound skeptics of the international order. They are hostile to multiculturalism and the very concept of universal values; they resent the multilateral commitments that defined American policymaking for more than half a century.

The most glaring omission in Trump's speech — though no longer surprising — was of any discussion of democracy or human rights. (Jewish groups were also upset that, for the first time since 1989, an American president visiting Warsaw did not go to the hallowed site of the Warsaw Ghetto.) Unlike other presidents who extol the merits of democratic norms and the free press, Trump stood alongside his Polish counterpart, President Adrzej Duda, and bashed America's mainstream media as “fake news.”

The irony, of course, is that many in Europe see the Polish government itself as a threat to Western values. Last year, the European Union's executive gave Poland an official warning that changes imposed on its constitutional court posed “a systemic risk to the rule of law.” Critics also pointed to new restrictions faced by independent journalists and the wholesale transformation of the national broadcaster into a state mouthpiece.

Whatever Trump's idea of the West may be, it's bound to be challenged in Hamburg, where he landed later Thursday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to host the G-20 summit in this northern port city for a reason: Hamburg, one of the prominent cities of the medieval Hanseatic League, has long been open for trade and represents the sort of transnational connections and bonds that form the spiritual bedrock of the European Union.

Trump “has a concept of globalization that differs very sharply from mine,” Merkel said in a recent interview. “You have to take that into account when we assert our interests.”

On Thursday, there were clear signs of that new assertiveness. The E.U. announced a historic free-trade pact with Japan. It encompasses nearly 30 percent of the global economy and 40 percent of global trade, according to my colleague Ana Swanson.

In a clear jab at Trump, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the agreement “shows that closing ourselves off from the world is not good for business, nor for the global economy, nor for workers. As far as we are concerned, there is no protection in protectionism.”

The tensions between Trump's nativism and the cosmopolitan “globalism” of Europe's elite won't be resolved any time soon. But they reflect a more real divide in global politics than Trump's anachronistic clash of civilizations.

“There is nothing pure about Western civilization. Its ability to absorb and incorporate outside influences has proved a great strength, not a weakness,” wrote Post columnist Eugene Robinson. “Imagine Italy without tomato sauce, a gift from the New World — or the United States without the high-tech companies founded by immigrants, gifts from the Old.”

But in their zeal to “Make America Great Again,” Trump's team is all too willing to wind back the clock.

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