Thus far, Donald Trump has governed as a typical Republican president, with the usual suite of tax cuts, deregulation, and conservative nominees for the federal bench. The difference is that unlike his predecessors, Trump isn’t rooted in the tenets of conservativism. Indeed, as a man of id and impulse, it’s hard to say he’s rooted in anything. To the extent that he does have an ideology, it’s a white American chauvinism and its attendant nativism and racism. It was the core of his “birther” crusade against Barack Obama—the claim that for reasons of blood and heritage, Obama couldn’t be legitimate—and the pitch behind his campaign for president. Trump would restore American greatness by erasing the racial legacy of Obama’s presidency: the Hispanic immigration, the Muslim refugees, the black protesters.
This is the reason Trump’s campaign attracted, and his administration employs, men like Jeff Sessions, Stephen Bannon, and Stephen Miller. Sessions, a staunch opponent of federal civil rights enforcement and proponent of radical immigration restriction. Miller, his protégé, whose young career is marked by the same contempt for racial pluralism. Bannon, an entrepreneur with intellectual pretensions whose literary touchstones include virulently racist propaganda, and who brought that sensibility to Breitbart, a news website where “black crime” was a vertical and writers churn out stories on dangerous Muslims. Each shares a vision of a (white) America under siege from Hispanic immigration to the South and Islam to the East. All three are influential in the Trump White House as strategists and propagandists, taking the president’s impulses and molding them into a coherent perspective.
That is the key context for President Trump’s recent remarks in Warsaw, Poland, where he made a defense of “Western civilization.” He praised Poland’s resilience in the face of Nazi aggression and Soviet domination (and stayed quiet on Nazi collaboration within Poland), and celebrated the nation as a beacon of Western values. “A strong Poland is a blessing to the nations of Europe, and they know that. A strong Europe is a blessing to the West and to the world.” (It should be said that U.S. allies in Western Europe are less enthusiastic about the current right-wing Polish government.) From here, Trump presented the West as an empire under siege: “We have to say there are dire threats to our security and to our way of life. You see what’s happening out there. They are threats. We will confront them. We will win.”
Although marked by Trump’s characteristic bombast, much of this was in line with past presidential rhetoric, especially during the Cold War when American presidents routinely engaged in this kind of clash of civilizations rhetoric. (It is unclear, though, if previous presidents would have endorsed a narrative that erases victims of Polish anti-Semitism.)
But this isn’t the Cold War. The Soviet Union no longer exists. For Trump then, what are these “dire threats”? The chief one is “radical Islamic terrorism” exported by groups like ISIS. But he doesn’t end there. For Trump, these threats are broader than particular groups or organizations; they are internal as well as external.
“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,” said Trump. “If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.”
Not content to leave his message understated, Trump hammered home this idea in a subsequent line. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” said the president, before posing a series of questions: “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
In the context of terrorism specifically, a deadly threat but not an existential one, this is overheated. But it’s clear Trump has something else in mind: immigration. He’s analogizing Muslim migration to a superpower-directed struggle for ideological conquest. It’s why he mentions “borders,” why he speaks of threats from “the South”—the origin point of Hispanic immigrants to the United States and Muslim refugees to Europe—and why he warns of internal danger.
This isn’t a casual turn. In these lines, you hear the influence of Bannon and Miller. The repeated references to Western civilization, defined in cultural and religious terms, recall Bannon’s 2014 presentation to a Vatican conference, in which he praised the “forefathers” of the West for keeping “Islam out of the world.” Likewise, the prosaic warning that unnamed “forces” will sap the West of its will to defend itself recalls Bannon’s frequent references to the Camp of the Saints, an obscure French novel from 1973 that depicts a weak and tolerant Europe unable to defend itself from a flotilla of impoverished Indians depicted as grotesque savages and led by a man who eats human feces.
For as much as parts of Trump’s speech fit comfortably in a larger tradition of presidential rhetoric, these passages are clear allusions to ideas and ideologies with wide currency on the white nationalist right.
Defenders of the Warsaw speech call this reading “hysterical,” denying any ties between Trump’s rhetoric in Poland and white nationalism. But to deny this interpretation of the speech, one has to ignore the substance of Trump’s campaign, the beliefs of his key advisers, and the context of Poland itself and its anti-immigrant, ultranationalist leadership. One has to ignore the ties between Bannon, Miller, and actual white nationalists, and disregard the active circulation of those ideas within the administration. And one has to pretend that there isn’t a larger intellectual heritage that stretches back to the early 20th century, the peak of American nativism, when white supremacist thinkers like Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard penned works with language that wouldn’t feel out of place in Trump’s address.
“Unless we set our house in order, the doom will sooner or later overtake us all. And that would mean that the race obviously endowed with he greatest creative ability, the race which had achieved most in the past and which gave the richer promise for the future, had passed away, carrying with it to the grave those potencies upon which the realization of man’s highest hopes depends,” wrote Stoddard in his 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. Compare this to the crest of Trump’s remarks in Warsaw, which follows his warning of internal threat and his praise of Western civilization:
What we have, what we inherited from our—and you know this better than anybody, and you see it today with this incredible group of people—what we’ve inherited from our ancestors has never existed to this extent before. And if we fail to preserve it, it will never, ever exist again.
To read those previous presidential speeches is to see what makes Trump distinctive. Kennedy and Reagan defined “the West” in ideological terms—a world of free elections and free markets. It’s an inclusive view; presumably, any country that adopts these institutions enters that community of nations. For Trump, “the West” is defined by ties of culture and religion. It’s why a government that disdains democratic institutions, like Poland’s, can still stand as a vanguard of Western civilization, and why Muslim immigration is a chief threat to the integrity of Europe. What makes this racial is its relationship to Trump’s other rhetoric. If Western civilization is defined by religion and culture, then Mexico—with its Catholic heritage and historic ties to European monarchies—is unquestionably an outpost of “the West.” But for Trump and his advisers, it too is a threat to the Western order.
Donald Trump went to Europe and, in keeping with his campaign and influences, gave a speech with clear links to white nationalist thought. To pretend otherwise, to ignore the context of this address—to place Trump in a vacuum of history and politics, divorced from his own persona—is, at best, to cross the line into willful ignorance.