Where you are on the political spectrum may determine your judgment of Donald Trump’s speech in Warsaw. Cathy Young has written a brilliant dissection of this process. I agree with her that on both sides, more nuance in evaluating the impact and meaning of Trump’s Warsaw speech is necessary.
Many conservatives see the speech as a triumph and a strong reassertion of American leadership and power. For them, it’s a welcome move away from Obama’s policy of retrenchment. This includes National Review’s Rich Lowry, and Roger Kimball and David P. Goldman in these pages. I agree there are many portions of Donald Trump’s speech that are excellent, including a solid defense of Western values and an appreciation of the role played by the Poles during WW II in the fight against Nazism and later against communism. Moreover, Trump’s words about how the West is bound together “as nations, as allies and as a civilization” are correct, as is the belief that liberal democracy, as Young points out, is rooted in European and North American culture and values.
While conservatives have described the speech in glowing terms, leftist and liberal critics have gone overboard, condemning Trump for offering “dog whistles” meant to be a call-out to the alt-right and racist supporters of Trump. Just take a look at Sarah Wildman in Vox, Peter Beinart and James Fallows in The Atlantic, and TNR editor Jeet Heer. These writers are hardly far left; they are rather typical mainstream liberal journalists, all of whom can see only the worst in Donald Trump. Instead of serious criticism, they search his words trying to prove he is a white nationalist. Despite what Beinart and others argue, words defending the West and its values are not code words for “white and Christian.”
Some critics made other points. In Politico, Annie Karni notes how Trump, unlike previous American presidents, did not go to the Warsaw Ghetto site to honor the brave Jewish resistance fighters who, rather than surrender, fought to the last man and woman, making the Nazis suffer high casualties, despite the overwhelming odds against them. It was seen in Poland, she writes, “as handing a victory to the ruling Polish right-wing nationalist party – the Law and Justice Party by highlighting the role the Poles played fighting Nazi Germany while downplaying the persecution of 3 million Polish Jews who perished in the Holocaust.”
Had he gone, Alan Dershowitz told Karni, it would have “sent a powerful message about Western civilization” at a time when the Polish government is pushing a nationalist agenda. The Warsaw Ghetto memorial is only a short block away from the Warsaw Uprising Monument that he visited. Both could easily have been visited. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, program director of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews, explained:
His visit was carefully orchestrated to be consistent with the right-wing government in Poland. From their point of view, all that mattered is the monument to the Warsaw Uprising, a story of Polish heroism and martyrdom.
That Trump did briefly mention the Ghetto uprising in his speech was not enough to placate Poland’s Jewish leadership, who protested Trump’s failure to make an appearance at the actual Ghetto monument, as past presidents of the United States have. While they expressed pleasure that Ivanka Trump did make the visit and laid a wreath at the memorial, to them, the glass was only half-full.
There is also an argument that Trump’s speech lent credibility to the new “illiberal democracies,” such as the one now running Poland and the illiberal democracy also in power in Hungary. The ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland is moving to control Polish radio and TV in much the same way Putin controls the media in Russia. Anne Applebaum is correct when she argues that “Trump offered his support to a Polish government that is both the most nationalist in Europe and now the most isolated in Europe,” and that he mainly made his appeal to nationalist-Catholic Poles and not the entire country. She worries that Trump’s speech “confirmed Poland’s nationalist government in its isolationist and anti-democratic course.”
Unfortunately, Trump continues to undermine himself. While he did ask Russia “to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran,” immediately afterwards at the G-20 meeting he treated Russia, despite its cyber warfare against the electoral process in our own country, and Putin’s repressive policies at home, as a member in good standing in the common Western civilization he was trying to defend. His post-speech actions contradicted many of the words he spoke in Warsaw.
Reading a speech written by others is one thing; tweeting out your own opinions is another. And we all know that what Trump tweets is what he really thinks.
Nothing illustrates this more than Trump’s recent bizarre tweet at 4:50 a.m. Sunday: “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded … and safe.” As Marco Rubio and other commentators noted, his statement was the equivalent of announcing a joint effort with Bashar al-Assad to prevent chemical warfare attacks. Having been criticized and ridiculed, within one day Trump retracted the tweet with another one posted at 5:45 pm on Sunday: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t-but a ceasefire can, & did!” It’s this sort of thing that leads people to not give credence to what Trump says.
Not all conservatives were happy with Trump’s performance. As Tom Nichols, a conservative who is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and who writes for The Federalist, charges, “the president’s trip to Hamburg and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin were…a disaster.” According to him what is important took place in the immediate aftermath of the meeting:
The Russians immediately dropped a version of events that made Trump look weak. The president, they asserted, had indeed raised Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election — and been told off by Putin, who not only denied everything but also arrogantly demanded proof. Later, in a masterful bit of public trolling of the White House, Putin said he had convinced Trump that Russia was not involved.
Next came the already mentioned proposal by Trump of a joint American-Russian cyber-security center, “an idea so ridiculous that even in Moscow they must be wiping tears of laughter from their eyes.” The U.S. goal, Nichols writes, should be defending our country against the Russians, “not handing them the keys to our computers…as if they are a trusted ally.” The result:
… a humiliating absence of leadership in Hamburg (except for the brief unveiling of Princess Regent Ivanka); an American team woefully unprepared and understaffed for the president’s first meeting with his Russian counterpart; a narrative of the meeting now controlled by the Kremlin; the Americans giving a pass to the most brazen Russian attack on U.S. political institutions ever; and a cybersecurity proposal so inane it beggars belief.
While Trump’s Warsaw speech was somewhat of a success, his performance and the role he played at the G-20 is something else. First, take the time to watch this video which has gone viral of Australian TV newsman Chris Uhlmann’s devastating take on Trump. His charge that Trump “has no desire and no capacity to lead the world” and that he left the summit “isolated and friendless” has been proven correct.
You must question the direction that Trump is taking our foreign policy. It is an unfamiliar place for the U.S. to be in where its president befriends our enemies and puts distance between America’s traditional friends and allies. Most of America’s allies — especially Germany and France — do not follow the ultra-nationalism of Poland’s current leadership. Trump’s appeal to them did little to quash the fears of Europe’s democrats. Perhaps it was not accidental that although Trump spoke about “bonds of culture, faith” and “tradition,” he said nothing about a shared belief in democracy.
Secretary Rex Tillerson told the press that there was great chemistry between Trump and Putin, and Trump himself later tweeted that “it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!” Those who argued Trump was now going to be tough with Russia must reconsider their argument. Fortunately, the editors at National Review, who called the administration view that Russian and American aims are the same in Syria “so much nonsense,” are already doing this. Trump, NR’s editors put it, “seems bent on repeating the mistakes of his predecessors, and with even less reason to have illusions about the Russian leader.”
It seems now our president’s sympathy is with the authoritarian Putin who rules Russia, rather than democrats in western Europe who once were our major allies. Already, the Warsaw speech seems to have been spoken ages ago.