Donald Trump says a lot of striking things. This tendency has been the theme of a good deal of commentary over the last two years. Less noticed, but no less interesting, are his striking omissions: Trump says many things that a normal politician would not say, but he also sometimes omits things that a normal politician would say. And sometimes those omissions are not to be regretted but praised. Such is the case with President Trump’s recent address to the people of Poland.
Speaking in Warsaw, Trump warned his listeners that civilization is threatened by extremism and terrorism. He then reassured his listeners that the enemies of civilization would be defeated. So far, the president had said nothing that many other modern, western political leaders might also have said in a speech about international affairs—although the commonplace character of his warnings and reassurances might have been somewhat obscured by the combative tone for which he is so famous.
Then came the remarkable and significant omission. Trump did not rest his reassurance on the same ground as the typical politician would. The kind of contemporary political leader to which we are accustomed would have told his audience that the enemies of civilization are sure to be defeated because they are “on the wrong side of history.”
Trump said nothing of the sort. To the contrary, he said, in effect, that the enemies of civilization are sure to be defeated because the defenders of civilization are determined to defeat them. “Our adversaries,” Trump said, “are doomed because we will never forget who we are,” and we, accordingly, will not fail to do what is necessary to preserve the blessings we have inherited.
This rhetorical change makes all the difference in the world. The typical formulation reassures us that goodness will prevail because History—understood as a superhuman, impersonal force—tends of its own accord in the direction of goodness. This is history as it is understood by the ideology of progress, moving of necessity toward greater enlightenment, freedom, and justice for all human beings.
Trump’s formulation, in contrast, holds that goodness will prevail because the good will exert themselves. On his view, the outcome rests on us—not on any impersonal, superhuman forces but on personal and human ones. Trump hammered this point home by raising the possibility that civilization would be destroyed if civilized people fail to do their part to defend it. The failure of the enemies of civilization, he suggested, is conditional: they are “doomed to fail if we want them to fail.” And if we do not do our duty, this civilization, which is unlike any that has existed before, will pass away and “will never, ever exist again.”
In framing the issue in this way, Trump performed an important service—at least according to the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville. It is unlikely that Trump has ever studied Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Perhaps, then, it was by what Machiavelli would have called a “fortunate astuteness” that the president addressed a democratic people in precisely the way that a responsible democratic statesman should address them.
For Tocqueville, one of the great dangers to human dignity in democratic times is that human beings will lose the belief in the efficacy of their own wills, that they will conclude that they have no control over their own fate. To some extent, a decline in belief in the power of the individual is inevitable in democracies. It is, after all, a fact evident to everyone that individuals have less power to control events in democracies than in aristocracies. In an aristocracy, some men are born into powerful families and raised automatically into positions of authority, able to direct vast social forces by their mere commands. In a democracy, in contrast, individuals are all equal, and are therefore all equally weak in comparison to the body of society itself. There, individuals can only hope to exert influence on the course of events by uniting themselves into associations. As a result, democratic peoples are much more inclined to understand their own histories as the outcome of large social movements rather than as the result of the decisions of key individuals.
The danger, however, is that the citizens of a democracy will take these ideas too far and reach the conclusion that even peoples and nations have no control over their fates. “Once the trace of the influence of individuals on the nations has been lost,” Tocqueville warns, “we are often left with the sight of the world moving without anyone moving it.” Then “one is tempted to believe that this movement is not voluntary and that societies unconsciously obey some superior dominating force.” This kind of thinking must be resisted, Tocqueville teaches, because it degrades human beings by teaching them that they have nothing serious to do, nothing important for which to strive, nothing of vital consequence for which they can be held responsible. Therefore, it is the part of enlightened democratic leaders to emphasize the real power that nations have over their own fates, “for we need to raise men’s souls, not complete their prostration.” The doctrine of historical progress, so popular among modern democratic peoples, and so often affirmed by democratic statesmen, teaches precisely the kind of fatalism against which Tocqueville warns.
A similar fatalism animates some of President Trump’s political enemies—those proponents of globalization who contend that it is a force beyond the power of any nation to control. These people are for the most part well intentioned. They want things to turn out well, and they therefore want to believe that History will ensure that they turn out well. But such reassurances, however well meant, in fact diminish us by denying us any control over our own future. This is why, from a Tocquevillian perspective, Trump did well in Poland to eschew all talk of “the wrong side of history” and instead to emphasize the real power, for good and ill, that we have over our own destiny. By doing so he defended our dignity and upheld our humanity.
President Trump’s rhetorical choices in Poland possessed another virtue worth noting in this context. It is not only more edifying to teach our responsibility for preserving civilization. It is also more realistic.
Those who believe in History as Progress tend to assume that civilization is indestructible. After all, for civilization to decline or fall would be the opposite of Progress, and it would call into question the progressives’ most cherished beliefs. The possibility must therefore not be admitted. As progressives always insist, “you can’t turn back the clock.”
This belief may be comforting, but there is no serious reason to believe that it is anything other than a comforting—and dangerous—illusion. Civilizations can regress as well as progress, and they can even fall apart. A little more than one hundred years ago, most enlightened Europeans believed in progress with as much certainty as many do today. Nevertheless, they were on the verge of a century that would see barbarities of a severity and on a scale never before encountered in human history. A long time before that, many people believed that the Roman imperium was a divine dispensation, as unshakable as the order of nature itself. It nevertheless collapsed.
The illusion of progress as necessity is dangerous because it undermines our ability to do the things necessary to preserve civilization. Those who assume civilization’s indestructibility are least fit to be its guardians. For this reason, too, we should welcome Trump’s decision to remind us of civilization’s fragility. Here, perhaps, even some of the president’s critics might find reason to be pleased—rather than the reverse—with something unconventional that he has said.