When the president says being Western is the essence of America’s identity, he’s in part defining America in opposition to some of its own people.
In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means. It’s important that other Americans do, too.
The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.
The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.
The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white. Where there is ambiguity about a country’s “Westernness,” it’s because there is ambiguity about, or tension between, these two characteristics. Is Latin America Western? Maybe. Most of its people are Christian, but by U.S. standards, they’re not clearly white. Are Albania and Bosnia Western? Maybe. By American standards, their people are white. But they are also mostly Muslim.
Steve Bannon, who along with Stephen Miller has shaped much of Trump’s civilizational thinking, has been explicit about this. In a 2014 speech, he celebrated “the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam” and “our forefathers” who “bequeathed to use the great institution that is the church of the West.”
During the Cold War, when the contest between Soviet and American power divided Europe along geographic lines, American presidents sometimes contrasted the democratic “West” with the communist “East.” But when the Cold War ended, they largely stopped associating America with “the West.” Every president from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama emphasized the portability of America’s political and economic principles. The whole point was that democracy and capitalism were not uniquely “Western.” They were not the property of any particular religion or race but the universal aspiration of humankind.
To grasp how different that rhetoric was from Trump’s, look at how the last Republican President, George W. Bush, spoke when he visited Poland. In his first presidential visit, in 2001, Bush never referred to “the West.” He did tell Poles that “We share a civilization.” But in the next sentence he insisted that “Its values are universal.” Because they are, he declared, “our trans-Atlantic community must have priorities beyond the consolidation of European peace. We must bring peace and health to Africa. … We must work toward a world that trades in freedom … a world of cooperation to enhance prosperity, protect the environment, and lift the quality of life for all.”
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SOURCE: The Atlantic