Western civilization is in danger, President Trump argued in a speech in Poland on Thursday:
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? 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?
Legend has it that Mahatma Gandhi, asked by a reporter what he thought of Western civilization, once quipped, “I think it would be a good idea.” In that spirit, putting aside the dark Bannonian connotations of the crude global binary Trump is sketching here and just accepting the premise, it’s not really clear that Trump is a “Western” leader.
Looking at the leaders that will attend the G-20 summit in Germany this week, Trump seems so far to have had the best relationship with and felt the most affinity toward India’s Narendra Modi, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and—until the past few days—China’s Xi Jinping. All of these leaders, in differing ways, have proudly defined themselves in opposition to the Western powers of North America and Europe. Trump would certainly seem more at home in that grouping than with Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who lead countries he has continually berated and mocked.*
Trump referred in his speech to Poland’s “tough” history of standing up to German fascism and Soviet communism, but it’s also notable that he chose to deliver his defense of Western values in a county that legal authorities have warned is on the road to autocracy as the ruling party works to erode checks and balances. Poland is also currently facing legal action from the European Union over its refusal to accept refugees as part of a continentwide relocation plan.
It’s also notable that Trump chose to make his call “to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it” on the same day he once again rejected the consensus of Western intelligence agencies by saying “nobody really knows” if Russia interfered in the 2016 election—that is, whether an Eastern dictatorship tried to undermine the democratic election of the Western world’s most powerful leader.
In addition to democracy, any traditional definition of “Western” values would also surely include the post-enlightenment tradition of evidence-based scientific inquiry. And yet, he will arrive in Hamburg as the only leader of a major power that denies climate change, and to the extent that he gets any support at the meeting for his opposition to the Paris agreement, it is most likely to come from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, and Indonesia.
So if not liberal democracy, the rule of law, or scientific inquiry, what exactly does this president—who feels more at home with Middle Eastern dictators than European presidents—mean when he talks about “the West” that must be defended at all costs? The simple answer is that when Trump talks about protecting the West, he mostly means keeping non-Western people out of it, a message Poland’s current government undoubtedly approves of as well.
Trump’s speech will be discussed as an offensive broadside against the world’s nonwhite, non-Christian population. And that is understandable given the parallels between this rhetoric and the apocalyptic warnings of the far-right anti-immigrant groups in the United States and Europe. But when Trump talks about Western values, it’s really the West that should be offended.
*Correction, July 6, 2017: This post originally misspelled Emmanuel Macron’s first name.