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August 03, 2017

Trump and Gorka’s “Civilizational Values” are Incompatible with American Ideals

By Rosalind Faulkner

“Civilizational values.”

In an op-ed published by The Hill on July 20, presidential assistant Sebastian Gorka hinges his argument for the efficacy of the Trump Administration on these two words. At first glance, the buzz phrase seems harmless enough, even catchy and respectable.

But what, exactly, does it mean?

Human Rights First’s Rob Berschinski offers an explanation in his recent Foreign Policy article. According to Berschinski’s analysis, the term “civilizational values” adds an attractive gloss to disturbing ideas. At the heart of those ideas is a fundamental belief in the division between “us” and “them”—with “us” being a generally homogenous group of white, Christian conservatives. Implied is the necessity of subduing or excluding “them” to safeguard a civilization, at whatever cost to universal rights.

Gorka praises Poland in his piece, as did President Trump in his recent glowing speech in Warsaw. As Berschinski writes, this praise has some unsavory implications.

Since it gained power in October 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice party has moved to assert unchecked authority and to curtail civil liberties and civil rights in Poland. With Jaroslaw Kaczynski at its head, the party has limited the right to protest and attempted to regulate and monitor NGOs. Law and Justice has also taken unprecedented control of the state media, among various other steps to consolidate its power.

Most recently, Law and Justice’s push to grab judicial power was surprisingly blocked by a veto from Polish President Andrzej Duda, who has consistently fallen in line with previous Law and Justice policy. Still, analysts warn that neither the party’s battle for the high court nor its overall push to claim increasingly autocratic authority is over, and that Duda’s act of opposition may be an isolated incident. For more on Poland’s backsliding on human rights, see our latest report, “Poland’s New Front: A Government’s War Against Civil Society.”

Yet despite the clear assault on Polish civil rights, the Trump Administration has signaled support for the Polish government. In Gorka’s op-ed, he declares that the Trump Administration “will stand shoulder to shoulder with any nation, for example Poland, which shares the values that made the West great and is prepared to defend them.”

Underlying Gorka’s comment, Berschinski notes, is the understanding that “when one’s ‘civilization’ is at risk… no government action to curtail universal rights is too extreme.” Repression of certain groups and other authoritarian tendencies can parade far too easily under the banner of civilizational upkeep, aided by the supremacy complex that a firm sense of belonging to said “civilization” entails.

Indeed, one such curtailment that the Polish government and the Trump Administration hold in common is their hostility to refugees.

In May 2017, faced with legal threats from the European Union on the basis of not meeting refugee quotas, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo stated that “Poland cannot accept refugees.” Meanwhile, the Trump Administration issued executive orders to slash refugee resettlement and continues to defend its travel ban in court. Both governments showcase a prioritization of “civilizational values” over universal human rights.

In his Warsaw speech, President Trump sent a chilling 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?”

I would like to ask:

Do we have enough respect for our fellow humans to open our arms? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our common humanity in the face of those who doubt and challenge it?

To the latter questions, our answer must be “yes.” American ideals, rooted in universal values, depend on it.