[Also published at Huffington Post.] Donald Trump’s recent speech in Poland sent chills down the spines of people around the world who believe in small l, small d liberal democracy. Notably this part:
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.
What’s so disturbing? Many Trump supporters honestly see no problem — why shouldn’t we defend America, in partnership with our allies?
Because what Trump is describing here isn’t America. And sadly, many Americans failed to notice.
America, as patriots (including me) like to point out, is exceptional. But if some of those patriots don’t see the problem in what Trump said in Poland — and has said in other, starker, ways — then I submit they don’t understand why America is exceptional.
Because it isn’t bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that “make us who we are” — and it certainly isn’t xenophobic opposition to the South or the East, in defense of an ethnocentric West. Culture, faith, and tradition are important in all countries. But in America, they’re not essential. Those things are essential only to the nations of the past: nations that were formed from tribes.
What’s exceptional about America is that it isn’t a tribe. It’s a creed.
You’re not an American because of your blood, or the soil on which you were born, or the religion you practice. You’re an American because you believe in the American creed. That’s the essential miracle of this country.
The creed was defined in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which its author Thomas Jefferson intended as “an expression of the American mind,” and which, as I hope we all still remember, begins with these words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
It’s why Jefferson built his first Inaugural Address to lead to this climax:
These principles [freedom of religion; freedom of the press; and freedom of person, and others] form the bright constellation, which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages, and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment: they should be the creed of our political faith; the text of civic instruction… (Emphasis added.)
It’s why Abraham Lincoln summoned that creed anew to mark the end of the Civil War:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
It’s why Emma Lazarus wrote her sonnet for the Statue of Liberty, depicting it as a “New Colossus”: a symbol not of nationalistic conquest, like the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, but of the far greater power of democratic values:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
It’s why in 1918 William Tyler Page and the U.S. Congress sought to inspire American soldiers with “The American Creed”:
I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes…
And it’s why the British poet G.K. Chesterton described America as “the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.”
In a land where religion and the state are carefully separated — for the protection of both — the creed is the basis of what has been called our civil religion.
In Poland, Trump was speaking words of ethnic nationalism. They are words that could describe many countries.
But not America.
They are the words of someone who doesn’t know what America is.