Trump’s Imperial Angst


Portrait of Romulus Augustus on extremely rare currency, a golden tremissis (1.5g) struck in Rome between October 475 and September 476. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Donald Trump’s July 6th speech in Warsaw’s Krasiński Square is a rhetorical hodgepodge of imperial angst. I won’t summarize the speech. I suggest instead either reading or watching it in full. It gets mixed reviews, largely split in the US along partisan lines.

The speech expresses an anxious mindset. It is a flailing gesture of resentment. Whether or not the gesture represents Trump’s mindset is hard to know. He has his own agenda. He may or may not believe all or part of what he says, but what he says now is consistent with what he said on the campaign trail, and what he said on the campaign trail channeled the anxieties of enough voters to get him elected.

President Trump has made a point of keeping in constant touch with his political base within the Republican Party. That base is the key to his staying power within the ruling party.   What he says in Poland may be for domestic consumption and/or it may convey his administration’s foreign policy.

Either way, the President’s Warsaw speech is notably anxious about America’s place in the world. What the speech lacks in logical coherence, veracity, and perspective drives its emotive excess. When empire no longer works and the country has no vision of how to flourish in a world it cannot dominate, the irrational impulse is to lash out, moralize, and demonize. Rhetorical ferocity is a recipe for hatred and violence derived from fear, anger, and a sense of injury.

America has always considered itself exceptional, a people chosen to prosper and lead, a blameless people in a corrupt world. It is a powerful myth deeply ingrained in the political culture and readily available for demagoguery as a substitute for critical reflection. A vocal subset of Americans feels grievously slighted.

Trump responds, with the aid of chief strategist Stephen Bannon, by speaking in apocalyptic terms of Armageddon. His Manichean vision of a do or die struggle with “radical Islamic terrorism” is a crusade to save civilization. American empire conquers evil in the name of all that is good: God, civilization, freedom, law, human dignity, courage, dreams, innovation, symphonies, brilliance, national sovereignty, and the purchase of military equipment. If America fails, evil’s oppressive ideology will destroy civilization and the American way of life, and allow the creep of government bureaucracy to drain the country of its vitality and wealth.

That’s a close paraphrase of the President’s logically disjointed but emotionally attuned speech in Poland. Here are some pertinent excerpts:

“The triumph of the Polish people over centuries of hardship gives all hope for a future in which good conquers evil.”

“Our soldiers still serve . . . today in Afghanistan and Iraq, combating the enemies of all civilization.”

“The people of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out ‘We want God.’”

“The continent no longer confronts the specter of communism. But today . . . there are dire threats to our security and to our way of life . . . . We are confronted by another oppressive ideology—one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe . . . . [T]his menace that threatens all of humanity.”

“[O]ur borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind.”

“[O]n both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted by yet another danger . . . the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people.”

“Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.”

“There is nothing like our community of nations. We write symphonies. We pursue innovation . . . and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers. We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We cherish the rule of law . . . . We empower women as pillars of our society . . . . We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives , , , , And above all, we value the dignity of every human life . . . and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together  . . . as a civilization . . . . What we’ve inherited from our ancestors has never existed to this extent before. And if we fail to preserve it, it will never, ever exist again.”

“That is why we applaud Poland for its decision to move forward this week on acquiring from the United States the battle-tested Patriot air and missile defense system.”

There’s more, but that’s the flavor of Trump’s remarks. They sound, as one critic puts it, more suited for an empire than a democracy, more “appropriate when Britannia ruled the waves and Europe’s great powers held dominion over ‘lesser’ peoples around the globe. [Trump] had nothing useful to say about today’s interconnected world in which goods, people and ideas have contempt for borders.” The President fitfully articulated, as another critic contends, “a dark worldview rooted in nationalism, authoritarianism, discomfort with ethnic and religious differences, and a skepticism about the modern project.” It was “a gloomy, backward looking and Manichean address.”

It was all of that, I agree, and more. It expressed resentment in a flailing voice of desperation. It said, fight on even though the empire is lost, for we’ve no vision of democratic life over the horizon.



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