News & Politics

Why Trump's Western Civilization Isn't a 'White Supremacist Dogwhistle'

Why Trump's Western Civilization Isn't a 'White Supremacist Dogwhistle'
President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

On Thursday, President Donald Trump gave a powerful speech in Warsaw, Poland, in which he unabashedly defended Western civilization. Liberals heard the speech as a “white supremacist dogwhistle,” an “alt-right manifesto,” or a defense of “white, Christian hegemony.” These attacks could not be more wrong.

“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump declared. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to respect 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?”

Trump mentioned many threats to the West, inside and out. But to hear liberals tell it, the whole thing was a dogwhistle for white supremacy. Vox’s Sarah Wildman said the speech “sounded like an alt-right manifesto.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie said the speech contained “clear white nationalist dogwhistles.”

Then there was The Atlantic‘s Peter Beinart, who attacked the very idea of the West as a “racial and religious term.” Beinart wrote that “Trump’s sentence only makes sense as a statement of racial and religious paranoia. The ‘south’ and ‘east’ only threaten the West’s ‘survival’ if you see non-white, non-Christian immigrants as invaders.”

Here’s the kicker: “They only threaten the West’s ‘survival’ if by ‘West’ you mean white, Christian hegemony.”

But Trump never — not once — mentioned race in the speech. He defined the threats to the West very clearly, and he championed debating “everything.” The president did mention God many times, but he emphasized the Jews and he never mentioned Jesus or Christianity specifically.

The Left’s response, and Beinart’s attack specifically, revealed a tragic trend among Democrats and liberals. As National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg pointed out, Beinart “pretty clearly wants to suggest that, because the West, historically, has described a mostly white, mostly Protestant or Catholic civilization, defending it must be an example of bigotry.”

But as Goldberg argued, this is an exceedingly dangerous position to take. “We’ve reached a pathetic and dangerous point in our culture where anyone who celebrates our traditional culture, our country, and, now, our civilization must be doing so for base and evil reasons,” he wrote. “All other cultures must be celebrated while every ill is blamed on us.”

The cry that every defense of Western civilization is racist not only alienates liberals from patriotic Americans, but it literally removes the ground under their feet. Unlike other parts of the world, the West has traditionally protected dissent. It had slavery — like every other civilization in history — but abolished it, twice. For all its warts — and there are indeed many — the West is the only place these liberals would actually like to live.

Trump is far from my first choice when it comes to defending Western civilization. As Goldberg noted, “for Trump, Western Civilization is a kind of nationalism, not a worldview or philosophy.” The National Review author asked, “Does anyone really believe that Trump is, in his heart, a champion of tolerance, open-mindedness, democratic norms, family values, Judeo-Christian precepts, and natural rights?”

But Trump’s own baggage does not invalidate his words. The president’s speech was nothing short of magnificent. Trump’s definition of Western civilization captured a great deal of the Western spirit.

“We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand new frontiers,” Trump declared. “We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.”

The president noted that Westerners “empower women as pillars of our society and our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives. And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.”

Last, but not least, he emphasized the West’s decision to “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. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.”

True, Trump’s definition of the West emphasized God and faith, but not in a uniquely Christian way. While Western values rely on a Jewish and Christian (and Greco-Roman) foundation, they are universal in application. The West gladly borrows the best features from others, and seeks to assimilate newcomers to its way of life.

Trump declared that “our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield,” but “with our minds, our wills, and our souls.” According to his speech, Western civilization is more than geographic, racial, or exclusively Christian.

Even Trump’s selection of the West’s enemies should destroy the idea that this Western civilization is racial. The speech revolved around the struggles of Poland — against white, and even white supremacist, oppressors.

Trump dwelt on the Nazi occupation of Poland, praising the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, a revolt against white racists who carried out a genocide against those they deemed racially unfit, most notably Jews. He also identified communism, radical Islamic terrorism, and creeping government bureaucracy as threats to the freedom and vitality of the West — none of which are especially racial.

Indeed, Trump praised many governments in the Middle East for agreeing to counter radical Islamic terror. These are all odd points to make in a white supremacist dogwhistle.

So what of borders? Trump was defending Western values, and warning that not all immigrants come to honor those values and assimilate to them. This is common sense, and not inherently anti-immigrant. The West gladly welcomes those who embrace its values, but every country also has the right to defend its own sovereignty.

The Left’s very reaction to Trump’s speech reinforces the idea that the West has cultural foes within. The greatest threat is cultural suicide. As Abraham Lincoln wrote, “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide.”

So long as Democrats and the Left define their movement around a rejection of the West, they are choosing the latter course. In that case, opposing them is a matter of staving off suicide. That’s not a choice at all.