It’s been some days since President Trump delivered his speech in Poland on “the West,” but the debate the speech provoked shall remain with us in one form or another for a long, long time. As R. R. Reno noted last week, progressive commentators strained to cast Trump’s exhortation of the West as a nasty case of white nationalism and racism. The popular metaphor was the “dog whistle,” that is, a coded message that only true believers (and liberal journalists with superb hermeneutical talents) heard accurately. The metaphor had the added benefit of framing those auditors as less than human.
But Trump’s communications hardly partake of some subtle secret language. His positions are right out in the open. It’s just that one audience regards them as right and enlivening, the other as wrong and abominable. In so polarized a time as ours, such divergences are inevitable, and Donald Trump widens them because of his canny rhetorical habit of coining slogans, not making arguments.
In the Poland speech, the catchphrase that resounded most powerfully wasn’t his own coinage: “We want God.” He declared it twice, bringing back the memory of June 1979, when one million Poles answered Pope John Paul II’s sermon in Victory Square with that holy plea.
At that time it was an appeal against communism and to Christianity. This time, it aligned the geopolitical place of the West with faith and religious freedom. Liberal commentators didn't explain the “West” passages of the speech in relation to this prayer to the Lord, though. Peter Beinart acknowledges that “the West is a racial and religious term,” but he says not one word about its religious meaning. Believers in the West use Christianity to discriminate against non-Christians.
This misunderstanding doesn’t come about simply because commentators such as Beinart are themselves irreligious people, and so don’t recognize the religious dimensions of political and other kinds of belief. I assume, too, that they don’t know very much about the concept and corpus of Western Civilization. They don’t realize the central role of Christianity—and Judaism—to it. President Trump drew the line clearly in his citation of three Polish figures whom you might find in a Western Civ syllabus at a liberal arts college: Copernicus, Chopin, John Paul. They represent Science, Art, and Religion. But that’s one too many categories for people such as Beinart. Secular liberals know that Newton and Michelangelo belong to Western Civilization, yes, but they wouldn’t typically put Aquinas and Luther into the lineage. Theirs is an Enlightenment version.
Religious citizens, however, picked up the reference clearly and easily. It wasn’t a dog whistle. It was an acclamation. Just as candidate Trump pledged to say “Merry Christmas” in his White House, rather than President Obama’s tepid “Happy Holidays,” and just as he promised to choose an anti-Roe justice in the mold of Antonin Scalia, Trump’s “We want God” assured religious voters that he would not apologize for his faith nor deny that it would play a role in his decision-making.
Dog whistles are for people afraid to speak their minds openly. In calling this speech a specimen of it, progressive commentators attribute to President Trump and his supporters a shame they do not possess. And, of course, the commentators set themselves on a high moral ground.
This is one reason why Trump’s share of the religious vote exceeded that of Mitt Romney in almost all categories. According to Pew Research’s exit polls, the Catholic vote went up four percentage points for Trump, while white evangelicals rose three points and “Other faiths” jumped six points. The calculation was obvious: They would overlook Trump’s marital history and sexual remarks, as long as he stood up for faith.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.