Ralph Hancock: Trump’s speech in Poland hit the right balance between tradition and innovation

Evan Vucci, AP

President Donald Trump speaks at Krasinski Square at the Royal Castle, Thursday, July 6, 2017, in Warsaw.

The liberal reaction to Trump’s Warsaw speech shows the element of truth in “tribalism.”

Trump’s cheerleading for Western civilization in his recent speech in Poland might seem to be unremarkable boilerplate, anodyne boosterism in the service of uncontroversial platitudes. Certainly skepticism would be understandable concerning the messenger in this speech that included praise of “women as pillars of our society and of our success” and a pious reference to “faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, (as) the center of our lives.” The fundamental significance of the speech is clear only in light of the extreme liberal critiques that it provoked. If we had any doubt that Trump (or his speechwriter) was deeply right in calling for a defense of the West, such doubt was removed by the hollowness of the liberalism of his respondents.

Trump’s speech connected — somewhat vaguely, to be sure — geo-political and military/security concerns with fundamental moral and cultural matters. He warned against “forces … from inside or out, from the South or the East,” but judged our enemies to be “doomed … because our alliance is strong, our countries are resilient, and our power is unmatched. … We are the fastest (?) and the greatest community.” But beneath the economic and military power of the West he evoked a deeper strength of civilization: a fecundity that manifests itself in “symphonies” as well as in “innovation,” and that is grounded finally in “the hope of every soul to live in freedom.” The fate of our community of Western nations, he said, depends on the “priceless ties that bind us together.”

The liberal alarm in response to a speech that might not long ago have passed for pretty vanilla is a significant sign of the times. Peter Beinart in The Atlantic drives right to the extreme liberal judgment and minces no words: since Trump defends a certain civilization, the West, he is a religiously prejudiced racist. “The West is a racial and religious term.” Using what is becoming the liberals’ favorite term for lumping together all kinds of bigotry, Beinart concludes that Trump is “speaking as the head of a tribe.”

Well, that’ some “tribe,” isn’t it! Socrates and Jesus, Dante and Dostoevsky, Aquinas and Einstein. But for our pure modern liberalism, any taint of “identity,” any preference, however reasoned and reasonable, for one way of life or one frame of thought over another puts the defender of civilization on the same level with the most vulgar ethnic nationalist or the most vicious racial supremacist.

The irony is that the openness and universalism that inspire the liberal critics of pro-Western sentiments are very much products of Western civilization, and specifically of the complicated alliance between Greek rationalism and Christianity. As Damon Linker noted in the most intelligent liberal assessment of the Warsaw speech, “the West is a civilization that has come over the past century to identify the achievement of its highest ideals with the negation of its own distinctiveness. And that very tendency is itself an expression (in secularized and radicalized form) of a very Western idea that first arose with Christianity. …”

The reaction to Trump (and not only to this speech) demonstrates that we have now reached the limit of this self-negating capacity of the West, a key source of our unique richness and dynamism. The strength and diversity of the West has depended upon a certain equilibrium between its distinctive openness and universalism and its grounding in the traditions of distinct sovereign peoples. In however elementary a fashion, Trump’s speech expresses this equilibrium. He praises innovation, free speech and expression, our tendency to “debate everything … challenge everything … know everything.”

At the same time, he hails the “bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.” The spirit of this delicate equilibrium that defines Western civilization is best captured in Trump’s reference to “the hope of every soul to live in freedom” — not just every person, or every “individual,” but every soul. Freedom is a transcendent spiritual and philosophical ideal before it is a political claim or individual assertion.

As Linker writes, “democracy, moral universalism, and egalitarianism are goods very much worth defending, but they are not the only goods worth defending.” There is no simple formula for maintaining the West’s equilibrium; being open to the new and different while cherishing and preserving what is tried and true will never be easy. One thing is clear though. Today’s liberal elites have proved themselves incompetent and unworthy to nurture this equilibrium of Western greatness. By embracing a pure and therefore hollow liberalism that is hard to distinguish from self-hatred, they make it clear how right Trump was in Warsaw to tout the “culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.” That’s my kind of tribalism!

Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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