In Beinart’s telling, “The most shocking sentence in Trump’s speech—perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime—was the president’s claim that ‘The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.’” Beinart then asserted that “[t]he implication is that anyone in the United States who is not white and Christian may not truly be American but rather…[is] an imposter and a threat.” This may not be the most egregious sophistry ever published in a reputable magazine’s coverage of a presidential speech in Beinart’s lifetime, but surely it is competitive.
The estimable William Galston, the center-left columnist at the Wall Street Journal, adopted a more measured tone and issued more circumspect judgments, but he still joined the progressive consensus that Trump advanced in Poland a divisive and authoritarian politics. Galston rebuked Trump because he “barely mentioned democracy,” speaking “instead of the ‘will to defend our civilization.’” Oddly for the author of a book titled “Liberal Purposes,” Galston overlooked that the West Trump called citizens to rally around was dedicated to, the president declared, “the dignity of every human life”; “the rights of every person”; and “the hope of every soul to live in freedom.”
Conservative commentators—including Rod Dreher, Marc Thiessen, Robert Merry, and Roger Kimball—dissected multiple progressive distortions. In addition, conservatives observed that Trump correctly attributed to the West the idea that tradition, faith, and fidelity to nation are complementary and integral features of a state dedicated to protecting individual liberty and respecting equality under law.
The conservatives, however, did not examine the sources within Western civilization that breed hostility to it. Progressives tend to view tradition and nation as foes of freedom and equality. In the extreme case—disproportionately represented at our universities—they contradictorily assert that the very idea of Western civilization is a recent delusive invention while insisting that the West’s roots extend back to Jerusalem and Athens and its essence is bigotry, racism, and imperialism.
The hard truth is that the West’s undeniable achievements in securing freedom and equality under law also foster skepticism and resentment toward the very beliefs, practices, and institutions on which the preservation of freedom and equality depends. The family, voluntary associations—very much including religious ones—and schools cultivate moral and intellectual virtues that equip citizens to prosper in liberal democracies. These associations prevent liberty from deteriorating into license and equality from mutating into the demand that everybody think alike. But an abundance of freedom and the spread of equality excite a scorn for limits and fuel a hunger for conformity. That in turn fosters an indiscriminate disdain for authority extending to the authority of family, faith, and formal education.
The self-doubt and self-loathing evident in advanced liberal democracies around the world cannot be blinked away, shamed or bullied into silence, or disposed of by refutations. But it can be tempered, especially by an education that focuses on the history of Western civilization, including the inspiring and sobering clash of opinions—about reason and faith, liberty and tradition, the individual and community—that constitutes it.
Cultivating progressives capable of grasping the complementarity of the West’s diverse elements—and, yes, conservatives more appreciative of the tensions among them—would substantially improve the United States’ prospects of dealing effectively with...