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Trump Speech and Universalism

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Before I address the text of Donald Trump’s speech yesterday in Poland, it’s worth pulling up two quotes from our two previous presidents. These quotes, I think, encapsulate the difference between the ideas Trump articulated yesterday and the core ideas of many of his liberal critics. First, let’s go with Barack Obama, in a speech to the British Parliament on May 25, 2011:

For both of our nations, living up to the ideals enshrined in [our] founding documents has always been a work in progress. The path has never been perfect. But through the struggles of slaves and immigrants, women and ethnic minorities, former colonies and persecuted religions, we have learned better than most that the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American or Western — it is universal, and it beats in every heart.

Next, let’s step into the wayback machine to George W. Bush’s first State of the Union address following the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom:

We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken and condescending to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government.

I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again.

These statements are remarkably similar, perfectly encapsulate a universalist view of human nature and human freedom, and are totally and completely wrong. Our previous presidents — and, indeed, much of the intellectual establishment left and right — have sold the American people a false bill of goods about human nature, their own history, and the role of culture in the inculcation of our civilizational values.

Trump, by contrast, located the values that other presidents have deemed universal squarely within a Western context, and he specifically rejected a universalism and moral equivalence, declaring that “there is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations.” He continued with a series of key questions:

We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have. 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?

The response from thinkers on the left was swift and outraged. Sarah Wildman at Vox compared it to an “alt-right manifesto.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie was blunt. The speech was dog-whistle racism:

Peter Beinart wrote a widely read piece at The Atlantic accusing Trump of voicing “racial and religious paranoia.” To Beinart, “the West is a racial and religious term,” and he called back — as I just did — to the universalism of presidents past:

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.

But declaring that previous presidents disagreed does not make previous presidents right. They’ve been wrong. Dangerously wrong. And Trump’s “sin” here isn’t racism but rather calling out the false god of post–Cold War establishment utopianism. Ross Douthat is right. Trump’s speech wasn’t white nationalism, it was a rejection of universalism:

The ideas that define and govern our nation come from a specific culture, and that culture comes from (and has defined) a specific place. The Founders were heirs to a specific intellectual and religious tradition — one that is both alien and superior to many competing cultures and faiths.

The fiction of the universalist Left and the universalist Right is the notion that the best human values, including that alleged “longing for freedom,” are somehow transcendent and universal. It’s one reason why so many otherwise-smart people fell head over heels for the Arab Spring. They thought the “longing for freedom” was emerging, as opposed to a will to power and a thirst for vengeance. Instead, the Arab Spring brought forth the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, ISIS in Syria, and a vicious war in Libya.

Judeo-Christian ideas have a specific value. The family as a core building block of the culture has a specific value. Constitutional governance has a specific value.

This universalism is a reason why both previous presidents made serious mistakes abroad. As I’ve written before, President Bush was idealistic about our alleged friends — believing they wanted liberty more than they wanted to settle old scores — and failed to adequately plan and prepare for the Iraq that would emerge after the American invasion. President Obama was idealistic about our enemies, believing that if you addressed their “legitimate grievances” against the U.S. and Israel, then the alleged universal values would have a chance to prevail against the forces of hate.

Yes the experience of immigrants (and a select few allied democracies across the globe) shows that men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation can embrace and build societies dedicated to constitutional governance and that also protect individual liberty. At the same time, millennia of human experience shows that entire societies and cultures have rejected those values and actively work to suppress human freedom. How do we deal with these twin realities?

The realistic response is that while the “longing for freedom” is the product of particular ideas from a particular place, it is of course not inherently limited to that place or the residents of that place. If, however, you want that culture and those ideas to persevere and even to spread, you have to protect those ideas and the place from whence they came. You cannot, for example, import en masse people from other cultures and simply assume that the fictional universal “longing for freedom” will take hold. You cannot, for example, denigrate the source of these ideas — the “dead white male” Founders, Judeo-Christian civilization more broadly — and assume that these ideas will endure.

The best Western values, in other words, aren’t the result of universal virtue bursting forth but rather a centuries-long and uneven process of acculturation and education — one that’s often at odds with human nature and specifically designed to suppress our worst impulses. In this context, Judeo-Christian ideas have a specific value. The family as a core building block of the culture has a specific value. Constitutional governance has a specific value. They are not necessarily interchangeable with Islam, with alternative family arrangements, or with statism. Thus, a call to protect faith, family, and limited government is a call to protect the culture that has birthed freedom at home and abroad.

No reasonable person pretends that the West is perfect or that its history isn’t shot through with its own legacy of wars, racism, genocide, and injustice. But its spiritual and intellectual architects did ultimately build something of immense worth. Part of the proof is the clamor of masses around the globe to live in the society they made. We’re heirs to a grand tradition; should we not work diligently to preserve it? Should we not recognize the threats from within and without? Should we not recognize the truth that not all men share our values or ideals?

Universalism is a false ideology. It’s a burden and a cancer on our body politic. It defies reality. Not all people have the same desires, and not all faiths teach the same things. Some cultures are superior to others. Trump yesterday reminded America and its allies that the culture they’ve built, imperfect as it is, is both valuable and vulnerable. That’s not racism. That’s just truth.