Trump’s Warsaw speech has attracted a lot of attention. Grown men and women have literally swooned at its beauty, grandeur, and audacity. Their claims suggest that if you combined Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, King’s I have a Dream speech, and Kennedy’s Inaugural Address and you combined Lincoln, King, and Kennedy into one speaker, they would only be half as good as Donald Trump’s Warsaw speech. Trump is, apparently, a master persuader so much better than Lincoln, King, and Kennedy combined. In light of this effusive praise, what has been lacking is a dispassionate analysis of his speech. The following attempts to provides a tentative or partial analysis to bring to light the issues it contains.
On the surface, Trump’s speech was not legendary; it was not even, adventurous. It appears, at best, a stump speech for foreign policy. His speech relied on standard rhetorical devices to create an enthusiastic audience response. Trump flattered his audience and they loved it. Who would not love to be flattered by the President of the United States? Trump praised Poland to Poles in Poland. Praising the audience is as old as Pericles’s Funeral Oration. The speaker is literally telling the audience what they already know, and what they want to hear. Who does not want to be praised? Who does not want to have their ancestors praised? Who does not want a heroic failure praised?
I am Polish by descent on my father’s side. That side of my family goes back to 13th century to what was Poland before the modern Poland was born. Anyone of Polish descent is going to know, at a minimum, about Pilsudski, the Polish Home Army, and Katyn Massacre. These are touchstones as potent as Washington, Gettysburg, or the Alamo, but they are not the only touchstones nor are they the most important. For Trump to praise these takes no effort. For Poles to cheer when they are praised takes no effort. Flattering an audience takes no effort. At best, this is emotional bribery; at worst, it is a cynical manipulation to avoid the deeper issues within the speech or faced by the audience.
What is overlooked amidst the incontinent praise was that the speech posed a deeper question, a question whose historical echoes remind us of the political consequences from a previous attempt to answer it. Trump appears, through the effusive praise of heroic Poles and heroic Poland, to Poles, in Poland, to have obscured the question and his answer. A few commentators heard his question and the answer, but most have confused the question and the answer such as those invoke Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech as a comparison. The comparison does force us to consider their similarities especially what they both say about America and the West, but they differ in a fundamental way. Reagan did not offer platitudes. He did not offer flattery. He spoke a hard truth that he was prepared to defend with blood and treasure. More to the point he engaged with his adversary and challenged them to come into the community of nations. If we stay on the surface of Trump’s speech, the hollow, shallow, refrain “the west is the best”, we stay with the easy, “feel good” bumper sticker slogans so that his base can feel powerful, important, and crucially, indomitable. Beneath that superficial exterior, the speech presents a less reassuring answer if we understand Trump’s answer. The empty, unthinking, praise does not understand that the West is in crisis. More to the point, it does not understand that Trump’s apparent answer to the Crisis of the West reveals a deeper problem. An answer that could worsen rather than lessen, or resolve, the crisis.
The West is in a crisis. All civilizations, nations, and people, are by their nature not eternal. Their mortality, their fragility, gives their accomplishments, even their death, significance, nobility, and meaning. For Trump, and others, it appears that the Crisis of the West is a spiritual crisis as the search for meaning that will endure or forestall that mortality. Although he rightly notes that Poland does hold a potential answer to that crisis, or at least part of an answer to part of the crisis, it is not necessarily the answer that defines the West. Trump’s attempt to address the spiritual crisis by reference to the will confuses the issue for it fails to ground the spiritual solution politically. Even though the will is not the same as the spirit, Trump’s approach reminded us of another speech that attempted to address a spiritual crisis by way of the will. In his praise of will, he sounds a theme similar to one raised by Martin Heidegger who also spoke of the will and spiritual renewal when he spoke of the self-assertion of the German university. Both Trump and Heidegger, though, evoke a spiritual renewal that differs from the one offered by Popes John Paul II or Benedict. They also called for the West’s spiritual renewal in important speeches that differ from Trump and Heidegger. It is perhaps in this divergence, over the West’s spiritual renewal or the best response to the Crisis of the West, that we need to understand Trump’s speech. To analyse the speech, we need to understand both its structure as well as it content.
Analyzing Trump’s speech
The speech has 70 paragraphs. Within the first 35 paragraphs, there are 18 that contain praise or celebrate Poland or the Polish people. In the remaining 35 paragraphs, there are only 6 paragraphs of praise or celebration. In the first half of the speech, we see many praise paragraphs such as
- So it is with true admiration that I can say today, that from the farms and villages of your countryside to the cathedrals and squares of your great cities, Poland lives, Poland prospers, and Poland prevails. (Applause.)
- And so I am here today not just to visit an old ally, but to hold it up as an example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization. (Applause.) The story of Poland is the story of a people who have never lost hope, who have never been broken, and who have never, ever forgotten who they are. (Applause)
In the second half, of the speech, Trump addresses many interrelated issues about the West, spirituality, God and the threats they faced. The second half of the speech, it is noticeable that the praise is reduced, the strategic drop-ins regarding foreign policy options occur, and the speech turns to the threats faced by the West, and by extension, Poland.
What is the threat?
The second half of the speech opens with the only paragraph to use the word threat.
- This continent no longer confronts the specter of communism. But today we’re in the West, and we have to say there are dire threats to our security and to our way of life. You see what’s happening out there. They are threats. We will confront them. We will win. But they are threats. (Applause.)
Any society or civilization must face the physical threats to its security and its way of life. However, these are only one type of threat. Trump describes several more which are central to his foreign policy. The first is, as expected, radical Islamic terrorism. Trump raises this threat at nearly every opportunity as if it is *the* threat facing America and the West. He describes it in similar terms to the existential threat that the Soviet Union, through its Communist ideology, posed during the Cold War when he calls it “another oppressive ideology”. Yet, by referring to radical Islamic terrorism as an ideological threat, he misunderstands both the Communist ideological threat and the threat of Islamic extremism. To put it crudely, he conflates ideological threat with a spiritual threat and assumes that the Islam, even radical Islamic extremism, is an ideology rather than a spiritual challenge. Perhaps by conflating these he reflects the muddled thinking of his advisors who seem unable to disentangle existential military threats, ideological threats, and the spiritual threat. In this, they appear to misunderstand the Crisis of the West, which is not so much caused by Islamic extremists as revealed by it and exacerbated by it. However, the subtlety of thought required to parse these issues and develop a confident, coherent, and consistent foreign policy appears to escapes him and, and most importantly, his strategic advisors. Leaving that issue, aside, we need to focus on the remaining threats to understand Trump’s attempt at a strategic vision.
The threat of powers that seek to test the West.
Trump refers to powers that confront the West and “seek to test our will, undermine our confidence, and challenge our interests”. He does not refer to states or countries but powers. The nuance is important as it allows him to make the first of two strategic “drop ins”; the strategically placed asides that allow him to speak to a different audience within his speech. In the next paragraph (41) he asks Russia to cease destabilizing Ukraine and supporting hostile regimes. What needs to be considered is whether Trump sees Russia as part of the West or a threat to it because it is outside of it. If Trump understands Russia through the Cold War lens, then he will see the West as a category that referred to non-communist states. Yet, this category, at a basic, level, would include Russia as it is no longer communist. If we consider the West as Christendom leavened with Greek Philosophy, what Thomas Aquinas synthesized to found the West, then Russia has a claim on the spiritual side to be part of the West since its leadership understands its fate, and identity, as Christendom’s true, final, guardian. Yet, if the West is understood as post-Christian liberal democratic alliance since the determinative characteristic is not Christendom but adherence to liberal democracy, then Russia would be excluded from the West. In an interesting twist, perhaps to avoid this nuanced problem, Trump asks Russia to join the Community of Responsible Nations (CORN). However, he does not clarify whether the CORN is the West or whether the CORN is a subset of the West or even if CORN transcends the West. Perhaps, he seeks to differentiate this difference for three paragraphs later (44) “responsible” is dropped so it becomes Community of Nations. He then turns to the next threat.
The unknown existential threat–bureaucracy.
On both sides of the Atlantic we face a tangible, visible, danger—bureaucracy. Bureaucracy as a threat seems to pale when compared to the apparent existential ideological threat from radical Islamic terrorism or the powers that threaten the West’s will, confidence, and interests. If we remain on the surface, the bureaucratic danger appears misplaced. Beneath that surface, though, bureaucracy appears to offer us an insight into the deeper, if not deepest, threat for the West. Although some commentators have seen bureaucracy as a short-hand for the law and the rule of law, they misunderstand how Trump sees the threat since bureaucracy attacks an individual’s autonomy that is sacrificed as the state regulates our behavior whether by law or by fiat. With the three threats identified, Trump turns to how the West will defend against them.
The defence of the West.
In the face of these threats, the West will stand resolute. Here Trump begins his attempt to develop a strategic vision. The West must remain firm in its culture, faith and tradition, so that its courage, spirit, will, remain intact. What is important, though, is that the West is ready for the effort since its alliance, countries, and power will ensure it prevails. It will prevail as long as we remember who we are, our achievements, and our salient characteristics. What is common across the West is that the people are the foundation of freedom and the cornerstone of its defense. If we accept popular sovereignty as the basis for political legitimacy, then a state like the United Kingdom is excluded since it is not founded on popular sovereignty. The Crown, including Parliament, is the source of political legitimacy. How this is expressed, though, is what brings us to the speech’s second “drop in” (paragraph 54) which forms an important parallel with the first. The West’s defense is expressed in NATO and Trump reaffirms America’s support for Article 5 mutual defense commitment. At this point, we have seen the threats and we have seen the West’s response. Yet, there is a deeper threat, which was hinted at earlier in the speech, that comes to the surface.
The Crisis of the West.
Despite the reference to an oppressive ideology as a potential threat to the West and the required reference to radical Islamic terrorism, which the community of nations can meet, we find something more difficult, the gravest threat, except it is not called a threat, it is posed as a question. Does the West have the will to survive?
- We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have. 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? (Applause.)
The question is one that has challenged the West for several decades. The question reminds us of the Crisis of the West, which is that the West is no longer certain of its purpose. For decades, the West has continued to face this question despite claims that it was answered in 1989 with the end of the Cold War and the apparent triumph of liberal democracy. The question, especially for America, has become urgent after 2001 as that provided a potential answer that simply raised a deeper question for America and the West. Trump will present an answer to the question. For his answer, he turns to the speech’s only historical example that has an extended discussion as the question posed in paragraph 57 is addressed over the next eight paragraphs (58 to 65) as he describes the Warsaw Uprising and the battle for Jerusalem Avenue. This section praises Poland’s spirit so that it appears that praise brackets the discussion of threats and the West’s response which means that the speech begins with praise and ends with praise. Except it doesn’t.
The speech shifts dramatically to two short, important, paragraphs. Trump suddenly shifts from the previous threats and their respective defences to something else, something more urgent, and more difficult. In paragraph 66 we find that the fight is not on the battlefield, it is in our minds, wills, and our souls. At the centre stands our will. It is from this beginning that our freedom, civilization, survival, are to be determined since these depend on our bonds of history, culture, and memory. The central word in each three-word series creates an interesting triad: will, civilization, and culture. Our fate rests upon our will. Yet, is our will enough? Are we ready to demonstrate the will to survive? Do we have what it takes to defend our civilization and our culture. Although neither civilization nor culture are described, it appears that the there is an answer to the Crisis of the West. There is an answer to question of whether the West has the will to defend itself.
What is the Crisis of the West? Three thinkers provide a context.
Before we consider Trump’s answer, we need to consider what the Crisis of the West means with three thinkers who have addressed the question of the Crisis of the West–Leo Strauss, Pope Benedict, and Martin Heidegger. Each came to it from their respective disciplines (political philosophy, revealed religion, philosophy) and each offered a different, if related, proposal to address the Crisis.
Through a series of books and a lifetime of scholarship, Strauss developed a complex, subtle, and controversial argument about the Crisis of the West. I cannot do justice to his writings or his thoughts, but I can sketch very briefly, and perhaps too crudely, what the Crisis of the West meant. At a basic level, the West has lost faith in its purpose to realize a universal society of free and equal nations where everyone can develop all their faculties. In this universal society, the nations would realize greater freedom and justice. When the world was infused with the principles that animated the West, it would have achieved its purpose. Yet, the belief in this purpose has been lost. It has been lost, to put it too briefly and too directly, because of the death of reason as evidenced in the slaughter of World War One and the monstrous regimes that emerged before World War Two and the brutality of the regimes that followed. Reason had died to the extent that a modern society, pursuing the goal of a universal society of free and equal nations, was built upon the belief in reason as a basis and guide for life so that if reason was to fail or to be shown to be incomplete, then the basis for life within the West would be in crisis. However, this is too simple of argument since Strauss also understood that reason had to be understood as in tension with and in contradistinction to revelation as an important guide to life. Revelation, as a guide to organize society and provide meaning for that society, presents an ever-present rival to the belief in a society guided by reason. For Strauss, it is the tension between these two alternatives that gives the West its vitality. Yet, both of these pillars are in crisis. In brief, the death of God has shaken the West since it destabilizes the necessary tension between reason and revelation. With the decline in reason and revelation as guides to how we should live, the West had succumbed to the illusory belief in progress as promised by two ways of thinking that had emerged from the death of reason–Positivism and Historicism. Yet, these only proved temporary solutions since they only accelerated the flight from reason and revelation. Without reason or revelation, man soon succumbs to nihilism, the belief in nothing since the infinite progress promised by the radical alternatives to reason and revelation is illusory. Instead what was needed to resolve or address the crisis was a way to return to an understanding of reason that would shape public life that avoids modern reason’s pitfalls. However, within that broad alternative, there is another potential alternative as presented by Pope Benedict, through the Catholic Church, which is closely related to Strauss’s but contains an important difference in how it understands the Crisis of the West and the potential response by the West.
Pope Benedict confrontation with the Crisis of the West can be seen in his life’s work as presented through his many books, his academic career, and his religious life culminating in becoming Pope, where he set forth Christ’s message through Catholic theology. His work, in contradistinction to Strauss’s, develops faith to explain Christ’s message as a response to what he understands as the heart of the Crisis of the West. Although, it is too simplistic to simply differentiate Strauss and Benedict as philosopher versus the priest, that dichotomy does allow us to see their similarities and their differences.
Like Strauss, Benedict understood the Crisis of the West as one that involved faith and reason. The West had lost its belief in God and in reason where reason had become distorted to serve man without understanding God’s role, the divine spark that animates Truth and the search for Truth both through reason and faith. Instead, reason had become a tool to serve man’s appetites without reference to his soul or the need to find a spiritual path for reason to find the Truth. For Benedict, unlike Strauss, faith and reason work together or complement each other. They are not so much in tension, as suggested by Strauss, as they are continually working out how to reconcile themselves to each other to serve the Truth. One could summarize Benedict’s understanding of the Crisis of the West, perhaps too crudely but with enough clarity as to help us understand Trump, as reason distorted to understand the world without God, as presenting the illusion that will deliver a better understanding of how to live than a reason reconciled to revelation. The illusion expresses the Crisis of the West since it cannot offer man a path to Truth as it only points back to man. However, Strauss and Benedict only present a theoretical response with the political consequences implicit or only suggested. Instead, the political consequences from the Crisis of the West came from the alternative presented by the third thinker who they both confronted in their work.
Both men are connected by their encounter or confrontation with Martin Heidegger. In many ways, we can understand their work as a response to him and his teachings. It would not be too far to suggest that their works present an ongoing dialogue since he presents a challenge to both since he offers an alternative that neither accepts reason nor revelation in the same way. He, more than any 20th century thinker, explored the crisis of reason and faith. Yet, his final interview, published posthumously, is noted for his claim that only a god can still save us. Through his work we also see a certain synthesis of reason and faith, that runs contrary to both Strauss and Benedict that has marks Heidegger’s thought, writing, and teaching. The synthesis is unique to Heidegger and it was perhaps never seen so clearly as his 1933 address The Self-Assertion of the German University. This speech also appears to mark his last, perhaps only, attempt at political philosophy. His synthesis challenged what was previously understood as that which had founded Europe and the West– Thomas Aquinas’s work to harmonize Aristotle and Christianity. Aquinas is considered to have founded the West to the extent it is understood as an enterprise that harnesses Faith and Reason or harmonizes Aristotle to Christianity. Heidegger, though confronted this synthesis with a radical alternative as presented through his work. In this uncanny speech, he offered the political response to the break between Faith and Reason and the decay in both that had left modern man bereft of direction and in need of guidance. Instead of drawing those ends together in new tension, as suggested by Strauss, or seeing that faith and reason were in harmony, as suggested by Benedict, and the political consequences suggested by either, Heidegger offered a radical alternative drawing on an ancient idea and yet one that was uniquely updated to respond to the question of technology, which had altered man’s relationship to reason within a world where God was dead.
Heidegger as a harbinger for Trump?
Through this speech Heidegger addresses the spiritual crisis of the West. A crisis that was threatening to consume the West, Germany, and the German University. If we begin or return to a beginning in the face of Nietzsche’s claim that God is dead, then we find that we face a radical uncertainty that requires questioning as the highest form of knowing. In the midst of this crisis of radical uncertainty we are exposed to the most extreme danger that will create a truly spiritual world. It is only in the spiritual world that the people find greatness for it is there that they face the decisive struggle between the will to greatness and the acceptance of decline. Either we will ourselves to greatness or we accept, will ourselves, to decline. Through their struggle, the people will fight for their spiritual world so that the people will be a spiritual people. Heidegger saw the crisis as one of will, which required a new type of leader who could resolve the spiritual crisis. He argued that through the self-assertion could the German University fulfil its mission to the national community, the nation, and the spiritual mission of the German people to confront this crisis. However, the struggle was not simply within the German university or the German people since it engulfed the West. Heidegger saw the spiritual strength of the West would fail and this would only be resolved by the German people as a spiritual people wills itself and thus stop the Crisis of the West. They achieve this through battle and it is this struggle that defines them as a spiritual people who fulfil their historical mission. They would achieve this if they placed themselves under the leader’s will, since it is this will that provides them the way to determine their essence as a spiritual people. Heidegger’s response to the Crisis of the West was through a leader who wills the people to fulfil their historical mission. The tension between reason and revelation, the complementary relationship between reason and faith are now reconciled in this new leader.
Heidegger and Trump: distant echoes or a recurrent theme?
Heidegger’s proposed response to the Crisis of the West and the Strauss/Benedict responses foreshadow Trump’s Warsaw Speech. In particular, Trump’s speech has a strong resonance with Heidegger’s address since both speak of a spiritual struggle, a battle that the West was in danger of losing, which called forth the will to respond by a select, if not elect, people. Trump speaks of a similar struggle, a test of spirit, and the need for the will to respond. Moreover, we have something that Heidegger could only suggest in 1933. What Heidegger’s thought, as expressed within his address, was the need for the will, the need for a leader to resolve the tension between Faith and Reason; the need for one man who had the spiritual strength to stand in the storm. Such a man would resolve the crisis. Such a man appears to have arrived in Warsaw.
Trump’s answer to the Crisis of the West
Trump made an important, if not historical defining, declaration. His declaration transforms the speech from something ordinary to something extraordinary and daring, if not decisive for the West.
….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 civilisation will triumph. (paragraph 67)
Trump has answered the West’s existential question. As Leo Strauss argued, the West had become uncertain of its purpose. The West’s purpose was to realize a universal society of free and equal nations where everyone can develop their faculties. To do this and as a result of this universal society, the societies within the free and equal nations would realize greater freedom and justice. When the world had become infused with the principles that animated the West, it will have achieved its purpose and its future would be secure. By contrast, the Crisis of the West was that the West was no longer certain of its purpose, no longer able to deliver that vision, and the societies of greater freedom and justice were unrealized because the individual was unlikely to develop their full faculties. All of this is gone now. Trump is now certain of its purpose and its ability to deliver its vision. He has the answer. He has declared that spirit of Jerusalem Avenue is the answer. However, we have to consider whether it is an answer or the answer. In paragraph 67, Trump declares his answer the question of whether the West has the will to survive. In this one paragraph Trump has done something no other president, statesman, or thinker had done—he addressed the Crisis of the West.
- And today as ever, Poland is in our heart, and its people are in that fight. (Applause.) Just as Poland could not be broken, 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. (Applause.)
In one bold statement, one simple declaration, Trump has solved the crisis of the West. Thinkers from Heidegger, to Strauss, to Pope Benedict can rest assured. The Crisis is at an end. Trump has resolved it by asserting that the West has the will to survive. He moves beyond the need to reconcile reason and revelation, by restoring the West’s faith in its purpose, to replace that tension or harmony with new certainty. A certainty, that while foreshadowed by Heidegger in 1933, eluded him. Trump by contrast has declared he has replaced the tension or even the harmony with a certainty. A certainty that has been missing in the West for decades and one that resolves the tension between global technology and modern humanity. With one simple declarative sentence, we have moved to a new world historical age with this speech.
Has Trump used a flawed example to illustrate his answer to the Crisis of the West?
If you accept Trump’s declaration as true and binding, then it would be worthy of its praise. It would be worthy of the highest praise since it would have rescued the West from the fate that Heidegger, Strauss, and Pope Benedict had feared and were unable to avoid. If Trump has reconciled the West to its past and its future, then he has done what no political philosopher or statesman has been able to achieve. Trump will have refuted Nietzsche since we have the will to believe in God and the will to believe in the West’s purpose which reason provides. Yet, that belies a deeper problem within Trump’s speech, its central example, and the claim to resolve the Crisis of the West.
Understanding the Jerusalem Avenue in a different light
When we consider the historical example of Jerusalem Avenue, we have to consider there are two unstated outcomes. One is less problematic than the other for what his speech means or suggests, but both present a serious question to Poland and the West. Trump focuses on the struggle, an enduring struggle, so that the normal situation is struggle not peace. Within this claim is the deeper problem of constant struggle since struggle is not the basis for the common good that embodied the West and has ensured it can endure. If we accept Trump as having transcended the West and founded it anew upon the eternal struggle then he rejects peace as the normal state and sees it only as the exception. Within this worldview, the two outcomes become even more important for their consequences for the West.
First, The Poles lost. They were defeated at Jerusalem Avenue. The Nazis won that battle. The Soviets won the war and enslaved Poland. Only with the end of the Cold War was Poland freed. It was not freed by itself, its own arms, its will, its spirit. It survived, barely, but it did not defeat its erstwhile masters. Its spirit allowed it to endure, to survive, but offered no means to throw off the shackles or present an alternative to defeat that which enslaved it. However, it did not survive because of or solely because of it spirit. Instead, the Poles survived because they tapped into something beyond their spirit, something that shapes and transcends their spirit. Trump did not address this political thing although another speech in Poland to Poles did. Trump’s speech makes no reference to that political thing nor that speech. Before we consider the other speech and the political thing, we have to consider the darker, more problematic, outcome from Trump’s example.
Second, as we noted, Trump praised the Poles for their spirit. Yet, they lost. We know that Trump does not rate losers. He likes winners. We know that the Poles were defeated at Jerusalem Avenue. In the Warsaw Uprising and the battle for Jerusalem Avenue, the Nazis won. They defeated the Poles. They closed Jerusalem Avenue. Only when the Soviet Union attacked were the Nazis defeated. Even then Jerusalem avenue was closed. To be sure it was “open” in that the Nazi snipers were gone and the traffic passed through it, but it was closed in that the Soviet Union’s forces controlled it. It is this darker, more problematic, outcome that makes Trump’s speech so dangerous for its focus on the will evokes historical memories, historical echoes, that should awaken Poland and the West to a political danger that lurks beneath the surface of his claims. If we reflect on how Poland found itself fighting in Jerusalem Avenue and the consequences of Heidegger’s speech, we find that the return to will and the spirit, without reference to the political things, provides the potential for a political alternative that can destroy Poland and the West. One could argue it is the danger coeval with the West.
Instead, it is America, a republic, built upon a common good, literally the res publica (the public thing) that led the struggle against Soviet Communism and freed Poland. America is the example that offered the hope, the alternative, and the system that undermined Soviet Union. It is America, founded in belief of Nature and Nature’s God, where all men are created equal, where the majority rule must protect minority rights as people rule and are ruled in turn, that we find the potential response to the Crisis of the West. America, through its founding in Liberalism, offers the alternative to the desire for supremacy that fuelled the Nazis and the Soviet Union since its promise of political equality allows for a community, a common good, founded in justice which will reflect and express decent politics.
Has Trump overlooked the common good that defines the West?
Trump’s response does not appear to be the answer so much as an answer and one, that as Heidegger showed us, has already been tried. To understand why Trump’s answer appears misplaced we need to consider another speech in Poland. One by John Paull II (hereafter JPII). Speaking to the Polish Parliament in 1999, he presented an alternative vision for Poland and the West. He understood politics, reason, and faith differently from Trump or Heidegger. In his speech he encouraged the Poles, and the West, to develop a common good where the new democracy avoided the twin dangers of moral relativism, where the majority decided what was right and wrong, and the harsh authoritarianism where the poor and weak are cast aside in the pursuit of material wealth. Before Trump, JPII spoke about the Poland’s spirit, its heroism and sacrifice. Unlike, Trump, though, JPII connected that spirit to a tangible political thing—the common good. In an interesting occurrence, JPII mentions spirit and common good 15 times each. It is not too far to suggest that for JPII the two are linked since a community’s spiritual health reflects its devotion to the common good. To put it perhaps too simply, the common good is a political expression of a community’s spiritual health as a corrupted society will display a spiritual malaise.
Unlike Trump’s speech, the central paragraph of JPII’s speech talks of a common good as it has a direct message for those devoted to political life. By contrast, Trump’s message to those devoted to the political life suggests something different since it focuses on struggle and the will. JPII talks of a common good that can embrace all for it starts within Poland and it is applicable to all societies.
13. It is clear that concern for the common good should be the task of all citizens and should be seen in every aspect of social life. In a special way however concern for the common good is required in the field of politics. I am thinking here of those who give themselves wholly to political life, as well as of individual citizens. The exercise of political authority, whether in the community or in the institutions of the State, ought to be a generous service to man and to society, not a pursuit of gain by individuals or groups, disregarding the common good of the nation as a whole.
Trump talks of the West at war and facing a constant struggle without mentioning the common good. Yet, without a common good, how can one create a lasting peace? Trump appears to believe that military might will deliver victory and in victory stability will be created. Yet, the deeper problem is that unless the status quo is just, then the peace is simply transitory if not illusory since the desire for political change, to redress historical or material wrongs, the desire for justice will become violent. One cannot defeat extremism or terrorism without creating a common good that removes the reason for terrorism or extremism or presents an alternative that has a greater appeal. If Trump’s vision of the West only relies on its military might or its spiritual strength as expressed in its creativity or material prosperity, then it will lack the political things necessary to create an enduring peace for it will not reflect a common good, it will reflect a particular good one that is imposed by force. In a word, in Trump’s vision, the West lacks a common good or a vision for the common good.
Is the West losing faith in the common good?
Without a common good or a vision of the common good, the political community can fall prey to ethical relativism. Ethical relativism emerges in a democracy when it no longer acts in the belief that a common good can be built upon a shared or ultimate truth beyond what the community declares. When a community no longer sees an ultimate truth as a guide, it is ripe to be manipulated by what the majority or the government decide.
This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible. Indeed ‘if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism’” (No. 101).
In a curious twist, we find that Trump has never mentioned the common good in his campaign speeches, his tweets, or any White House statement and attacks the news, which attempts to report the truth of what the government or Trump does, as “fake news.” Throughout his campaign speeches he never spoke of the common good and his behaviour and speeches have focused on his individual good and the good of his party. To this extent, Trump forces us to consider his character since he presents himself as an authoritative measure, the standard, by which the good of the country is to be understood. When he did refer to the good of his country, it reflected the good of his party and his personal good. If he is founding a new order for all time, then it reflects his interests not a common interest or a common good that can be shared. As it cannot be shared, it raises questions about the American common good and the common good that defines the West. If this common good is in question, as Heidegger’s alternative in 1933 suggested and Trump appears to be revisiting, then the we face a path, a difficult path, but one that gives us a choice.
If Trump is suggesting a political community that endures by will alone, it raises the question of whether he is a statesman weaving together the polity’s disparate strands to create a protective web of state. In other words, he does not appear to be creating a common good within his speech. Even if he seeks to re-found the common good on a different basis, neither he nor his speech writers appear to understand the forces they seek to evoke or have unleashed. That the echoes of Heidegger’s speech infuse Trump’s speech in a place where Heidegger’s vision, or at least a variation on it, was put into practice, should cause us to question whether Trump has the vision to heal what has been damaged, if not broken, in America by the 11 September 2001 attack. Jerusalem Avenue does not show us the triumph of the will. Instead, it shows us danger arrives when one forgets the common good and seeks to find certainty in a leader’s will. We are now forced to consider if they seek to awaken what has been long suppressed, an alternative to the common good, in the sheer hubris that this time it will be different. Yet, such a view, if it is indeed what they want, lacks the moderation or grace to understand not so much where this statesmanship leads, but that it pursues a goal that is ultimately self-defeating for it lacks the moderation and grace needed to sustain a common good that for decent politics that neither destroys faith or reason.