This morning in Warsaw, Poland, President Donald Trump issued a battle cry — for “family, for freedom, for country, and for God" — in a speech that often resorted to rhetorical conceits typically used by the European and American alt-right. It sounded, at times, not just like the populists of the present but the populists of the past.
Drafted by Steve Miller, the architect of the travel ban, Trump’s speech used the type of dire, last-chance wording often utilized by the far right on both sides of the Atlantic: "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?” Trump asked. “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?”
Trump arrived in Warsaw Wednesday night for a 16-hour visit in the runup to the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Poland was a less-than-obvious choice for Trump’s first major public European speech. Typically, American presidents land in London, Paris, or Berlin before Eastern Europe. But Trump has been at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over everything from climate change to migrant policy, and French President Emmanuel Macron has also positioned himself as a counterweight to the conservative American administration. The Polish leadership, on the other hand, seems to have more in common with Trump’s vision.
In his address, Trump cast the West, including the United States and Europe, on the side of “civilization.” With an undercurrent of bellicosity, he spoke of protecting borders, casting himself as a defender not just of territory but of Western “values.” And, using the phrase he had avoided on his trip to Saudi Arabia, he insisted that in the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism,” the West “will prevail.”
Again and again, Trump held up Poland as an example, saying their history reminds the world that “the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of the people to prevail.” He recalled the story of the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis in 1944: “The West,” he said, “was saved with the blood of patriots.”
That battle, the president seemed to say, is ongoing. He called on a new generation to rise up, saying “every last inch of civilization is worth defending with your life.”
“Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken,” Trump said. “Our values will prevail, our people will thrive, and our civilization will triumph.”
He did not mention that in 1944, the Polish patriots, while valiant, were not, ultimately, the saviors of the state. Nor did he note that Europeans widely see the Polish ruling party of today, which has tried to clamp down on the media and judiciary, as itself a threat to Western values. Some 90,000 Poles marched against the Polish government in early May, protesting its anti-democratic trajectory. That Poland was absent in Trump’s speech.
Trump addressed Russia, and NATO, but the real takeaway of the speech was its tenor
In his speech, Trump also addressed Russia, in advance of his highly anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this week. He urged Russia “to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere” and “its support for hostile regimes including Syria and Iran,” and to join the “community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies in defense of civilization itself.”
He also affirmed the US commitment to NATO’s Article 5, the assurance that each member will defend the others, on European soil. His failure to endorse that clause on his previous visit to Europe in May had angered traditional US allies. (He later did so, on US soil, but he had yet to do so in Europe.)
As expected, Trump also doubled down on his insistence that NATO allies pull their weight economically, and praised Poland for already giving 2 percent of its GDP.
But it was his insistent thread that recalled theories of a clash of civilizations that will be the primary takeaway from this speech. He was met with cheers throughout. Earlier in the week, the Associated Press reported that the audience was largely hand-selected in advance by the Polish ruling party, which brought in supporters by bus to ensure a large crowd.
The crowds welcoming Donald Trump in Warsaw. I wonder where else he would get a similar reception in Europe. pic.twitter.com/wC6sWcJiYY— James Landale (@BBCJLandale) July 6, 2017
Earlier in the day, Trump bashed the media and offered insight into foreign policy decisions in the making
Trump’s speech came after a joint press conference held with Polish President Andrzej Duda, during which the American president called CNN “fake news” and said what he would like to see is “honest” and “fair press” because fake news was a “bad thing, very bad for our country.”
The President of the United States, representing the U.S. on foreign soil, attacks the American free press as “fake news” pic.twitter.com/LJwOjApHUO— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) July 6, 2017
At the same press conference, Trump told traveling press that hacking might have come from Russia in the 2016 presidential elections but “nobody really knows for sure.”
"I think it was Russia,” he said, “and I think it could've been other people."
And asked about North Korea’s missile testing, he said there would be “consequences” for their “very, very bad behavior.” But he did not specify what those consequences would be outside of “some pretty severe things.”