Is America an idea? Or is it a specific “people” or ethnic group? On the diverging answers to that question turn some of the biggest disputes in U.S. history. Our current president began his trip to Europe with a speech in Poland that minimized the role of ideals in American identity, and maximized the importance of what he called “civilization” but which boils down to ties of ethnicity and blood.
From Donald Trump this cannot be a great surprise, given the support he has courted and the American groups he has derogated during his time on the public stage. But for a president of the United States it still counts as a notable, even shocking departure. A president’s role when traveling has, until now, been to speak for the American idea.
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Let me illustrate with another visiting president’s remarks in Poland, more than a generation ago. What Stephen Miller is, I once was—sort of. Miller is a 30-something White House staffer from Southern California who apparently drafts many of Donald Trump’s speeches, including this one. Back in 1977, I was a 20-something White House staffer from Southern California writing speeches for Jimmy Carter, including the one he gave on arrival at the airport in Warsaw, capital of then still-Communist Poland, just after Christmas that year.
The late-night arrival in Poland was the first stop on a multi-country tour that took Carter on to Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and several other places besides. Back at the time, Carter’s few minutes of remarks at the airport made news mainly because of a silly-in-retrospect gaffe-flap about whether the State Department’s interpreter had embarrassingly misrendered some of Carter’s words. When Carter said that he had just “left” America on his journey, did the interpreter convert that into Carter “abandoning” his country? When he said that he wanted to understand the Polish public’s “desires for the future,” did that become understanding their carnal lusts? You can read more about the ins and outs here. And interpretation questions aside, it was anything but an august moment: airport remarks rather than a formal parliamentary presentation, in the stinging snow and freezing winds on the tarmac, under portable lights at nearly midnight Warsaw time.
But what strikes me on rereading Carter’s comments is how plain and simple they were on the question of what America is. Before the trip, there was nonstop negotiation, and occasional tension, among the contending foreign policy figures in the administration about the tone Carter should strike when kicking off the tour in Poland. It was a delicate time, in many ways. A new president was in his first year; crucial arms-control talks were underway with the aging Leonid Brezhnev’s aging (but still nuclear-armed) Soviet Union; anti-Communist reform pressures were building within Poland and elsewhere in what was still the “Iron Curtain” bloc; a lot was at stake.
But despite their differences on matters large and small, Carter’s Polish-born national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and his first Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, agreed that the tone in Poland, and throughout, should emphasize the ideas and the political values that the United States hoped would extend around the world. For example: Any president, going anywhere, will find a way to talk about historic, cultural, and ethnic connections with whatever place he finds himself in. Carter began, as all presidents do, by touching that base.
I am proud to begin this journey in Poland—friend of the United States since the time our Nation was founded. Poland is the ancestral home of more than six million Americans, partner in a common effort against war and deprivation.
Relations are changing between North and South, between East and West. But the ties between Poland and the United States are ancient and strong.
Then Carter started down the list of Polish military heroes in the war for U.S. independence—Casimir Pulaski, Thaddeus Kosciuszko—but he used them as the pivot from “we are connected by history” to “we are connected by an ideal.” Thus (with emphasis added, for the pivot):
For his military skill and bravery, Thaddeus Kosciuszko won the respect of our first President, George Washington, during wartime. And for his commitment to freedom and justice, he won the admiration of our third President, Thomas Jefferson, in time of peace.
These brave men fought alongside Americans in the era which produced three of the great documents in the struggle for human rights. One was the Declaration of Independence from America. The second was the Declaration of the Rights of Man from France. And the third was the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791.
Then he was on to a brief mention of the other ways in which Poland and America stood for ideas larger than their own immediate welfare, for universal values and hopes. E.g., “Our shared experience in battle has also taught us the paramount importance of preventing war, which has brought devastation to Poland twice in this century. At the end of World War I, a great American, Herbert Hoover, came to Poland to help you ease the suffering of war and to observe the reestablishment of an independent Poland.”
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It was a tiny speech, a perfunctory speech, a certain-to-be-forgotten moment if not for the translation issues. But I mention it because its tone was exactly consistent with more famous moments of American presidents discussing the American idea beyond or borders.
When John F. Kennedy gave his celebrated remarks in Berlin a few months before his death, he presented both the United States and free West Berlin as proud illustrations of a larger idea: “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’” (You can read the text of the speech, and see a video of its still-remarkable five-minute entirety, here.)
Nearly 25 years later, when Ronald Reagan went to the Berlin Wall, he gave a speech that became famous for its rhetorical plea, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But the surrounding tone was like Kennedy’s. E.g.:
We come to Berlin, we American presidents, because it's our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom. ...
Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. … Yet it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world.
Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar.
This is how American presidents talk. It is how they represent the nation—its idea, and its ideal. This is how they have talked, until now.
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How was Trump’s speech, which you can read here, different?
The minor problem was the routine neuralgia of Trump’s “formal” (from a script) rhetoric. These included the almost willfully pedestrian language (has no one there bothered to read even the great conservative orators, from Churchill to Reagan?). And the off-hand misstatements of fact, as when Trump discussed NATO obligations as if they were club-dues on which members were in arrears. (“My administration has demanded that all members of NATO finally meet their full and fair financial obligation. As a result of this insistence, billions of dollars more have begun to pour into NATO. In fact, people are shocked.”) And the unique-to-Trump phenomenon of his ad-libbed “Hey, that’s interesting!” commentary when he comes across information in a prepared text that is apparently new to him. This was most breathtaking in today’s speech when he read a line about Poland fighting simultaneously against Hitler’s Nazi army and Stalin’s Soviet army in 1939, and then said: “That's trouble. That's tough.”
But the major departure in Trump’s speech was its seeming indifference to the American idea. At least when speaking to the world, American presidents have emphasized an expanded “us.” All men are created equal. Every man is a German. Ich bin ein Berliner. Our realities in America have always been flawed, but our idea is in principle limitless. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Trump gave grace-note nods to goals of liberty and free expression. Mainly, though, he spoke not about an expanded us but instead about us and them. He spoke repeatedly about our “heritage,” our “blood,” our “civilization,” our “ancestors” and “families,” our “will” and “way of life.” Every one of these of course has perfectly noble connotations. But combined and in practice, they amount to the way the Japanese nationalists of the early 20th century onward spoke, about the purity of “we Japanese” and the need to stick together as a tribe. They were the way Mussolini spoke, glorifying the Roman heritage—but again in a tribal sense, to elevate 20th century Italians as a group, rather than in John F. Kennedy’s allusion to a system of rules that could include outsiders as civis romanus as well. They are the way French nationalists supporting Marine LePen speak now, and Nigel Farage’s pro-Brexit forces in the U.K., and “alt-right” activists in the United States, and of course the Breitbart empire under presidential counselor Steve Bannon. They rest on basic distinctions between us and them as peoples—that is, as tribes—rather than as the contending ideas and systems that presidents from our first to our 44th had emphasized.
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This tone in Trump’s speech is clearer if you watch it rather than read it, but here is a sample passage, with highlights on a few distinctive notes:
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. (Applause.)
If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.
But just as our adversaries and enemies of the past learned here in Poland, we know that these forces, too, are doomed to fail if we want them to fail. And we do, indeed, want them to fail. (Applause.)
They are doomed not only because our alliance is strong, our countries are resilient, and our power is unmatched. Through all of that, you have to say everything is true. Our adversaries, however, are doomed because we will never forget who we are. And if we don't forget who are, we just can't be beaten. Americans will never forget. The nations of Europe will never forget. We are the fastest and the greatest community. There is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations.
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.
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. (Applause.)
In context, the final sentence did not come across with the gusto of all the rest.
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Has Donald Trump ever heard of Leni Riefenstahl? Would he recognize an allusion to Triumph of the Will? It’s possible—when Errol Morris interviewed him 15 years ago, Trump seemed familiar with details of Citizen Kane, even though he had an idiosyncratic view of the film’s meaning.
But there is no doubt that Steve Bannon has heard of Reifenstahl, and I’d imagine Steve Miller too. And they cannot fail to have foreseen how it would sound, in a Europe that also remembers connotations of national “will,” to have an American president say this, with emphasis as delivered:
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?
And, the closing words of the speech:
Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.
American presidents have spoken of ideas and ideals. This one speaks about will. He represents our country as just another tribe. I hope the country proves him wrong.