When the president says being Western is the essence of America’s identity, he’s in part defining America in opposition to some of its own people.
In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means. It’s important that other Americans do, too.
The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.
The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.
The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white. Where there is ambiguity about a country’s “Westernness,” it’s because there is ambiguity about, or tension between, these two characteristics. Is Latin America Western? Maybe. Most of its people are Christian, but by U.S. standards, they’re not clearly white. Are Albania and Bosnia Western? Maybe. By American standards, their people are white. But they are also mostly Muslim.
Steve Bannon, who along with Stephen Miller has shaped much of Trump’s civilizational thinking, has been explicit about this. In a 2014 speech, he celebrated “the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam” and “our forefathers” who “bequeathed to use the great institution that is the church of the West.”
During the Cold War, when the contest between Soviet and American power divided Europe along geographic lines, American presidents sometimes contrasted the democratic “West” with the communist “East.” But when the Cold War ended, they largely stopped associating America with “the West.” Every president from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama emphasized the portability of America’s political and economic principles. The whole point was that democracy and capitalism were not uniquely “Western.” They were not the property of any particular religion or race but the universal aspiration of humankind.
To grasp how different that rhetoric was from Trump’s, look at how the last Republican President, George W. Bush, spoke when he visited Poland. In his first presidential visit, in 2001, Bush never referred to “the West.” He did tell Poles that “We share a civilization.” But in the next sentence he insisted that “Its values are universal.” Because they are, he declared, “our trans-Atlantic community must have priorities beyond the consolidation of European peace. We must bring peace and health to Africa. … We must work toward a world that trades in freedom … a world of cooperation to enhance prosperity, protect the environment, and lift the quality of life for all.”
In 2003, Bush returned, and in his main speech didn’t use the terms “West” or “civilization” at all. After celebrating Poland’s achievements, he said America and Europe “must help men and women around the world to build lives of purpose and dignity” so they don’t turn to terrorism. He boasted that America was increasing its funding to fight global poverty and AIDS because “we add to our security by helping to spread freedom and alleviate suffering.” And he said “America and Europe must work closely to develop and apply new technologies that will improve our air and water quality, and protect the health of the world’s people.”
Bush’s vision echoed Francis Fukuyama’s. America and Europe may have been further along the road to prosperity, liberty, capitalism, and peace than other parts of the world, but all countries could follow their path. And the more each did, the more America and Europe would benefit. In deeply Catholic Poland, Bush sprinkled his speeches with religious references, but they were about Christianity as a universal creed, a moral imperative that knew no civilizational bounds. By contrast, when Trump warned Poles about forces “from the south or the east, that threaten … to erase the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition,” he was talking not about Christianity but about Christendom: a particular religious civilization that must protect itself from outsiders.
In his 2003 speech, Bush referred to democracy 13 times. Trump mentioned it once. And for good reason. Ideologically, what links the current American and Polish governments is not their commitment to democracy—both are increasingly authoritarian. It is their hostility to Muslim immigration. The European Union is suing Poland’s government for refusing to accept refugees. Among Trump’s biggest applause lines in Warsaw was, “While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind.” Given that Trump had linked “our values” to America and Poland’s “tradition,” “faith,” “culture,” and “identity,” it wasn’t hard to imagine whom that leaves out.
When Bush spoke in Poland, America’s leaders still mostly discussed globalization as a process by which America improved the rest of the world. Trump generally discusses globalization—the movement of both goods and people—as a process by which the rest of the world cheats, weakens, and threatens America. In his two speeches in Poland combined, Bush used variations of the word “defend” five times. Trump used them 21 times in a single speech.
The most shocking sentence in Trump’s speech—perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime—was his claim that “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” On its face, that’s absurd. Jihadist terrorists can kill people in the West, but unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, they cannot topple even the weakest European government. Jihadists control no great armies. Their ideologies have limited appeal even among the Muslims they target with their propaganda. ISIS has all but lost Mosul and could lose Raqqa later this year.
Trump’s sentence only makes sense as a statement of racial and religious paranoia. The “south” and “east” only threaten the West’s “survival” if you see non-white, non-Christian immigrants as invaders. They only threaten the West’s “survival” if by “West” you mean white, Christian hegemony. A direct line connects Trump’s assault on Barack Obama’s citizenship to his speech in Poland. In Trump and Bannon’s view, America is at its core Western: meaning white and Christian (or at least Judeo-Christian). The implication is that anyone in the United States who is not white and Christian may not truly be American but rather than an imposter and a threat.
Poland is largely ethnically homogeneous. So when a Polish president says that being Western is the essence of the nation’s identity, he’s mostly defining Poland in opposition to the nations to its east and south. America is racially, ethnically, and religious diverse. So when Trump says being Western is the essence of America’s identity, he’s in part defining America in opposition to some of its own people. He’s not speaking as the president of the entire United States. He’s speaking as the head of a tribe.