Not everyone who goes around celebrating the achievements of The West and decrying its destruction is a true friend of freedom. We’ve known this since at least a century ago, when the acclaimed German historian Oswald Spengler wrote his magisterial tome The Decline of the West (1919).
Trump's speech was sometimes beautiful and inspiring and others times strangely ominous.The book goes on for 800 pages about the magnificence of Western arts, sciences, literature, and wealth, but that’s not its thesis. The purpose of the treatise was to issue a dark warning: the West must be tribalized under a new Caesarism and fast, before the other mighty tribes of the world win the struggle for control.
The ideologies of Liberalism and Socialism are dead, Spengler wrote, as is the money-based economy, which is too thin and weak to enter the struggle for control of history. A new form of dictatorship, backed by a conscious vision and will of political masters leading the people, was necessary to seize the day.
Spengler’s huge book was met with awesome public acclaim, but what did it presage? Look at interwar Europe and you see.
That Poland Speech
The book comes to mind because of Donald Trump’s Poland’s speech, which was sometimes beautiful and inspiring and others times strangely ominous. It took a few days, but it is gradually dawning on people that the speech scripted by policy adviser Stephen Miller was more than a recitation of the usual political bromides. It was a proposal to refocus the governing philosophy of the United States at a deep level, and instill an awareness of the unique identity and mission of what he repeatedly called “The West” – a term that hasn’t had political resonance in decades.
The West, in the way the speech rendered it, is not merely an idea, but a people, a nation unto itself, united by great achievements, including triumphs in great conflicts. For example, the speech recounted the remarkable heroism of those who resisted the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising of 1943, and went further to celebrate the more recent resistance to Soviet occupation.
The way he recounted this history was just marvelous and inspired the crowd to nonstop standing and cheering.
It further sought to forge a solidarity–even an identity–between Poland and the United States as a distinct thing called the West, which Trump very beautifully described thusly:
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. We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives. And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.
I’ve written against so many of Trump’s policies and behaviors, but these words are stirring and true (as is much of Spengler’s book) and it is about time that someone said them in this generation. But note what is distinct about his formulation. He took pains to say that these traits belong to a certain “community of nations,” a particular people united behind a certain way of life.
Unlike his predecessors in office, he refused to describe these as hallmarks of the human ideal, a universal longing, but rather centered this outlook on a particular people – not the ideas that the people hold (ideas can be ported anywhere) but somehow embedded in a certain demographic.
Trump further warned that the West was under profound threat from two enemies: the overweening bureaucratic state and invasion from foreign ideology (radical Islam). To fight against these two threats, Trump prescribed a new awareness of the uniqueness of the Western tradition.
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?
This is a lot to unpack! Trump is positing an existential threat that can only be met by a conscious identity awareness. And what does this awareness lead to? A willingness to defend, a courage to fight, a desire to survive. And for what? For a way of life that resides within a narrow range of the human experience. It is not universal.
This isn’t just my interpretation. David French of National Review insightfully contrasts Trump’s speech with speeches by Bush and Obama, and observes: Trump “located the values that other presidents have deemed universal squarely within a Western context, and he specifically rejected a universalism and moral equivalence.”
The blood-and-soil view of what makes civilization great is contradicted by our own eyes.French’s article seems to represent many opinions on the right side of the political spectrum, in which people are fed up with feeling as if they need to apologize for the achievements of the West and should rather take pride in them. As French says, Trump takes pain to locate these achievements in history with a certain specific experience of a particular people, attached to a particular Judeo-Christian outlook.
And yet, there really is a difference between celebrating freedom and engaging in crude cultural chauvinism. There is a world of difference between the claim that freedom grows out of certain institutions (“the primordial thing,” said Ludwig von Mises, is “the idea of freedom from the state”) and claiming that it is rooted in blood and soil.
Where Is Freedom?
The blood-and-soil view of what makes civilization great is contradicted by our own eyes. The world today shows the success of freedom and rights in many cultures and among many peoples the world over. Markets exist everywhere on the planet. So do human rights and the rule of law. So do symphonies, great architecture, innovation, free speech, and art. Wherever people are given freedom from the state, they thrive.
What the freest nations have in common is not blood, religion, geography, or language but that primordial thing, liberty.For proof, look no further than the Index of Economic Freedom. Champions including Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Mauritius, United Arab Emirates, and Chile are spread across the globe and span many races. What they have in common is not blood, religion, geography, or language but that primordial thing, liberty.
It’s one thing to observe that this thing we call The West was first to fully develop liberal ideas. This makes the idea of The West a matter of historical documentation and an indisputable fact. It’s another thing entirely to postulate that they belong to a certain people by virtue of...what? This was the unspoken aspect of Trump’s speech. What does he really mean? Is it religion, geography, great leaders, language, or... race perhaps?
Hearing Dog Whistles
The prospect that Trump’s speech was really a cover for a darker agenda prompted Peter Beinart to declare that Trump’s speech was nothing more than an exercise in political and racial paranoia. The West is clearly not a geographic designation as such, since “Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of The West. Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.”
If not geographic, what is it?
Poland is largely ethnically homogeneous. So when a Polish president says that being Western is the essence of the nation’s identity, he’s mostly defining Poland in opposition to the nations to its east and south. America is racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse. So when Trump says being Western is the essence of America’s identity, he’s in part defining America in opposition to some of its own people. He’s not speaking as the president of the entire United States. He’s speaking as the head of a tribe.
Before rejecting Beinart’s claims as the tirades of a left-wing race-baiter, consider that Trump’s formulation of The West as a people and experience rather than an idea represents a significant departure from old liberal ideals. In particular, the speech adds a special tweak to the enlightenment ideals we attached to thinkers like Hume, Locke, Smith, and Jefferson, funneling them through the lens of a tradition of thought that stands opposed to those ideals. What he is really proposing here is another form of identity politics that rejects universalism in fact and goal.
The Trouble with Universalism
To be sure, the cause of universal rights has been used as an excuse to violate those very rights. When Condoleezza Rice said that freedom and democracy belong to all, she was justifying the kind of nation building for which the Bush and Clinton administration were most known. What that policy leads to is not freedom in fact, much less democracy, but chaos of the sort we see in the war-torn nations of the Middle East. Universalism of that sort leads to imperialism.
It’s not about blood and soil. It’s about the pursuit of happiness that is the right of all people.That is the wrong kind of universalism. It imagines that since everyone has human rights, the most powerful nation should grant them good and hard, even if at the expense of the human rights of those chalked up as “collateral damage.” The critique of this view is also right. Freedom grows from a cultural firmament, gradually, as an extension of the hearts of the people. It can’t be imposed at the point of a gun, whether it is done by left-leaning neoliberals or right-leaning neoconservatives.
Many people who rally around Trump’s ideas today have identified this very problem with universalist politics. But are they choosing the right replacement? There has to be some alternative to “universalist” imperialism other than protectionism, isolation, cultural chauvinism, and religio-racial supremacy.
The Real Liberal Alternative
As it happens, there is an alternative. It was once called liberalism and today is called classical liberalism or libertarianism. With regard to this problem, the doctrine can be summarized as follows: universal rights, locally enforced. It observes that the longing for freedom is a universal ideal but it warns against any attempt by government to use power, at the expense of freedom, to impose it.
With Tocqueville, it defers to the cultural traditions and folkways of a people, recognizing that there are infinite ways in which universal rights come to be embodied in real human experience. It is tolerant and respectful of them all. In the writings of Ludwig von Mises, this liberalism sees its realization in limits on state power, the freedom of expression and movement for all individuals, free trade, and peace and harmony among peoples and nations.
Liberalism of this sort does not rest on some dark Hegelian view of history in the form expressed by Oswald Spengler a century ago. A new Caesarism will not save The West but rather take from it its most defining characteristic: freedom of the individual from the state.
The New Moderates
Where does that leave those of us who can’t rally around Trump’s vision or those who despise that vision? Maybe that leaves us in an enviable position.
The message that universal liberty needs no tribal strongman has never been more appealing, or more necessary.Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia made a passing remark at FEEcon that stuck with me. He has long been a student of F.A. Hayek’s work and a solid libertarian. He says that these days, he feels less strident than ever before, for one simple reason. The right and left have become intensely partisan, unreasonable, internal, and vituperative in their tribal loyalties, and this is precisely what their leadership wants. They are two tribes fighting over the spoils of a corrupt and failing system. In this war, no one can win.
This has put Wales and many of us in the implausible position of feeling like moderates. We are able to talk sense with any reasonable person without changing our principles. A libertarian can be the most radically moderate person in the room.
The path forward is to drop the longing for a great and decisive tribal conflict and move toward a system of peace, prosperity, and social harmony for all. It’s not about blood and soil. It’s about the pursuit of happiness that is the right of all people.
The message that universal liberty needs no tribal strongman has never been more appealing, or more necessary.