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An International Brotherhood of White Grievance

Trump's alt-right speech in Poland redefined the West in nativist terms, eschewing democratic idealism in favor of "blood and soil" nationalism.

SAUL LOEB / Getty Images

In his address Thursday in Warsaw, Donald Trump returned to the stark, polarizing rhetoric of his campaign speeches and inaugural address, portraying America and its culturally similar allies as under siege by subversive forces both within and without. Although he called Ronald Reagan “one of the world’s greatest heroes,” Trump avoided the fortieth president’s oft-invoked trope of America as a “city on a hill”—a moral beacon for the world. Instead, Trump sounded much more like right-wing nativist Pat Buchanan, author of books like Death of the West, in warning of the imminent decline of Western civilization due to cultural liberalism and immigration:

“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” he said. “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?” Later, he evoked Poland’s wartime resistance to Nazism and Soviet communism. “The memories of those who perished in the Warsaw Uprising cry out across the decades,” he said. “Those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense and that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.”

Such rhetoric is meant to conjure blood-and-soil nationalism. Here, Trump is defining the West not based on ideals like democracy and liberty, but atavistic loyalties to territory and shared kinship. The speech was written by senior advisor Stephen Miller, and, like his other writing, it evoked themes popular with the alt-right and cultural conservatives: that immigration is an existential threat, and that religion and family values are essential to revitalizing the will of the West in the face of its enemies, both internal and external.

In painting the world in stark us-versus-them terms, Trump’s speech made extensive use of right-wing Polish nationalism, which sees the country as a martyr state that was aided by God in throwing off communism in 1989 and that, today, is held together by shared faith while under constant attack from large nations in the East and West. Trump modified this perspective in one significant way, saying that the enemies now come from “the South” rather than 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. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.”

Trump’s message is that just as Poland defended its borders from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, so a new alliance of Western nations must stand up to those who would erase borders today: globalists and immigrants. Trump called for a new “community of nations” that, reading between the lines, is made up of white, Christian countries. Consider his chauvinism in contrasting the great achievements the West—as he imagines it—with the supposed failures of the rest of the world. “The world has never known anything like our community of nations,” Trump declared. “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.”

Trump never explicitly defined the “forces ... from inside” that the West must “confront,” but he did so implicitly. “We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives,” he said at one point, later adding, “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.”

The implication here is that American progressives, in their effort to expand the government’s influence on society, are the modern-day counterparts of the communists that threatened Poland. This is one of many examples from Trump’s speech that show how his domestic and foreign policies are one. He won the presidency with a campaign of white nationalism, and now, in Warsaw, he has used white grievance politics to redefine “the West.” How appropriate, then, that even though the Polish capital is half a world away from the American South, someone in the crowd apparently unfurled a Confederate flag.