On July 6, 2017, Donald Trump delivered a speech in Warsaw that was clearly intended as a landmark in the fog and swirl of geopolitical debate. The Warsaw speech evoked a vision of global politics, and it gave a suggestion of what Trump’s confusing presidency stands for. Some parts of the transcript might seem innocuous, but the overall implications of such a speech, delivered in such a setting, are seriously worrisome.
President Trump spent much of his time extolling the history, traditions, and culture of the Polish people. Up to a point, this approach was commonplace and unexceptionable. It was tailored to win applause from the immediate audience while portraying the speaker as a deep thinker and an international statesman. Such rhetoric—praising a host country and expressing goodwill toward it—can forge bonds and understanding. Beyond a certain point, however, it can encourage nationalist movements and the merchants of xenophobia. Given a certain twist, it also panders to theocrats.
Beyond his play for local approval, Trump developed a theme of the United States, Poland, and other willing countries standing together in defense of Western values. At this point, the rhetoric gets slippery and dangerous. Trump and his speechwriters were trying to trade on the idea of “Western values.” But what, exactly, are those? On an optimistic interpretation, they could be the social and political principles that define Western liberal democracies. These include secular government, freedom of inquiry and debate, individual liberty, gender equality, and the rule of law. To his credit, Trump did mention some of these. However, he referred far more often to God. Again, he’d chosen to deliver this landmark address in Poland: a country where liberal-democratic principles are conspicuously fragile right now.
Polish politics is strongly influenced by religion (more specifically, by Roman Catholicism). Poland has draconian antiabortion laws; it has laws against blasphemy that it actively enforces; and it has an unusually strong presence of homophobia in its public discourse. As events are unfolding in 2017, its governing party—the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party headed by Andrzej Duda—seems determined to take political control of the judicial system. In all, Poland was a poor choice of setting for any speech in defense of liberal-democratic principles. From another viewpoint, however, the choice of venue was logical. Let me sketch what I think, and fear, is going on. The full argument must await another occasion.
Trump and those who advise him are not positioning him as a defender of liberal-democratic principles. They’re portraying him as a defender of Christendom or, rather, an imagined Judeo-Christian civilization. A defender against what? Judging from the Warsaw speech, and in the context of much else, the main threat comes from Islam, viewed as a great geopolitical force. I am normally a critic of the word Islamophobia, which is often employed to conflate legitimate criticism of Islam, including its overtly politicized versions, with anti-Muslim bigotry. It’s a word that chills important discussions. However, such terminology would be more acceptable if we restricted it to national leaders and their advisers (and, of course, their followers) who view Islam as a civilizational threat. Their vision of a civilizational struggle between Islam and a supposedly Judeo-Christian “West” goes beyond any plausible criticism of Islam as a religion.
There are historical comparisons for Trump’s imagined role as a defender of Judeo-Christian civilization. Whether or not Trump himself is even aware of them, we can be sure that advisers such as Steve Bannon are very aware and that they take such comparisons seriously.
In 732 CE, the Frankish ruler Charles Martel defeated the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate, led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, at the Battle of Tours. From this point, further incursions into Europe by the Islamic civilization of the time ground to a halt.
Much later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire failed in its attempts to conquer Vienna; these incidents were the 1529 Siege of Vienna and the 1683 Battle of Vienna. The latter began the Great Turkish War in which the Holy League—consisting of Poland, Russia, the Republic of Venice, the Papal States, and the Habsburg iteration of the Holy Roman Empire—defeated the Ottomans. These great events permanently halted the military expansion of Islamic civilization into Eastern Europe.
Trump is being positioned as our modern-day Martel, or perhaps as the leader of an updated Holy League. A genuine civilizational threat from Islam—if we faced one—could be analogized to the Umayyad and Ottoman invaders. It could also be analogized to more recent threats from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In Poland, Trump repeatedly referred to the Nazis and the USSR, just as we might expect. But all these are dangerous analogies. In particular, peaceful refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries are not the German Wehrmacht or the Red Army, any more than they’re Umayyad or Ottoman warriors.
From a certain ideological angle, it makes sense to deliver a major speech on geopolitics in Poland and to include overtures to Russia. Viewed from that angle, contemporary Russia under Vladimir Putin has potential as a member of a modern-day Holy League. Russia might need some tough love over its support of Bashar al-Assad—but from the perspective I’m referring to, Russia is fundamentally a Christian ally in a vast clash of civilizations. The authoritarian nature of its current regime is almost irrelevant. By contrast, nonbelievers and secularists in the United States and other liberal democracies are an additional enemy to Judeo-Christian civilization within its gates.
I’m describing a paranoid and distorted worldview, but something very like it seems to lie behind the Trump administration’s approach to international affairs (and perhaps much else). It doesn’t bode well for global peace, and it is bad news for secular humanists everywhere.