Donald Trump’s Warsaw speech set off alarm bells in the foreign policy community. Former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called it “Huntingtonian,” a reference to scholar Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” hypothesis. Trump, he implies, has put down a civilizational marker. Peter Beinart, writing for the Atlantic, called it shockingly tribal. What they miss is that it’s pointless to analyze the content of a Trump speech without taking into account the setting and the audience.
Trump said things like “The people of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out ‘We want God!'” and “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” He used the word “civilization” 10 times, mostly in the context of defending it against enemies who aren’t named but linked with the terrorist threat, and through it with radical Islam.
On the surface, it was a white nationalist’s speech. But as someone who has heard Trump speak live at least a dozen times during the 2016 election campaign, I don’t take it at face value because Trump speaks for effect; he knows the way to do it is to flatter the audience and play to its biases. He speaks like a rock star plays old hits: The words have long lost their meaning, but the audience sings along.
The official transcript, embarrassingly, misspells the first name of former Polish President Lech Walesa and the last name of current Prime Minister Beata Szydlo. But Trump will be forgiven those errors because he knows how to please a crowd.
And boy, did the Polish audience lap it up! The White House transcript says the less than 40-minute speech was interrupted by applause 50 times, not counting the ovation at the end. Six times, the audience picked up a chant of “Donald Trump! Donald Trump! Donald Trump!”
Seemingly paradigm-shifting utterances are a by-product of the crowd-pleaser’s craft, not some grand design. Trump the Bible-thumper? This was the man who was caught being less than truthful about which church he supposedly attended in Manhattan? But it works in staunchly Catholic Poland.
Inconsistency is not a bug with him. Trump dramatically omitted a reference to NATO’s Article 5 guarantee in a speech at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s headquarters just six weeks ago. Now he’s an Article 5 defender (“We stand firmly behind” it, he said). There’s no puzzle here: His NATO speech was intended to irk European allies who don’t spend as much on defense as he’d like them to. Thursday’s speech, by contrast, was a performance before a mass audience, and Poland does stick to NATO’s commitment to spend 2 percent of economic output on its military. The message suits the audience.
Trump has suddenly become a vocal critic of Russia’s “destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran.” That’s after months of saying he wanted a better relationship with the Kremlin and perhaps a situational alliance in Syria. In fact, Trump may still want these things as he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time on Friday. But in Warsaw the ruling nationalists and the opposition liberals are equally anti-Russian, so this is a reliable applause line.
Compare Trump’s oration with Barack Obama’s speech in Warsaw in 2014. Obama was applauded 29 times in 18 minutes, a few times for the same references that Trump made three years later, but there were longer passages that Obama delivered without getting a hand (Trump cannot stand that) and the audience didn’t chant his name, something Trump would have considered a sign of failure. That’s because Obama didn’t ladle on the Polish patriotism as thickly as Trump, whose speech was full of references to Polish heroism, the Polish soul, Polish faith and the Polish contribution to U.S. history. Such fawning would be uncomfortable to anyone who doesn’t share the heritage — except The Donald.
Huntington’s notion of a civilizational conflict emerged, in part, in response to Francis Fukuyama’s heart-warming idea of “the end of history,” a final victory of the liberal order. Trump doesn’t represent any civilization except the television one. His six months in power have demonstrated that he holds no firm beliefs, but that words only matter to him as tools: to vacuum energy out of a crowd, to humiliate an opponent or put down an ambitious associate, to get what he wants. He discards deeper meanings.
In that way, Trump represents a different “end of history” than the one Fukuyama envisioned. He’s a post-historic president who will never make a historic speech because his public appearances are meaningless without the context, the look, feel and sound of the crowd, the strained faces of the dignitaries in the audience, the agony and despair of commentators trying to discern an ideology behind the words that fly out of Trump’s mouth. They live only in the moment.
That’s why Trump enjoys the reviews of his speeches, even those coming from “haters.” He finds out after the fact how deep they were. The Warsaw speech was no exception.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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