The post-war era is ending. I’ve said that before (“Return of the Strong Gods”). Donald Trump’s address to the Polish people in Warsaw on July 6 provided yet more evidence. The tone of the speech strongly suggests that the sun is setting on the powerful cultural-political consensus that has dominated the West since 1945.
The leitmotif of the speech was Polish heroism. Trump mentioned military victories, but the main emphasis fell on the remarkable endurance of the Polish people: “While Poland could be invaded and occupied”—as has happened throughout the modern era—“it could never be erased from history or your hearts. In those dark days you had lost your land but you never lost your pride.”
The speech reached a crescendo toward the end as Trump described in some detail the life-and-death struggle of the Warsaw Uprising, memorialized in Krasinski Square, where Trump delivered his speech. This event, which plays an important role in Poland’s historical consciousness, took place in August 1944. German armies were retreating through Poland, having been driven from Russia by the Red Army. The citizens of Warsaw, determined to secure their own freedom rather than be liberated by the approaching Russians, rose up in armed rebellion against the Nazi occupiers.
Trump’s digressions into Polish bravery naturally appealed to his audience. Recalling these heroic moments flatters Poland’s patriotic self-image as a long-suffering but iron-willed people who have emerged victorious from more than two centuries of subjugation. But to understand the speech at this level would be to fail to grasp the novelty of Trump’s message.
It is important to remember the context. Poland is home to some of the most powerful symbols of the civilizational crisis of 1914 to 1945. To speak the name of “Auschwitz” is to evoke a stinging condemnation, not just of the Nazi ideology that hatched the murderous holocaust, but of Western culture, which harbored within itself the evil that Nazism brought forth in naked form.
Moreover, the Warsaw Uprising was not a success. Stalin ordered the Red Army to stay at a distance from Warsaw. This allowed the German army to snuff out the resistance, ensuring that the most courageous and patriotic Poles would be safely dead—allowing Stalin to impose a Communist puppet regime soon after the war ended, a regime that oppressed Poles for decades.
There is more. Millions of German-speaking people who had lived in Poland and elsewhere in central Europe for centuries fled their homes as the Red Army advanced, fearing (rightly) for their lives. Warsaw and many other cities were entirely destroyed. The Red Army flattened Berlin. America dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities.
Memory of these events defined the post-war era, especially in Europe, but also in the United States. I was born in 1959, and I was formed by the post-war consensus. And so, when I stood in Krasinski Square, only a month before Trump’s visit, my first thought was this: Never Again!
This urgent imperative explains a great deal of what we have inherited. The United Nations and American-led internationalism, complemented by open markets (peace through trade!), were designed to prevent another global war. Our emphasis on critique, irony, and disenchantment arises from the “Never Again!” Moral relativism and radical secularism follow on it as well—for if nothing is worth fighting for, then nobody will fight.
Trump stood in Krasinski Square and did not say “Never Again!” Instead, he drew from the fire and death of 1944 an uplifting lesson of determination, honor, pride, and self-sacrifice. In short, Trump said something antithetical to the post-war consensus: “Let us live as they lived!”
Some liberal commentators reacted to Trump’s speech with remarkable hostility. Sarah Wildman at Vox said it employed the rhetoric of alt-right manifestos. On CNN, Jeff Zeleny described it as a “White America, America First kind of speech.” Not to be outdone, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart said that Trump had employed “white-nationalist dog whistles.” Amanda Marcotte on Salon hastened to point out that, translated into German, many of Trump’s phrases sound like Nazi slogans.
Marcotte sees more than she realizes. I, too, was struck by Trump’s emphasis on “will,” and especially by the way in which he spoke of the Polish nation as consecrated by “the blood of patriots.” These two terms—will and blood—stir our emotions. Needless to say, Hitler did not copyright these words. The notion of “will” conveys the importance of resolve, commitment, and determination. “Blood” has connotations of heroic sacrifice that border on the religious.
One would have to be historically ignorant not to know the uses to which Nazism and other fascist movements put this rhetoric. But one would have to be historically ignorant, also, to imagine that the fascism and other horrors that tortured Europe during its civilization crisis from 1914 to 1945 will forever command and control our political and moral imaginations as the unsurpassable evils that must be avoided. It is inevitable that the dread that once motivated us will lose it power. And the way in which Trump took up the classic rhetoric of resolve, determination, will, blood, and sacrifice—all mainstays of civic speeches from Pericles to the present—suggests that this is exactly what has happened. What organized our political culture for three generations is losing its power.
What comes next? This is a hard question to answer. But Trump’s speech clearly conveys the opinion of his administration. Some have compared it to Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” address in Berlin in 1987. This is mistake. Reagan wished to break the will of the Soviet Union. His rhetoric was post-war: We need to overthrow authoritarian controls, to open and loosen things up. What Trump said in Warsaw was keyed to a very different threat, that of a velvet nihilism, a disposition of cultural and moral disarmament that cannot rouse itself to affirm or defend much of anything. In such circumstances—our circumstances—what’s needed are consolidating motifs, to rally people to causes that are worthy of their loyalty, even to the point of self-sacrifice.
There are many reasons to think Donald Trump the wrong man for the job of President of the United States. But of this I am confident: He has discerned the true meaning of our historical moment. The post-war era is ending. We do not need to be chastened by Auschwitz. We need something that calls us upward, something to honor and emulate.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.