On June 6, 2017, President Donald Trump, speaking in Warsaw, gave the defining speech of his administration.
As with everything this president does, his enemies in the media saw in the speech dark echoes of authoritarianism, Nazism, fascism, and the "alt-right." It was a speech in frank praise of Western Civilization, of family, of faith, and of freedom, but Trump’s critics saw it as "dog whistles" appealing to White supremacists. What is going on here?
The answer, I think, is to be found in the struggle known as the "cultural war," which the Democrats, in the Obama Administration and the media, had thought they had won, and which Trump now shows they have lost. This battle, which is over nothing less than the soul of the nation, is a conflict that has been raging since at least the sixties. At issue is the nature of humans, the existence of a benevolent higher power, and the purpose of politics.
Those who fought against the Vietnam War, against Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago, against Lyndon Johnson in the White House, and then against Richard Nixon, saw themselves as engaged in a noble effort to throw off the shackles of conventionality, of an imposed morality, and of all kinds of religious and social restraint. The Flower Children of the Summer of Love in 1967, and those who participated in the March on the Pentagon in that year, in their antiwar pro-peace sentiment, believed that they worked in service of a higher morality, one of universal brotherhood, and one that eschewed nationalism, patriotism, and artificial restraints on any individual desires. They were champions of what psychologists came to call "self-actualization," of authenticity, of the soaring perfectibility of the human spirit.
Those flower children became the professors even in the law schools who embraced trendy European theories based ultimately in Marxist notions of the inevitable collapse of capitalism, and the emergence of a decentralized socialism not yet seen in human history. It is no coincidence that Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School when these notions were at their zenith in Cambridge. His administration, in many ways, sought to implement the values of the sixties cultural rebels, in particular their desires for secularism, open borders, redistribution, and social levelling. Mr. Obama’s rebuilding of ties to the Marxist regime in Cuba, for example, was a sign of the power of that sixties ideology in his administration. Unfortunately for the children of the sixties, as we’ve subsequently discovered, the dream of socialism leads ultimately to present-day Venezuela.
Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill, breathed the same air of social rebellion as did President Obama, but Donald Trump and his supporters ought to be understood as realizing, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, of the folly of sixties utopianism. In Trump’s Warsaw speech he repeatedly praised the Polish people (who were instrumental in the renting of the Iron Curtain in 1989). He also praised the idea of nationalism, and the importance of working toward a common goal, not through self-actualization, but through what he actually called "timeless traditions and customs," and "the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a [Western] civilization."
As is his wont, Mr. Trump did not hold back, and railed against the threat posed to us not only by "radical Islamic terrorism," but also from "the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people." "The West," he explained, "became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies." This was not a plea for self-actualization, but rather was an affirmation of the classic ideas of economic freedom the Marxists abhor.
The most thrilling part of Mr. Trump’s Warsaw speech, however, was when he recalled the time when Poland was still suffering under the Orwellian agony of Soviet-bloc atheistic communism, on June 2, 1979, when "one million Poles gathered for their very first mass with their Polish Pope," and when "one million Poles sang three simple words: ‘We Want God.’"
"The People of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out ‘We Want God,’" said President Trump, and, "Their message is as true today as ever."
Those of us who do believe, along with the American framers, that there can be no order without law, no law without morality, and no morality without religion, and that these are the timeless truths that have always bound our nation together, have cause for rejoicing. We are starting to wake from the national nightmare of "self-actualization," fragmentation, and, ultimately, despair. We are seeing the dawn of a new rebirth of traditional American enthusiasm, ebullience, and hope.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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