In trying to reckon with Donald Trump’s bizarre speech in Poland on Thursday, which was among the most troubling events of his troubling presidency, I couldn’t help thinking about Mahatma Gandhi’s supposed quip when asked by a British reporter what he thought of Western civilization: He thought it sounded like a good idea. As with so many famous quotations, the story is almost certainly apocryphal: It did not appear anywhere until almost 20 years after Gandhi’s death. But it endures for a reason, because it reflects the profound ambivalence and self-regard that lie at the very heart of the Western intellectual tradition.
President Trump professes no such ambivalence. He apparently thinks Western civilization is a good idea too, although it’s by no means clear what he thinks he means by that term and he is constitutionally incapable of irony or double meaning. Various commentators, including Salon’s Amanda Marcotte, have already pointed out that the propagandistic mishmash Trump delivered in Warsaw was aimed as usual at his most virulent supporters, and channeled a current of racism and white nationalism so overt it can hardly be called subtext.
In this context, “Western civilization” presumably means the culture of white people in Europe and North America, as if that could be described as one coherent and continuous phenomenon, and as if any of those terms could be clearly defined. On one hand, Trump is deploying a false and dangerous form of mythology for narrow-minded, present-tense political purposes. (Breaking news, I know!)
Of course he doesn’t understand anything about the long and complicated legacy of what is conventionally called Western civilization, and if he did he would be against it. Trump’s self-appointed status as defender of the West is primarily about excluding or vilifying Muslims and other immigrant groups, and secondarily about marginalizing those Westerners who believe that pluralism and cultural diversity are in fact central values of our civilization (at least in its better moments).
On the other hand, there is a deeper level of historical irony at work here, one that Trump cannot possibly perceive. It’s possible that Steve Bannon, the supposed Svengali in his supposed doghouse, has some awareness of this irony, filtered through his discount-store, conspiracy-theory understanding of history. One could indeed perceive Donald Trump as the symbolic end point of Western civilization, or at least as the fulfillment of its most diminished and malicious tendencies. After Plato, Shakespeare and Descartes — after all the Dead White Males who did terrible things or magnificent things but were undeniably Important — we wind up here, with an orange reality-TV troll as the democratically elected leader of the most powerful nation in history.
It’s tempting to say that Donald Trump rose to his current position by way of a massive historical accident, despite the fact that he knows nothing and understands nothing. But I think that’s almost entirely upside down, and is another way of insisting that the current situation in the United States isn’t as bad as it looks, and can be remedied with a few replacement parts. Trump was elected president precisely because he is an arrogant ignoramus who spews out “politically incorrect” bigotry unsupported by any evidence. Furthermore, he has an unparalleled understanding of our culture’s most central elements: the marketing and branding of fame, the power of mass media, and the extent to which image and rhetoric can reshape or even replace reality.
I am reminded again of historian Joachim Fest’s famous discussion of whether it was acceptable to describe Adolf Hitler as a great figure in world history, despite all the obvious reasons one might not want to. Fest argued, in effect, that those in postwar Germany who sought to minimize Hitler’s importance were also trying to deny the extent to which Hitler had outwitted, manipulated and dominated them.
Hitler’s peculiar greatness is essentially linked to the quality of excess. It was a tremendous eruption of energy that shattered all existing standards. Granted, gigantic scale is not necessarily equivalent to historic greatness; there is power in triviality also. But he was not only gigantic and not only trivial. The eruption he unleashed was stamped throughout almost every one of its stages, down to its final collapse, by his guiding will. …
He also had an amazing instinct for what forces could be mobilized at all and did not allow prevailing trends to deceive him. The period of his entry into politics was wholly dominated by the liberal bourgeois system. But he grasped the latent oppositions to it and by bold and wayward combinations seized upon these factors and incorporated them into his program. His conduct seemed foolish to political minds, and for years the arrogant Zeitgeist did not take him seriously. The mockery he earned was justified by his appearance, his rhetorical flights, and the theatrical atmosphere he deliberately created. Yet in a manner difficult to describe he always stood above his banal and dull-witted aspects.
As I have previously observed, if you update the terminology here and there, Fest’s description appears to describe our current president with uncanny accuracy. (Although the “final collapse” of the Trump phenomenon remains in the unknown future, and further away than many wish-casting Democrats hope.)
Trump has never sounded more like Hitler than he did the other day in Warsaw, where the historical irony fell from the sky like a fluke summer snowstorm. Poland was of course the first nation invaded by Hitler's troops in the opening chapter of World War II, and the home of the worst of Hitler's death camps devoted to exterminating the Jewish people. Trump was supposedly there to celebrate the Poles' resistance to Hitler, and the only fair thing to say about that is that some did and some definitely didn't. Every moment of that peculiar spectacle had at least a double meaning, none of them salutary.
To be clear, drawing the rhetorical and ideological parallels is not to say that Trump is Hitler, or that he is like Hitler in the most important ways. At worst, Trump is a third-generation photocopy with the background washed out, or a bad actor playing a character he has glimpsed on TV but does not understand.
Hitler presented himself as the defender of Western civilization too, although the alien invaders who were said to be destroying it from within were of course not Muslims but members of another religious and cultural minority. As Frankfurt School cultural critics like Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued, Hitler could be understood to embody certain insidious tendencies that ran just below the surface of European civilization and were especially strong in Germany, which viewed itself (with some justification) as home to the finest poets, philosophers and musicians of the modern age.
In their landmark work “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” Horkheimer and Adorno suggested that the mythology of the Dark Ages had never been conquered by the supposed Enlightenment, only repressed, and that it had reappeared in spectacular fashion, circa 1932, in the personage of the little Austrian corporal with the ridiculous mustache. Our situation in America circa 2017 is not quite like that: We have no dialectic and no enlightenment, only myth.
Hitler and the Nazis claimed to be huge fans and defenders of Western high art and high culture, in a middlebrow, anti-modernist vein, as exemplified by their embrace of composer Richard Wagner. (Who was a vicious anti-Semite and a generally terrible person, but also died six years before Hitler was born and cannot be held responsible for the latter’s crimes.) No such branding maneuver is necessary today.
It is inconceivable that Donald Trump has ever willingly sat through a Wagner opera or any other taxing work of old-school high culture. For that matter, if he ingests anything from the cultural sphere at all except endless amounts of cable news and hilarious right-wing internet memes, we don’t hear about it. Even Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush felt obliged to express enthusiasm for various bland and deracinated forms of art, literature and music. (You know: The Gershwin songbook at the Kennedy Center; concerts by some old guys in Hawaiian shirts with a halfway plausible claim to be the Beach Boys.) Trump, perhaps to his credit, doesn’t even fake it.
So what exactly the president means when he praises the strength and resilience of Western civilization is deliberately left unclear. Since he self-evidently doesn’t give a crap about any of that tradition’s cultural, philosophical and artistic accomplishments — and would no doubt deem most of them to be fake news and/or pretentious bullshit — we are left with other possibilities. It’s all about consumer capitalism and white rage, pretty much. The president of the United States sending angry tweets from his gold-plated toilet seat, with an empty tub of Häagen-Dazs beside him. There’s Western civilization for you.
Trump offers nothing remotely close to the elaborate pseudo-scientific racism of the Nazis, under which the so-called Aryans would rule the world but various lesser grades of white folks with northern European backgrounds would also get a sweet deal. Maybe some of his alt-right nerd followers still obsess about that stuff — but who needs it? Trumpian racism is simply rooted in a dumbass, anti-historical vision of the past, a vaguely articulated fiction that until some relatively recent point (probably the 1960s) “our” countries were a certain way — i.e., overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Christian, culturally homogeneous and dominated by men — and had been that way forever.
It probably does no good to observe that while the fantasy of a lost “golden age” recurs throughout history, this dad-shorts, #MAGA iteration is beyond any serious doubt the dumbest version ever constructed. It is quintessentially American, in the sense that it is too naive and weak-minded to acknowledge its innate cruelty. The Nazis, who if they had nothing else had a theory of history, would have found it hilarious and childish.
To start with, there is no country in Europe or the Americas or anywhere else in the world that has not been shaped and reshaped by waves of migration and immigration, or by conflict, conquest, turmoil and change. The island nation where my grandparents were born provides a valuable case in point. Although Ireland is often presented, in the most simplistic variety of nationalism, as the home of an ancient, homogeneous and ethnically unitary civilization, that is more myth than history. (If the myth often seems like harmless tribal romance, it has also had darker consequences.) In reality, the people of modern Ireland largely resulted from centuries of violent collision between Celtic, Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures, and the full story is considerably more complicated than that.
Traces of Iberian and North African DNA can be found to this day among people on the southwestern coast of Ireland. (Folk wisdom has long held that such influences accounted for the “black Irish” combination of dark hair and olive skin.) As for Celtic culture, the source of so many bad American tattoos, it isn’t as ancient as all that and did not originate in Ireland. The Celts first appear in the archaeological record around 3,000 years ago in central Europe, roughly in present-day Austria or Slovakia. Of course they had come from someplace else before that, and when they were driven west into France, Spain and the British Isles they conquered or displaced the people who lived in those places, about whom not much is known. Recent genetic research suggests there may in fact have been multiple waves of pre-Celtic people, some with roots in the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East, others who came from the steppes of Russia or Ukraine.
So if I describe myself as a white person of largely Irish ancestry, it’s a statement of fact with an extremely limited horizon of information. It does not connect me to some essential, pure and unchanging culture but to a little green island that has seen lots of turbulent history. Go back more than a few generations, and like everyone alive today I could have ancestors almost anywhere: Sardinia? Lebanon? Some village of mud huts on the Danube? If linguistics is any guide, everyone of European ancestry ultimately has roots on the Indian subcontinent — and, of course, you and I and everyone else on this planet evidently share an African foremother.
As Gandhi apparently did not say (but probably believed), Western civilization is something of a mixed bag. But if the term can be said to describe anything, it describes a process of constant change, of conflict, ferment, fusion, cross-pollination and evolution. It has never prospered by erecting barriers between itself and the rest of the world. Indeed, the fundamental nature of Western civilization — it is curious, acquisitive, voracious, questioning — means it can never really do that.
Donald Trump may pay lip service to Western civilization as a pallid, steady-state realm of Great Men writing Great Books he has not read and making Important Speeches he does not understand. But that’s no more than a thin veneer pasted on top of the version his followers really want, a racial fantasyland of full employment for white men and zero immigration. Neither of those things has ever existed in the past or will ever exist in the future. They have nothing to do with civilization, except insofar as they misinterpret it as a fortress rather than a process. They have nothing to do with history, except as an attempt to stop it from happening. That won’t work, of course. But this moment is likely to shape our history and our civilization, and not in a good way.