The Falsehood at the Core of Trump's Warsaw Speech

The problem was not so much the speech as the speaker.

U.S. President Donald Trump gives a public speech in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument at Krasinski Square, in Warsaw, Poland July 6, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump gives a public speech in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument at Krasinski Square, in Warsaw, Poland July 6, 2017. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters)

Sunday was “trivialize violence against the media” day for President Trump. Thursday was “fly to Warsaw and champion Western values day.”

As presidential speeches go, Trump’s address in Warsaw was fair. Ish. If you forget who is speaking and what that person has been saying and doing since Inauguration Day—since the opening of his campaign in 2015—and really through his career.

But if you remember those things, the speech jolted you to attention again and again.

“We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.” This must be an example of what the grammarians should rename the “disjunctive we”: a we that does not include the speaker of the words. Rule of law? Free speech? Shortly before boarding the plane to Europe, President Trump’s advisers were reportedly discussing a pending CNN merger with AT&T as leverage against the news network—a possibility that, if realized, would be a perversion of anti-trust law.

And so it went through the catalogue of effrontery. A president who has made lewd remarks about assaulting women said, “We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success.” A president who won’t read his briefing books declared, "We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.” A president who once seemed unsure whether the abolitionist Frederick Douglass is alive or dead congratulated himself: “We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs.” A president whose brand is notorious worldwide for gaudy hideousness preened: “We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art.”

In Poland, President Trump at last delivered the pledge he omitted from his speech at Brussels’s NATO headquarters. “To those who would criticize our tough stance, I would point out that the United States has demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment.” But who now will be reassured by these glib words? The whole world has seen how long and how fiercely President Trump squirmed to avoid pronouncing them—and the world, friendly and hostile, will draw conclusions accordingly. As President Trump rightly noted, “Words are easy, but actions are what matters.” Trump’s actions reveal a president disturbingly infatuated with Russia first as a businessman, then as a candidate for president. Trump’s actions reveal a seeming affinity for Putin-style authoritarianism. His actions reveal that his words about NATO cannot be trusted—and they will not be trusted.

Trump took credit in Warsaw for the increases in defense spending announced by Germany and Canada, among other NATO countries, since his inauguration. But increases—small in scope, but symbolic in importance—were explicitly explained as reactions to decreasing trust in the U.S. guarantee and decreasing confidence in U.S. leadership. “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel, and while she did not in that speech name Donald Trump as the reason, her meaning could have been rapidly completed for her by her hearers.

Donald Trump devoted much of his speech to the heroic memory of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense and that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.

Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield -- it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls. Today, the ties that unite our civilization are no less vital, and demand no less defense, than that bare shred of land on which the hope of Poland once totally rested.

A less obtuse president might notice something amiss in comparing the challenges of the wealthy and powerful nations of the West today to the desperate and doomed struggle of the Polish Home Army. The phrase “the blood of patriots” does not belong in the mouth of a president who “likes people who don’t get captured” and demeans the sacrifice of a family that lost its son in the service of the United States.

Bad taste aside though, it’s even stranger to hear Donald Trump speak of “our own fight for the West.” If his foreign policy has had one theme since January 2017, it has precisely been to smash the unity of the Western alliance. The spinal column of the Western alliance is the U.S.-Germany relationship, and Trump has undermined it since Day One. This speech itself amounts to one more such blow against unity: Trump traveled to Warsaw to praise and reward a Polish government that all America’s other leading allies in Europe have been reproving for its suppression of free media and politicization of its legal system. Trump’s speech in praise of the unity of the West predictably and perversely ended up being an attack on the unity of the West.

Perhaps the weirdest moment in the whole weird speech was this.

“This great community of nations has something else in common: In every one of them, it is the people, not the powerful, who have always formed the foundation of freedom and the cornerstone of our defense.” But Donald Trump always represents himself as the most powerful person anywhere around him. He revels in a self-image of brutish dominance over others. “Anybody who hits me, we’re gonna hit them 10 times harder.” He and his spokespeople have boasted or threatened that dozens of times since 2015. This man who always yearned to be seen as powerful says the powerful can’t be trusted? Now he tells us!

But of course the president did not intend to criticize himself. He was throwing a jab at those sinister elites he’s always contending against—and the transnational institutions they have built. If “the West” exists as more than a figure of speech, it exists because Western countries share intelligence against threats—sharing that Trump sabotaged by his reckless false accusations that Britain wiretapped him. It exists because we trade freely with each other—trade that Trump has denounced over and over as “unfair” and “very bad.” It exists because of the military alliances that Trump has condemned as obsolete and because of shared ideals of democracy and freedom as opposed to the thugs and dictators Trump admires.

Peter Beinart heard in Trump’s speech some nasty religious and ethnic exclusion.

[W]hen Trump warned Poles about forces “from the south or the east, that threaten … to erase the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition,” he was talking not about Christianity but about Christendom: a particular religious civilization that must protect itself from outsiders.

Yet the most troubling thing about the speech was the falsehood at its core; the problem is not with the speech, but with the speaker. The values Trump spoke for in Warsaw are values that he has put at risk every day of his presidency—and that he will continue to put to risk every day thereafter. Trump’s not wrong to perceive a threat to the Euro-Atlantic from the south and east. But the most recent and most dramatic manifestation of that threat was the Russian intervention in the U.S. election to install Donald Trump as president. The threat from outside is magnified by this threat from within—and it is that truth that makes a mockery of every word President Trump spoke in Warsaw.