Photo Credit: Screenshot / YouTube (The Guardian)
A surprising omission in Donald Trump’s Warsaw foreign policy address was the president’s failure to hail the 17th century Polish king, John III Sobieski. As Steve Bannon and his fellow hard-right history buffs in the White House must know, it was Sobieski who defeated the Turks in 1683 at the gates of Vienna – and saved central Europe from a Muslim invasion.
The Trump-Bannon worldview depicts Europe and America reeling from a second Muslim invasion. That is what Trump meant as he thundered: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive … Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
The Trump advance team is probably high-fiving each other over their collective brilliance in choosing Warsaw as the venue for the president’s apocalyptic message to Europe. The combination of a welcoming rightwing government that shares Trump’s disdain for a free press and the emotional weight of Polish history seemed irresistible.
There was only one problem: the weight of Polish history makes the current threat from “radical Islamic terrorism” seem petty in comparison.
Trump himself conjured up that blood-soaked history as he talked of Poland being invaded in 1939 by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. As the president put it, choosing words of Churchillian eloquence: “That’s trouble. That’s tough.”
To Trump’s credit (a phrase I rarely type), his speechwriters did an artful job of conveying the horrors inflicted on Poland during the second world war, particularly the doomed 1944 uprising by the Home Army that ended with the Nazis leveling Warsaw.
But for all the attempts at Reaganesque rhetorical flourishes, the few sentences in the speech devoted to the Iron Curtain era came across as muted enough to win Vladimir Putin’s approval.
In Trump’s audience in Krasinski Square were Poles who had endured the worst that Hitler and Stalin could inflict on a subjugated nation. It would have been instructive to ask these elderly witnesses to history whether they agree with Trump that today “our freedom, our civilization and our survival” hang in the balance.
What, precisely, is the threat to western civilization?
Lonely religious zealots who drive trucks into crowds and set off bombs in concert halls? An Islamic State in full retreat in Iraq and Syria? Fanatical imams who preach hatred on websites and in YouTube videos?
This is not designed to belittle the cruelty of terrorism. Nor is it an argument against continued vigilance nearly 16 years after the Twin Towers were toppled on September 11.
But an ominous aspect of our era is that any sense of historical perspective has been dropped down the memory hole. In 1962, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. Anyone who remembers, as I do, cowering under an elementary school desk as supposed protection against an atomic attack should realize what represents a true threat to “our survival”.
Trump’s political career is rooted in the stoking of fear.
After the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016, a CNN/ORC poll found that fear of terrorism was at its highest level since 2003. Trump fed this wave of emotion by declaring at the start of his Republican national convention acceptance speech: “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”
This is a president who dramatically declared in his inaugural address: “This American carnage stops right here and now.” Just a month ago – in the midst of undermining “our survival” by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord – Trump blamed an attack on a Manila casino on terrorism while the local police insisted the mass murderer was a disgruntled gambler.
Without blinding, unreasoning fear, the US probably would not have looked to a counterfeit Big Daddy figure for protection. Only if these are the worst of times would voters have disdained experience (both in the Republican primaries and the general election) and opted for a blustering former reality-show host.
For a president whose grasp of theology abruptly stops at “Two Corinthians,” Trump seems to revel in the concept of a holy war. For that was at the core of his inflammatory rhetoric about the survival of western civilization. About all that was missing from Trump’s Warsaw war cry was a rousing chorus of Onward Christian Soldiers.