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Mr. Trump in Warsaw

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If you imagine H.R. McMaster saying to Steve Miller, “fine, I’ll let you have your Fascism Lite™ stuff so long as the President affirms Article V and discusses Russian destabilization as a threat to Ukraine and the region,” then you can pretty much guess the content of Trump’s speech in Warsaw. So, on the surface, a mixed bag.

The problem is that, as I’ve argued before, we’re in an increasingly transnational struggle over the fate of liberal democracy. The ethno-nationalists, post-fascists, and neo-fascists like to call this, borrowing from long-rehearsed antisemitic topes, a struggle between “globalists” and “nationalists.” But to even use that language—as some newspapers are starting to do—wrongfully concedes the idea that the alpha and omega of nationalism is a toxic stew of self-defeating economic policies and reactionary fantasies of cultural purity.

Indeed, this framing falls apart rather quickly in light of repeated invocations by the “nationalists” of a supranational political community: “the West.” You cannot simultaneously argue that “the nation” supersedes all other political allegiances while casting the primary conflict of the contemporary era as one between western civilization and Islamic radicalism.

In this respect, the struggle over liberal democracy is, in part, a struggle over the meaning of the West. On one side stand those who believe that the West is a community held together by a commitment to liberal democracy, inclusiveness, and civil rights and liberties. It is an “open society.” That commitment, in turn, often extends to owning up to evils both past and present, including imperialism, colonialism, and, in the United States, such as slavery and racism. This vision rejects, at least in aspirational terms, any essentialist or static notion of the community—both in terms of its cultural content and its borders. On the other hand stands the ethno-civilizationalists. For them, the core of the West is ethnic and cultural. Diversity is a threat. Democracy is about enacting the “will” of the national community and its preservation—or reconstitution—as an organic folk. Such popular sovereignty is often undermined by liberal rights and civil liberties. Whether sincerely held or opportunistically deployed, this vision facilitates democratic backsliding and the creation of hybrid regimes.

I don’t think that many conservative critics of Trump have yet fully realized what’s going on here. Bill Kristol, for example, appears to miss all of this context. In fact, as he wrote as I was crafting this very post:

Trump does echo Reagan in his narrative of Poland’s fight against German and Russian domination. And there’s another places where Trump borrows from Reagan, and it begins a series of passages that make clear how Trump is putting his thumb—and American leadership along with it—on the wrong side of the struggle for liberal democracy.

Finally, on both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted by yet another danger — one firmly within our control. This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles: the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people. The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.

This is, quite frankly, an incredibly strange passage for a speech delivered in the year 2017 and in the city of Warsaw. Of all the threats to liberty and freedom in Europe—let alone Poland—an excess of paperwork doesn’t even warrant a stray thought. Then Trump turns sinister:

Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. (Applause.) If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.

Indeed, for Trump to utter these lines in Poland, while unequivocally praising its government, amounts to full-throated support for Law and Justice’s erosion of democratic safeguards. It’s a gut punch to those fighting for civil liberties and the rule of law in the country. It explicitly endorses the arguments of the Polish nationalist right. More broadly, it transforms the entire meaning of Trump’s speech into an articulation of an ethno-civilizationalist vision of the West. It sides with Szydło and Orbán over Merkel and Macron. It highlights why Trump sees Le Pen and Farage as his natural allies. This isn’t surprising. It is, after all, what Trump stood for in the campaign. It is the paradigm that drives Miller and Bannon. It’s why the self-anointed intellectual mouthpiece of Trumpism runs articles that attempt to place European-style conservatism at the heart of the American experiment.

So, yes, it’s good that Trump—at least when reading from a teleprompter—said what the so-called “adults” in the administration wanted him to say on Russia and NATO. But make no mistake: it’s easy to use words like “freedom” and “democracy.” It’s how Trump uses them, and what he means by them, that matters.

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