Elephants in the Room
Can Trump Reconcile Nationalism With Liberalism?
Last week in Warsaw, President Donald Trump finally gave something close to a mature, clear, and thoughtful version of his governing philosophy.
Last week in Warsaw, President Donald Trump finally gave something close to a mature, clear, and thoughtful version of his governing philosophy. This clarity made what is wrong with it easier to see — and made it equally hard to dismiss out of hand as something thoughtless, stupid, or extremist.
Trump gave a full-throated, nationalist speech. Interestingly, it wasn’t American nationalism, but Polish nationalism that he celebrated. He told the Poles, “Your nation is great because your spirit is great and your spirit is strong.” (He invoked the “spirit” of the people seven times.) He gracefully recounted the history of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and generously appealed to Polish pride. At times, it seemed like an unhindered love letter to Polishness. The nation “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. … Poland lives, Poland prospers, and Poland prevails.”
I am not a fan of nationalism, and there are serious problems with it (see below), but Trump’s speech was a helpful reminder that nationalisms are not always or necessarily hostile to other nations. Nationalists believe in preserving national distinctiveness and cultural particularity for themselves, but equally for (some) other nations as well. Nationalism may be a step on the road to fascism, but only a step. They are different things.
But in addition to nationalism, Trump’s speech was also a surprising endorsement of liberal values. Unlike in his inaugural address, he spoke strongly and positively of freedom, using the word fifteen times. “Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty,” he said, “Above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are.” This is solidly mainstream presidential rhetoric.
Trump also gave his strongest and most strident commitment to European security to date. He called out Russia straightforwardly for “its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes — including Syria and Iran.” He explicitly reaffirmed America’s commitment to Polish independence: “For America’s part, we have never given up on freedom and independence as the right and destiny of the Polish people, and we never, ever will.” And later: “[T]he United States has demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment.”
How to reconcile these two strands — the nationalist and the liberal? Throughout the speech, Trump stressed the importance of history, memory, culture, and identity, and he seems to believe these things are essential underpinnings of liberal values. “Our two countries share a special bond forged by unique histories and national characters,” he said. “It’s a fellowship that exists only among people who have fought and bled and died for freedom.” Trump did invoke freedom, but not as a universal value. Freedom is rooted in a “special bond,” “unique histories,” and “national characters.”
He spoke of the threats that might “undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that make us who we are.” We are defined by the tradition, he implied, which is the source of the values. And again, he spoke of the history of the communists who sought to “demolish freedom, your faith, your laws, your history, your identity — indeed the very essence of your culture and your humanity.” Freedom is only one among many things that define us.
The heart of Trump’s speech — indeed, the heart of Trumpism as a governing philosophy — came near the end. “Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory,” he said. In Trump’s view, Western values depend on Western heritage, and liberalism is better understood as a cultural outgrowth of European history, not universalizeable ideals that can be adopted by non-Western nations.
Trump was strongly criticized by some progressive commentators for saying, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?” But that line does not have to be read as a call to arms for a racial clash of civilizations. How you interpret that line depends entirely on whether you understand the “West” to be an ethnicity or a set of ideals. Peter Beinart, for example, in a piece for the Atlantic, interpreted it as the former, and read the speech and its invocation of the “West” as an unhindered call to racial and religious exclusivism.
I don’t think that’s a fair reading of the speech, or of Trump’s past speeches. In his past pronouncements, Trump seemed to have studiously avoided defining the nationalism he so strongly advocated. He avoided taking sides between the “ethnic” and “civic” versions of American nationalism, making only veiled appeals to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, on the one hand, and white identity, on the other, allowing both sides to read into his rhetoric what they want to hear. With the Warsaw speech, Trump continued his refusal to take sides by affirming both. Faced with the choice of defining the West as a heritage or a set of ideas, he answered that the ideals depend on the heritage.
This puts Trump’s nationalism solidly in the tradition of thinkers like Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and even Georg Hegel, insofar as these thinkers stressed the cultural and especially religious underpinnings of a regime’s characteristics. Hegel especially was keen on divining the national spirits that animated and defined different peoples and suited them to particular forms of government and society.
I’m not suggesting that Trump has read Hegel (although his deputy assistant for strategic communications, Michael Anton, probably has). I am saying that nationalism has an intellectual respectability that its liberal critics, like Beinart, are overlooking in their hysteria.
The real problem with Trump’s nationalism is not that it is a belligerent and racist call to arms for the impending clash of civilizations. It isn’t, though it may become so if the progressive left continues to insist on the illegitimacy of national distinctiveness and equate patriotism with bigotry. The problem is that nationalism is simply wrong, empirically, about the relationship between liberalism and Western history.
Liberalism arose from the West, but its most articulate spokesman never believed they had fabricated a uniquely Western product. They believed they were discovering something universal that could — even should — in principle be applied everywhere. To insist on liberalism’s cultural particularity is to call every liberal philosopher a liar and to claim you know liberalism better than John Locke. It is also to dishonor the sacrifice of martyrs to liberalism who believed they were fighting for something universal, not for the accidental cultural output of one nation.
And history continues to vindicate the universal hopes of liberalism. As I never tire of pointing out, this is an odd time to doubt the universal aspirations of liberalism. We are living near the high tide of liberalism in all of recorded human history. (The actual high tide may have been about 2005, as we’ve seen some backsliding recently). There are some three-dozen “non-Western,” stable, constitutional democracies in the world today, led by India and Japan.
Having a Western heritage may make liberalism easier, but it is demonstrably, provably not necessary. There are many routes to accountable self-governance. Western history was just the first. I find it baffling when nationalists insist on denying liberalism’s global appeal when much of the rest of the world has publicly declared allegiance to these ideals and is well into its seventh or eighth decade governing along lines copied from the West. It is an exercise in willful blindness, in denying empirical reality, in ignoring actual evidence in favor of sophisticated philosophical theories, to say otherwise.
Finally, to defend the “West” on nationalist grounds is incoherent. The “West” is practically an invention of universalist dreamers who put together a civilization on foundations borrowed from Jews and Greeks, Romans and Frenchmen — whatever and whomever they could get their hands on. There is no shared ethnicity or language or even religion among Westerners for nationalists to celebrate; only a shared project of plundering the best of humanity in pursuit of social and economic and political flourishing. To celebrate the freedom to do that is the definition of classical liberalism.
Photo credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images