How was it as a speech?
First, the speech is some 3700 words long, delivered in 36 minutes. Just over 100 words per minute. Quite a slow rate, no doubt to help the Polish audience (including many non-Warsaw Poles ‘bussed in’ for the occasion) follow what he was saying.
The setting is important. He speaks at the monument of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 – never to be confused with no less heroic doom of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 16 months earlier. The current Polish government led by the étatist-populist-patriotic Law and Justice party will have been pleased with this choice. In commemorating Poland’s frantic battle against the Nazis it also sends a not-so-subliminal message of rejecting an over-dominant Germany in today’s European Union?
If anyone is looking for a speech down the ages by a foreign leader that plays to Poland’s pride and self-esteem far beyond any reasonable limits, this is that speech. President Trump lays it on thick, and gets a warm response:
Poland is the geographic heart of Europe, but more importantly, in the Polish people, we see the soul of Europe. Your nation is great because your spirit is great and your spirit is strong (applause)
Despite every effort to transform you, oppress you, or destroy you, you endured and overcame. You are the proud nation of Copernicus — think of that — (applause) — Chopin, Saint John Paul II. Poland is a land of great heroes (applause.)
He works in a long list of catastrophic Polish setbacks and improbable glories (these in Polish eyes often being much the same thing!). No doubt to his speechwriters’ amazement, his words of praise for former Solidarity hero and Polish President Lech Wałęsa are met with some booing. Don’t ask. Polish politics are impenetrable.
But the sheer weight the speech gives to Poland’s uniqueness is oddly touching and powerful:
… during Pope John Paul II’s sermon when a million Polish men, women, and children suddenly raised their voices in a single prayer
A million Polish people did not ask for wealth. They did not ask for privilege. Instead, one million Poles sang three simple words: “We Want God” (applause)
… You stood in solidarity against oppression, against a lawless secret police, against a cruel and wicked system that impoverished your cities and your souls. And you won. Poland prevailed. Poland will always prevail (applause)
What? An American President calling communism ‘a cruel and wicked system’? Isn’t such crude conservative ideological talk a bit … [coughs] … outdated?
Warming to his theme, President Trump does not use the I-word. But this audience know what he means:
We are confronted by another oppressive ideology — one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe. America and Europe have suffered one terror attack after another. We’re going to get it to stop (applause)
While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind (applause)
Bang. The Polish government’s refusal to accept any more than a tiny number of the refugees/migrants entering Europe from the South and East is vindicated! Take that Angela Merkel!
President Trump uses much of the final part of this speech to describe in painful detail the hellish events in Warsaw in 1944 across Jerusalem Avenue, linking that to his wider theme of Western values:
Nazi snipers shot at anybody who crossed. Anybody who crossed, they were being shot at. Their soldiers burned every building on the street, and they used the Poles as human shields for their tanks in their effort to capture Jerusalem Avenue.
The enemy never ceased its relentless assault on that small outpost of civilization. And the Poles never ceased its defense …
Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield — it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls
Today, the ties that unite our civilization are no less vital, and demand no less defense, than that bare shred of land on which the hope of Poland once totally rested
Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory
Once again, phew! This sort of thing echoes the astonishing speech in June 1984 by Ronald Reagan on the cliffs of Normandy describing the heroism of the Boys of Pointe du Hoc (that speech too mentions “the impossible valor of the Poles”).
Amidst this flood of flattery there are important strong messages. Yes to NATO (and Yes to the USA demanding (sic) that all other NATO members pay their fair share). There’s little if any joy for Vladimir Putin: President Trump gives a commitment to support Poland and its neighbours in breaking from energy dependence on Russia. He later urges Russia:
to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes — including Syria and Iran — and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself (applause)
And out of a clear blue sky President Trump throws something to us libertarians:
… on both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted by yet another danger — one firmly within our control. This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles: the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people. The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations, but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.
Hmm. If only the galloping creep of government bureaucracy really were ‘firmly within our control’. Surely the problem is rather that it’s firmly out of control?
This speech like his Saudi Arabia speech projected President Trump’s unique (to put it politely) and quixotic style to no little advantage. Full of psychological energy, unashamedly direct and sentimental, dashes of the unexpected.
Yet there’s something unsettling and maybe inadvertently pessimistic about his rousing core message:
The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?
Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it? (applause)
We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive (applause)
If anyone forgets the critical importance of these things, let them come to one country that never has. Let them come to Poland (applause)
Once you start musing out loud whether you have the ‘will to survive’, aren’t you implicitly accepting that your deadly enemies have the upper hand, or at least framing the issues on their terms? And while Poland is an inspiring model for Poles, is it the model for the rest of us?