On his trip abroad, Trump left America’s values behind
Somewhere over the Atlantic, as Air Force One was hurtling toward Poland, President Trump opened the door and threw out America’s values. In Warsaw, he delivered a speech a parakeet could have swiftly mastered — “That’s trouble, that’s tough,” he called the 1939 dual invasion of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union. He then moved on to Hamburg to issue his first presidential pardon, this one to Vladimir Putin for interfering in the election, and finally departed Europe having left America’s moral and political leadership behind. Maybe he’ll send for it.
The Wall Street Journal called the president’s Warsaw address “Trump’s Defining Speech” because of its “affirmative defense of the Western tradition.” Like much of the conservative press, the Journal cited his statement that “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” But the speech was neither defining nor persuasive. Instead, it was Trump once again mounting an imaginary horse and sallying forth to slay the Muslim hordes. This time he conflated Warsaw 2017 with Vienna 1529, when the advancing Muslim Ottomans were turned back. The question is not whether the West has the will to survive but whether it has the wit to deal with Trump.
As Trump was speaking in Warsaw, Mosul in Iraq was being liberated from Islamic State control. It is probably true that the terrorist movement will resurface somewhere else, but for the moment Baghdad is safe — Warsaw and Mar-a-Lago, too. The West whose steadfastness Trump questions has done just fine against an enemy that is both pernicious and well-nigh invisible. A visit to any airport — the number of identifiable and armed security personnel — suggests we are not being complacent.
The danger that Poland faces, as a matter of fact, comes not from radical Islam or non-radical Muslims seeking safe harbor in Europe, but from a government that is drifting toward repression. The Law and Justice Party has attempted or succeeded in limiting press freedom and curtailing the authority of the judiciary. Poland, too, has a past, and it is not simply the altogether glorious one of resistance to German occupation. Yet it is one marred by authoritarianism and ethnic intolerance.
If Trump were really intent on maintaining Western values, he would have called upon the governing Law and Justice Party to respect the very essence of Western tradition, particularly freedom of the press. Instead, he joined with Polish President Andrzej Duda in a smirky reference to fake news. As Trump had done in Saudi Arabia, where he not only did not discern a challenge to Western values — Shariah law, women forbidden to drive, absolute monarchy and the occasional beheading, notwithstanding — he embraced the kingdom and deputized it as the leader of the anti-terrorist posse. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, no fool he, even approvingly noticed the lack of anti-monarchy demonstrators.
American presidents have had to make accommodations. During the Cold War, Washington did business with Fascist Spain. In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. welcomed German rocket scientists such as Wernher von Braun, overlooking their Nazi Party membership and complicity in the use of slave labor. The excuse in these cases was the need to combat the Soviet Union.
Trump has no such excuse. The so-called radical Islamic challenge to the West is hardly in the same league. Whatever threat it poses, to Trump it is more of a useful trope, a justification for a presidency that was launched in pique and gets emotionally rebooted with frequent references to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In the Weimar Wing of the Republican Party, these two justify the political and financial support of a man they have to know has the talent, if not the will, to ruin everything he touches.
Trump’s failure to assert authentic Western values in Warsaw was followed by his capitulation to Vladimir Putin in Hamburg. Following their meeting, we were left with the choice of believing either Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s account of what happened or that of Trump’s aides. I confess to choosing Lavrov, a man who keeps his dignity while lying while Trump’s people drool sycophancy, so abusing the word “brilliant” they sound like teenagers and their addiction to “awesome.” Trump’s real brilliance, it is now clear, is in abasing subordinates.
The baggage that Trump took to Europe, the legacies of previous American presidents, was nowhere to be found upon his return. He even seemed to acquiesce in Russian interference in the election. “Time to move forward,” he tweeted — precisely, one hopes, what congressional investigators and special counsel Robert Mueller are doing. This fish rots from the head.
Richard Cohen's column is distributed by the Washington Post News Service.
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