President Trump is right: the West is facing an existential threat. He said so in a speech in Warsaw last Thursday, declaring that the “fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” The president wondered if “we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it.”
Trump’s speech was written by Stephen Miller, a top White House aide known to traffic in overheated nationalism. Trump’s remarks accordingly singled out the West’s primary enemy: “radical Islamic terrorism,” a verbal construction that holds almost shamanistic powers for the right.
We shouldn’t downplay the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group and its affiliates. Nor should we exaggerate it. The fanatics motivated by a warped interpretation of the Koran will do their best to kill innocents, but so will fanatics who have nothing to do with Islam, mass murderers who take their cue from The Turner Diaries, the Old Testament or the whispers of private demons. More than 8,000 Americans have been killed by guns in 2017. Does that make the gun lobby an enemy of the West?
The profound irony of Trump’s speech is that if the thriving democracies of the West are threatened, it is by the illiberal forces unleashed by Trump and his fellow nationalists in Europe (including his host in Warsaw, Polish President Andrzej Duda, but also Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in Great Britain, among others). Promising to protect the West, they abrogate the very values that make us Western.
The West is not a place but a concept, an agreement between people, as well as between people and governments, about how we should comport ourselves within society. A suicide bomber may murder innocents, but he cannot kill the West anymore than he can kill Euclidian geometry. Authoritarians are far more dangerous to the fragile institutions that sustain our civilization. One need only look to Poland’s neighbor to the east—Russia—for evidence of what bleak future could await us all.
Western values aren’t like the metric system: There isn’t an institute in Paris where those values, and their precise definitions, are enshrined. This is the stuff of philosophers, and of the undergraduates they teach, arguing late into the night over Plato, fueled by bourbon-spiked lattes. That doesn’t prevent us, however, from outlining a foundation on which Western society rests: a respect for the scientific method, a primacy of observable reality over belief and myth; rational discourse in the public sphere; a tolerant humanism rooted in the belief that dignity is inherent in all people.
Every society has violated these concepts at one time or another. Trump violates them daily, joyously. That’s what makes his defense of the West so preposterous.