PARIS — History doesn’t mean much to Donald Trump. In the reality show and wrestling mania world where he first built his base, it’s an insult, as in “You’re history.” Dead. Gone. Forgotten.
So it should not be at all surprising that the history of World War I, commemorated this weekend in France 100 years after its end, would hold little attraction for the American president. And that might explain why he scowled, perhaps out of incomprehension, when French President Emmanuel Macron – citing the history of WWI – warned the world today that, “Patriotism is the opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.” One is about loving your own country, the other is about hating other people and their countries.
Trump, of course, has declared himself a proud nationalist, and has a long list of those he wants Americans to hate and fear. As for love of country, and indeed of those who loved it enough to die for it, he’s not so interested.
On Saturday, using a little rain (very little) as an excuse, Trump blew off a long-planned visit to the graves of more than 1,000 U.S. Marines killed in the ferocious fight for Belleau Wood in the bloody spring of 1918. No other heads of state failed to make their appointed rounds at battlefield cemeteries. But ironically it seems that Marine One, the presidential helicopter, was deterred by drizzle.
Even Trump’s most credulous supporters must find that hard to believe. And one would like to know what his two most important enablers, the former four-star Marine generals Secretary of Defense James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, think of the way Trump disrespected those brave members of that proud corps. Probably we will have to wait for their memoirs, but, of course, those will just be part of history.
The truth is, Trump never wanted to be here in the first place, and his performance on Saturday reflected his trademark truculent petulance. He wanted to be in Washington reviewing a massive military parade all his own, like the one he saw in Paris on Bastille Day 2017 — the same one put on every year here in France — which he had taken to be, yes, somehow about him as well.
But the one-off Washington parade Trump lusted after turned out to be too egregiously expensive even for a president used to spending huge amounts of public money to visit his own golf resorts.
When Trump announced in a tweet in August that he was cancelling that show, for the moment, and heading to Paris for this one instead, diplomats in the city of the Enlightenment wondered if he could be serious. There would be no parade this weekend, and it wouldn’t be all about Trump, although as he arrived he did his best to make it seem that way.
He misread reports of a radio interview that President Emmanuel Macron gave more than three days earlier. He claimed Macron had insulted him. If Trump had asked anyone who understood French what actually had been said, he’d have learned Macron called for Europe to defend itself better against hackers from Russia, China or even the United States, and to build a stronger European army to defend against Russia, rather than relying so heavily on Washington. Hardly an insult, and close to the better burden sharing Trump claims he wants from NATO allies.
Sunday’s event was, as long planned, an assembly of more than 60 heads of state and government, a total of some 90 delegations, who do remember the history of a worldwide war in which millions of people died and the future of humanity was forever altered. But Trump said that attendance was up because the United States (that is, Trump) decided to come.
Maybe Trump’s die-hard American supporters believe this stuff. But the rest of the world sees it as ludicrous and contemptible.
In truth, many of his fellow leaders cannot wait until Trump is history.