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Trump's Narrow View of 'Civilization'

The president's Warsaw speech takes a paranoid view of internal threats while downplaying the central role that international exchange has played in the rise of the West.

"I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken," President Donald Trump vowed near the end of his doctrine-defining speech today in Warsaw's Krasinski Square. "Our values will prevail, our people will thrive, and our civilization will triumph."

Set rhetorically and physically against the backdrop of Poland's inspiring courage and perseverance in the face of long adversity, Trump's address, at turns apocalyptic and motivational, was an attempt to summon similar will to the shared project of defeating radical Islamic terrorism. "Together let us all fight like the Poles: for family, for freedom, for country, and for God," he said.

But Trump's policy recommendations for this clash of civilizations were disproportionately inward-looking, borderline paranoid; and his depiction of what constitutes "Western" values was cramped and incomplete. The foundation of the modern "West" as applied to Europe is about more than just faith and family and NATO (the latter of which the president was careful to emphasize in this Russophobic, alliance-loving former satellite state). Free Europe as we know it was built upon free trade, and as Donald Trump will hear earfuls about over the coming days, his mercantilist, zero-sum views on international exchange threaten to inflict harm on the very civilization he aims to protect.

To confront the "oppressive ideology" of expansionist Islam, the president today pointed largely to immigration policies, surely music to the ears of the Polish government, which, like those in Hungary and Austria, is currently taking flak from the European Union for refusing to admit relocated refugees. "While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people," Trump said to applause, "our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind…. We cannot accept those who reject our values and who use hatred to justify violence against the innocent."

Trump then identified two other sources of trouble that threaten to erode western resolve: the "destabilizing activities" and "support for hostile regimes" by nearby Russia (which may or may not have been target of the immediately preceding paragraph, which covered "propaganda, financial crimes, and cyberwarfare"), and also…well, would you believe bureaucracy?

Finally, on both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted by yet another danger—one firmly within our control. This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles: the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people. The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.

This is where not just Trumpism, but a whole lot of libertarianism and conservatism, collides into a paradox. Trump is entirely right that the West became great in large part through "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice," as Adam Smith put it in 1776, at the dawn of modern liberalism. This brilliant new idea in admittedly imperfect settings changed the world forever. "The boldness of commoners pursuing their own interests resulted in a Great Enrichment—a rise in Europe and the Anglosphere of real, inflation-corrected incomes per head, from 1800 to the present, by a factor, conservatively measured, of about 30," the economist Deirdre McCloskey wrote in these pages earlier this year.

So what's the paradox? In an E.U. setting, that the transnational body itself has been the single most effective mechanism for reducing barriers to trade and movement throughout the bloc. Americans look at Brussels and imagine Bernie Sanders or Bill de Blasio, forever soaking the rich and telling farmers how to curve their bananas. But many Europeans recognize it as the body that dismantled state ownership of airlines and car factories, and allowed Polish plumbers to find work in Paris and London. As the Swedish economist Johan Norberg wrote here last year,

[W]hile many of the criticisms leveled against the E.U. for being too big, too costly, and intervening where it shouldn't may sound like familiar gripes in the United States, the E.U. and the U.S. federal government are in no way equal.

The E.U. commission has 33,000 employees—half the number employed by the U.S. Social Security Administration alone. The E.U. has no right to tax, and its budget is around 1 percent of the GDP of the E.U. countries, compared to around 20 percent in the U.S. […]

Most often, nationalists complain that Brussels is promoting a "neo-liberal" agenda that stops them from protecting their markets with tariffs and technical trade barriers and from subsidizing national champions and local industry.

Trump, like many libertarians and other free-trade proponents who nonetheless oppose tariff-reducing super-structures, does so in the name of preserving national self-determination. "Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty," he said today. There's a reason why he expresses visible preference for the controversial, Euroskeptic governments in Poland and Hungary, as well as for similar though less successful political parties such as France's National Front. But unlike the Daniel Hannans of the world, the U.S. president (uniquely in post-war history) does not actually favor free trade, nor fully understand how it works, and so therefore inaccurately lumps its proponents into a conspiratorial mass of forces sucking vitality out of the West.

"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," he said ("South" means Middle East, "East" means Russia). "If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies."

Pay close attention to what Trump is saying, and also not saying, here. Brussels bureaucrats threaten "to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are" (you can add the aforementioned "family" to that list as well). But does that really encompass what Americans or Poles or Europeans are?

No, it does not. Europeans and Americans also mix. We trade, we travel, we move, we mingle, we inter-marry. Such syncretism is foundational to our common culture. As yet another historian of the Great Enrichment, Matt Ridley, put it in Reason back in 2010, the post-1800 explosion of prosperity in Europe and America was due in strong part to "ideas having sex." Neither Amsterdam nor its former namesake in the colonies, Donald Trump's hometown, became rich by erecting tight controls on goods and humans.

The best parts of Trump's speech acknowledged that kind of dynamism, even while see-sawing it with respect for tradition:

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.

Unfortunately, Trump's trade policies, in the name of safeguarding tradition, threaten to hobble the very innovation he otherwise champions. Meanwhile, the rest of the free world is preparing to move on.

"Japan and the European Union will hoist the flag of free trade high amidst protectionist trends," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a news conference Thursday, announcing the outlines of a historic tariff-reduction pact with the E.U. The deal will create a trading bloc that rivals the NAFTA zone in size, with an increasingly multilateralism-averse United States on the outside looking in. E.U. Commision President Jean-Claude Juncker poured further salt in the wound: "Closing ourselves off from the world is not good for business, nor for the global economy, nor for workers. As far as we are concerned, there is no protection in protectionism." (Eurocrats are nothing if not awful with the pithy quotes.)

Trump's Warsaw speech, in conjunction with previous addresses in Riyadh and Little Havana, was clearly intended to lay down a strong foreign policy marker for this administration. In all three he stressed the need for other countries to take responsibility for their own regional security, a message sorely needed not just over there but back at home. There are plenty of unresolved incoherences left after all the verbiage, not least of which is where Russia fits into this sphere-of-influence, clash-of-civilizations world (indeed, Trump invited America's rival to "instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself").

But most every positive instinct this president may have—against nation-building abroad, in favor of bureaucracy-slashing at home—could come to naught if he doesn't graduate his understanding of international exchange out of the 19th century, and recognize that classical liberalism is eradicating poverty all over Africa and Asia as well as in "the West."

"The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive," Trump warned today, darkly. "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?"

Here's a somewhat different, if related, question: Does Donald Trump have the confidence to keep running history's most effective anti-poverty machine? And can the thing keep humming along regardless of what the American president thinks? This week may provide a few more answers.

Photo Credit: whitehouse.gov

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  • Crusty Juggler > You||

    Americans look at Brussels and imagine Bernie Sanders or Bill de Blasio, forever soaking the rich and telling farmers how to curve their bananas.

    This is one of the most disgusting euphemisms I have ever read on this site. My word.

  • Charles Easterly||

    Perhaps things could be worse...

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I'm shifting towards being socially conservative because of all the debauchery here.

  • ||

    Since when does Poland get to constitute part of "the West"?

    If you're east of Germany, you're part of the East, and are some sort of inferior mud-people.

  • Kivlor||

    It works like this:
    Western European > Eastern European > inferior mud-people.

  • JeremyR||

    Er, when wasn't it?

    If not for the Poles under the leadership of Jan Sobieski , all of Europe would likely have been conquered by Islam.

    But hey, I'm sure we'd have freedom in the West under a Caliphate.

  • ||

    Sorry, but that's simply untrue. By the time of the second major Ottoman push on Vienna that Sobieski stopped, they were already regressing in terms of economic output and social development vs. France, the Dutch, Spain, and England. Within 100 years, backwards-ass Russia was blowing their doors off in every war they [the Turks] fought against them unaided.

    Western Europe was in no way endangered by the Ottoman Empire if they'd won at Vienna. They didn't have the resources to push any farther, or even to hold that city for long if they'd won the battle. They still had some bite left (they beat the Austrians several times in the first Russo-Turkish war), but the Ottoman high tide was a century before this.

  • Mongo||

    A conservative , Roman Catholic country is definitely 'the West.'

    My take on his 'South' reference is anything south of the Rio Grande.

  • ||

    Western Europe is technically as Gojira said it.

    If not, my minor in political science is worthless.

  • WakaWaka||

    I hate to break this to you, but....

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Civilization as in us who are opposed to people who want to take us back to the Stone Age with them.

  • Tony||

    Your clothes are more likely to kill you than a terrorist.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    *removes clothes

  • Dillinger||

    *banana curves

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    On second thought, I'll take my chances with the clothes.

  • Crusty Juggler > You||

    The rich just soaked by farm, if you know what I mean.

  • Dillinger||

    aw. banana < murderous threads

  • ||

    Is that the new 'we're so rational' meme going around the left-wing wagon?

  • Tony||

    Yup. Visit sometime. It's relaxing being right about everything.

  • John C. Randolph||

    Wishing doesn't make it so, rent-boy.

    -jcr

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Especially a burka. That thinks covers your whole body, so your odds go WAY up!

  • Widsith||

    Oddly enough, it was people living in what is now called Iraq who invented civilization and helped bring us out of the Stone Age (the Neolithic, actually) in the first place.

  • Charles Easterly||

    "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.

    So... The North, South, and East areas of the globe are losers in the parlance of Trump himself?

    There is also this: and our civilization will triumph

    Collectivism?

    Discuss.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>our civilization will triumph

    Debutantes > ISIS

  • Charles Easterly||

    I simply do not understand your post.

  • Dillinger||

    I liked it. Civilization wins.

  • Crusty Juggler > You||

    "The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive," Trump warned today, darkly. "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?"

    Do we have to give up all of our privacy?
    I hope the US is prepared to fight the ISIS navy.
    Yes.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>Russophobic, alliance-loving former satellite state

    they kinda have precedent, Matt

  • Tony||

    This has Bannon, paragon of Aryan beauty, all over it. I'm curious to know what Trump would believe without that fat Grima whispering sweet white supremacist nothings into his ears all day.

  • ||

    Can you prove without a shadow of a doubt he's a white supremacist?

    If not, pipe down lefty.

  • Tony||

    Yes. Look at the libertarian defend a government high priest with the president's ear. What lessens your skepticism, the R after his name or the white supremacism?

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    that the claim is coming from you Tony. As you tend to be a lying piece of shit.

  • ||

    You showed me.

  • Kivlor||

    "The foundation of the modern "West" as applied to Europe is about more than just faith and family and NATO (the latter of which the president was careful to emphasize in this Russophobic, alliance-loving former satellite state)."

    You know Matt, it's not a phobia when it's rational, right? The Poles have a long history of conflict with the Russians, dating back centuries. They were under the control of the USSR in living memory. And their former master have been making examples of a few other former client states...

  • Trigger Warning||

    Matt Welch just called Poland-fucking Poland-Russophobic.

    Matt? You're a fucking retard, Matt. Fuck you.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Matt clearly does not know that the Polish have good reason to not like the Russians.

    It might be the reason that the Polish sought the independent state of Poland from the German Empire and the Russian Empire.

    Then the Polish fought Russia 1919-1921.
    Then Poland fought German and the USSR in 1939.
    Poland was conquered and split by Germany and the USSR until 1941.
    Then Poland claimed the USSR killed Polish in the Katyn forest massacre.
    Polish hero Wladyslaw Sikorski was potentially killed by Communist agents off Gibraltar in 1943.
    The USSR failed to aide Polish during the Warsaw uprising in 1944.
    The USSR help Poland as a Communist satellite until 1989.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    ^ Three posters who could clearly take on Matt Welch when it comes to Eastern European policy.

    Because Welch is definitely a dummy about all of this. That's widely known.

  • JeremyR||

    And it's not just Russia. Poland was also key to throwing back (once again) the invading sword of Islam.

  • chemjeff||

    My dictionary says:

    pho·bi·a
    ˈfōbēə/
    noun
    noun: phobia; plural noun: phobias

    an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

    So a phobia doesn't have to be irrational per se, just "extreme". So Matt's not entirely wrong. Although I probably would have chosen a different word, one that doesn't connote a type of irrational paranoia.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken," President Donald Trump vowed...

    And never again not be broke.

  • JeremyR||

    Well, the whole world is basically that. But thanks to the west, we're using money, not slaves as currency

  • Mongo||

    I can't be the only person who has to re-read the words 'President Trump' multiple times.

  • chemjeff||

    "Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?"

    That's not "respect", Don. That is paternalism.

  • WakaWaka||

    Even if that's what voters want? It's not 'paternalism' to decide what's best for them, despite their objections?

    Libertarian moment!

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    By that criteria, Prohibition was not paternalism, while the first and second amendments are.

  • WakaWaka||

    Are we now saying that immigration is the equivalent to 'Free Speech' and the 'Right to Bear Arms'?

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    We're saying that the popularity of a measure is not a defense against the charge of paternalism.

  • WakaWaka||

    Ignoring the opinion of the electorate with regards to a political question, such as immigration, because others know what is in the best interest of the electorate is the definition of 'paternalism'.

    Conflating natural rights with political questions is disingenuous

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    Ignoring the opinion of the electorate with regards to a political question, such as immigration, because others know what is in the best interest of the electorate is the definition of 'paternalism'.

    And who is doing that? You're the one citing this motive, and while it might be out there, it's not the one used by the libertarians I see.

    Can't we just agree that neither position amounts to paternalism?

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    And again, by your own criteria, how do you escape your own charge of paternalism? Are those seeking to restrict immigration not doing what they think is in the best interest of the electorate, despite the dissenters protestations? There was enough electorate support to amend the Constitution to ban alcohol, so again, Prohibition would not be considered paternalism here.

  • chemjeff||

    Yes, WakaWaka. If the voters were to say "take away all my rights so that you can keep me safe in this warm comfortable Snuggie of government" then it wouldn't be respect, it would be condescension. In this case, if the voters say "I'm skeered of all the furriners out there who are stealing our jerbs and sending rapists and terrorists over the border", then a government that accedes to their paranoid demands isn't respecting them, it's patronizing them.

  • WakaWaka||

    Again, you conflate individual rights with the political question of immigration.

  • XM||

    The modern world came from western society. Most people have a working understanding of what "western value" means. It's blasphemy to the left, who gnash their teeth at the very notion that certain values and cultures are theoretically superior to others. Oh, perish the thought!

    Trump's problematic stance on free trade (it's mostly bluster about 'renegotiation' for the time being) doesn't really undercut his central message. Even in the Trumpian era, I can go online and buy dozens of things from Korea. I can even buy USA underwear with no fear of violating some "desecration laws". Can I do that in the middle east? We all fret about the NSA, but there's no 'cyber police' here who can track you and arbitrarily shut down sites in the name of public good - that's actually common in "democratic" parts of Asia.

    Defending our values from a culture stuck in the stone ages is a perfectly defensible position. We can assign different meanings to 'western values'. Welch says free trade is one of them. Libs will say universal healthcare is a western value. So on. But we all prefer to exist in the modern world where certain old world rules no longer apply. No one in Japan wants to restore the Samurai ruling class. Well, probably some do.

  • Jerryskids||

    "I declare today, and believe me, you're gonna love this, I declare today for all the world to hear, everybody, everywhere, no matter if you're in Mexico, which, by the way is treating us very, very unfairly, bigly unfairly, but that's going to change, believe me, or in China, which is a country, by the way, that we used to have some problems with but, no, they're nice folks, great people, we getting that straightened out, they've got this great wall over there, have you seen this thing? great wall, keeps out the immigrants, big, beautiful wall, just fantastic, that the West will never, ever be broken, believe me," President Donald Trump vowed near the end of his doctrine-defining speech today in Warsaw's Krasinski Square. "Our values, and they're very good values, almost as good a value as the values at Trump Resorts, almost as good, not as good, nobody beats Trump for value, believe me, will prevail, our people will thrive, and our civilization, our whole American civilization, but not just American, I mean there's American civilization all over the world now, am I right? will triumph, believe me."

    That's how you know it's Trump speaking his own words instead of reading what somebody else wrote for him.

  • WakaWaka||

    Nothing is more 'libertarian' than unaccountable international bureaucracies!

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Nice piece, Matt.

  • Otis B. Driftwood||

    FUCK. YES.
    Another Trump article! No one in the media had really been covering LITERULEE HITLUR for the last few weeks, so I am relieved to know that Reason is keeping the POTUS in check. The fuckin' NYT is covering nonsense like jobs reports and dumbass North Korea...really stupid shit like SCOTUS cases...not a PEEP about HITLUR. Thankfully, we've got REASON on that shit! Keeping MOOSOLEENEE HITLUR POL POT MIKE ROWE CEAUSESCU in check.

    Props to Welch.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    He is the President, you know.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Whats the excuse for covering what Hitlery is doing, then? She is NOT the President.

  • wareagle||

    In an E.U. setting, that the transnational body itself has been the single most effective mechanism for reducing barriers to trade and movement throughout the bloc.

    and then the EU morphed (predictably) into a political body that undid whatever economic good was put into place. Because nothing says "reducing barriers" quite like bureaucrats in Brussels dictating how English fishermen ply their trade.

  • Bra Ket||

    Trump criticizes govt regulation on both sides of the Atlantic, and Welch's response is to defend the EU?

  • Domestic Dissident||

    "I'm a liberal."
    -Matt Welch

  • Headache||

    Well, maybe.

    But, the structure/flow of the article clearly says "I'm a crack head."

  • mtrueman||

    "Here's a somewhat different, if related, question: Does Donald Trump have the confidence to keep running history's most effective anti-poverty machine?"

    If he did, he wouldn't have taken the same position on trade as Bernie Sanders. Trump's protectionism seems to be the only consistent position he's held, going back decades. I doubt a visit to Poland, where potential votes and donations are thin at best, is going to change that.

  • Amogin||

    The minority president'[s views on trade don't really matter to anyone but his ardent supporters. The countries of Europe and Asia have taken his measure and decided to unite against his policies. Just today, it was announced that the EU and Japanhave agreed to the braod outlines of a free trade deal before the Summit meetng of world leaders even begins. There is no way the minority President will be able to negotiate those "{fabulous one on one deals" of which he boasted so proudly duning the campaign. The US will face the choice of accepting the deals reached by the other nation, united or being excluded from those deals completely. Isn't that just great?: No trade= no jobs.

  • Headache||

    broad outlines of a free trade deal

    You mean they didn't previously agree to the broad outlines of a free trade?

  • PL@pierrelemieux.com||

    A very good piece, except for "if he doesn't graduate his understanding of international exchange out of the 19th century." I think Trump should go back to the 19th century, where most of our understanding of trade originates. The mercantilist centuries were the 16h and the 17th (and part of the 18th).

  • m.EK||

    What seems to be lost on most of the political hacks is that the "rule of Law" was a defined Law and not just the gibberish that Congress or the President or even the so called "supreme court" belches out.
    "The law" (9th Amendment) had NOTHING to do with legislation, decree, or "rulings". This was the understanding of the basic concept or principles of the Common Law. The cleanest and "legally" best way I've seen this written is Maybury's two rules, ie: "do all you have agreed to do and do not encroach on other persons or their property".
    When Adam Smith talked about the "invisible hand", the governing factor was that fraud, coercion, or force could not be made "legal"! This is the dis-advantage of reliance on legislation, decree, or "rulings". They can make harming others "legal" for government or corporations or even religions.
    A society's economic success and Liberty are the direct representation of the underlying "legal system". (this accounts for all the problems that business and even parents have in trying to teach decency or run decency within their business).

    We could do this, for Law is simply decency. Just needs a written version that is simple, concise, comprehensive, and able to weather the storms of the political hacks and attorneys (at "law").

  • Budbug||

    I don't think Trump is against globalization; he's certainly profited from it. I think what he is reflecting is a mood that wants globalization to happen organically rather than by force. FORCING open borders invites cultural CLASH instead of cultural ASSIMILATION. FORCING people to do something has historically always had negative results. Collectivism, while the traditional cement of Civilization, was turned on its ear with the American Revolution and its foundation of Individualism. Indeed, that Individualism, coupled with the dynamite engine of Capitalism, is the driving force behind the world's sudden rise in technology and wealth. Individualism was the refusal to accept Collectivism as the only option for Civilization to endure in the same manner as it has for millennia. Trump is a reflection of Individualism's reluctance to regress socially back into Collectivism and its forceful administration.

    The Internet is allowing and inviting gradual cultural assimilation and homogenization that can foster an organic globalization based on Individualism instead of Collectivism.

    Reducing the role of the Collectivist Elite to administrators rather than manipulators is understandably being met with great resistance by that Elite and their addiction to power, but Individualism WILL prevail.

    America is the genie of Individualism, and the genie is already out of the lamp.

  • BradA||

    Is the author talking about the kind of "international exchange" that brought the opportunity for urban renewal on a scale not previously thought possible? AKA 9/11?

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