Trump Has Reshaped Presidential Rhetoric Into an Unrecognizable Grotesque
In Poland, the president had all the facts and stories and history right, but drew all the wrong lessons.
On more than one occasion over the past seven years, I have drafted speeches drawing on Eastern Europe’s long struggle for freedom and self-determination, applying those lessons to contemporary challenges. That’s the bread and butter of foreign policy speechwriting. And so, in listening to President Donald Trump’s speech in Warsaw on Thursday — his first major foray on the European public stage — I have to admit that my initial thought was: Not bad. The longer he spoke, however, the more of a turn it took, as his language began to twist away from shared ideals and universal aspirations into a call for a war of civilizations.
The speechwriters and foreign policy professionals who crafted the speech’s frame did their research. And because Trump stayed mostly on script — with a few Trumpian asides excepted — the opening hit all the high notes.
In fact, it hit many of the points and stories that I would have drawn on, had I been asked to draft this speech for any of my former bosses: the contributions of Polish Americans to our nation, dating back to the Revolutionary War; the monuments that I walked past every day on the way into the White House celebrating American patriots of Polish descent; the strength of the alliance between our nations, as evidenced by the thousands of American troops currently stationed in Poland; and the unconquerable spirit of the Polish people in the face of grinding adversity.
Take, for example, this early excerpt from Trump’s speech:
For two centuries, Poland suffered constant and brutal attacks. But while Poland could be invaded and occupied, and its borders even erased from the map, it could never be erased from history or from your hearts. In those dark days, you have lost your land but you never lost your pride.
By itself, with tweaks for tone and style, these lines could easily have been delivered by any U.S. leader over the past 20 years.
In fact, here’s what then-Vice President Joe Biden said in Riga, Lativa, last August on the anniversary of both the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and of the Baltic Way:
Seventy-seven years ago today, Hitler and Stalin made their secret pact to plot to deny the freedom of the Baltic nations and other nations throughout Central Europe. It was a day when the machinations of men sought to overthrow those God-given rights, which are equal inheritance of all humankind. The years that followed were bitter and they were long. But the people of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — you survived and thrived.
These two excerpts are, in essentials, the same — recognition of the hard history that has shaped so much of Eastern and Central Europe followed by praise for the unwillingness of the people of the region to relinquish their freedom. It’s how American leaders show that they understand their audience and the history to build a rapport for everything that comes next.
And that’s exactly when Trump’s speech began to warp the past 70 years of American foreign policy. Like staring into a fun-house mirror, the trappings of an American president delivering a landmark speech abroad were there — certainly there were deliberate echoes of President John F. Kennedy’s historic speech in Berlin — but it was all reshaped into an unrecognizable grotesque.
With each paragraph, strong statements about defending freedom and standing against the forces of oppression were replaced by a narrow vision of the world rooted in an even narrower ideology. For Trump, the boundaries of “civilization” only extend to those who share his definition of “God” and “family” — that is, a Judeo-Christian worldview and power structures that continue to be dominated by white men. Every story that could have been used as an example to lift up and inspire was instead used to exclude and undercut.
Rather than using the powerful and moving story of Pope John Paul II leading one million oppressed Poles in prayer as an act of resistance and an example of the critical importance of freedom of religion for all peoples, it was used as a cudgel of religious and cultural superiority.
Rather than using Poland’s experience to point out why it is so critical to finish the work of building a Europe whole, free, and at peace — long a mantra of American diplomacy — Trump simply proclaimed Poland part “of a Europe that is strong, whole, and free.” This subtle shift of phrasing is maybe close enough to pass unnoted, but it also makes it clear that he believes the work to already be finished, ignoring the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, those Balkan nations still struggling toward integration, and the major threat Russia poses to European stability.
Rather than giving a resounding and unequivocal endorsement of Article 5 and the NATO alliance, Trump first blustered about other countries paying up before finally admitting, “we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment.” It’s good that he said it. Essential, in fact. But previous presidents have called out our “rock-solid” or “unshakable” commitment, cited the specific language that we believe an attack on one to be an attack on all, and recognized that the only time Article 5 has ever been invoked was when the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001. Trump’s statement was hollow and grudging in comparison.
And here’s where the speech betrayed exactly what the Trump administration actually cares about when it comes to foreign policy. As Trump worked up to his big finish he asked: “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?”
This stands in stark contrast to the speech he gave in Saudi Arabia just two months ago, in which he insisted that he wasn’t going “to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship,” signaling a disinterest in pushing countries in the region on their human rights abuses. It stands in contrast to the remarks Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made to State Department employees drawing a distinction between our values and our policies, letting activists around the world know that they can no longer count on the support of the United States as they have for decades.
The values Trump would defend at any cost are not those laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or even those in our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution — documents designed specifically to protect against the imposition of any religion or set of values or ideology on the masses. They are the values of a small fringe whose insistence on defending only their narrow worldview will beget policies that allow tyranny and oppression to flourish unchecked around the world.
The overall impression in the media seems to be that Trump gave the best speech of his presidency yesterday. And that’s perhaps true. It did a fair job of aping and evoking the kinds of things an American president should say in that scenario, and so it has the imprimatur of something that feels presidential. But that only makes it all the more dangerous. He had all the facts and stories and history right, but drew all the wrong lessons.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images