NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY, France—For many Europeans, the spectacle of Donald J. Trump speechifying about the sacrifices made by the thousands of young men whose bodies lie beneath this garden of stone is a grotesque irony. One French journalist summed up the sentiment crudely but with an edge of truth as we looked at the rows upon rows of crosses: “So many will be rolling over in their graves, it will feel like an earthquake.”
The Americans who lie here fought and died to defeat Nazis, to defeat Fascists, to build a better, freer world based on ideas that President Franklin Roosevelt spoke of as “the Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship in one’s own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
When the fighting finally ended in Europe and the Pacific in 1945, the gruesome realities of the battlefields and of the concentration camps, the death marches and the crematoria, led the world that wanted to call itself civilized to vow we would never forget and never repeat such horrors again.
But now comes Trump, born the year after the war ended, who does not remember and probably does not want to know what brought it on, and whose encouragement of aggressive, vindictive, sometimes rabid nationalism at home and abroad opens the door to precisely those evils that the dead here fought to defeat.
The rise of renewed white nationalism in Europe began before Trump entered the political arena, and for a brief time after his election he seemed so completely disreputable that even the likes of Marine Le Pen, in France, were not comfortable with him. But those days are past, and Trump—along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as it happens—is seen as an inspiration for demagogues from Nigel Farage in Britain to Matteo Salvini in Italy and Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
Their common ambition is to dispense with the shared values that the Americans, Canadians and Brits here at the Normandy Beaches fought for—although of course they don’t put it that way—and to weaken if not destroy the institutions built to make sure such a war would never be repeated.
The Trumpists of Europe say they are defending the greatness of their own cultures, but they can only do that by portraying others as inferior and threatening. They thrive on fear. They demean the worshippers who do not share their dogmas. They stifle free expression. They claim that these “foreign” forces and influences will leave their people wanting for jobs and services.
One might hope that Trump would learn something from this trip, and the British who received him royally clearly hoped they might teach him something.
There was, of course, a certain irony in the gift chosen by Queen Elizabeth II for a man who is famously unwilling (some say unable) to read a book. She gave him an opulently bound one-volume 1959 edition of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, which, though greatly abbreviated from the original six volumes, is still 1,033 pages long.
Trump is likely to admire the gilded binding just as he admired the quality of the marble in front of the tomb of Lord Byron in Westminster Abbey. And he makes no secret of his great admiration for Churchill, or at least Churchillian style. He reportedly sought to imitate the great wartime leader’s gravitas, which might explain why, in photo ops with the royals, he often looked like a bulldog with an impacted gut.
If Trump ever opens the book, he might glean something from the first section, “The Gathering Storm,” about trying and failing to build peace in Europe in the aftermath of World War I, which was seen as the apocalyptic outcome of the countless earlier conflicts that had raged across the continent.
“To me the aim of ending the thousand-year strife between France and Germany seemed a supreme object,” Churchill wrote. “If we could only weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially, and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels, and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence, Europe would rise again. It seemed to me that the supreme interest of the British people in Europe lay in the assuagement of the Franco-German feud, and that they had no other interests comparable or contrary to that.”
But it would take World War II, and the creation of the European Union in its aftermath to achieve that goal, which has kept the continent at peace for 74 years.
Does Trump want to do away with all that? In fact he does. He thinks the U.S. can get better trade deals that way. That’s what he thinks he knows how to do.
Trump “is not a monster, he’s not a fascist, he is an egomaniac,” the historian Simon Schama told a television interviewer the day Trump arrived in England. But the effect is much the same. “This is a new regime of disregard for the norms of liberal democracy.”
“America’s glory has been to accept responsibility for conducting the defense of the free world,” said Schama. To have Trump exploiting the anniversary of D-Day is “uniquely repellent.”
It’s not just here in Colleville-sur-Mer that one feels tremors. It is all across Europe.
Trump’s performance on stage here was almost perfect—for Trump. And not only in his opinion. He is now practicing "presidential" and he practiced it well enough in the U.K. and Normandy to more than impress many in the American audience here and at home, including people who don't really like him but don't hate him reflexively.
There were multiple standing ovations when he spoke of the bravery of the fallen and singled out some of the survivors. One expects that these moments along with his reception by the Queen in London will find their way into campaign videos, and serve him well.
Trump's core political support is based on money for the rich and emotions for the masses. His photo ops with the British royals strike a note with the first, his shout-outs for the heroes of Omaha Beach speak to the latter.
Such was the power of the Normandy setting, and most of the Trump speech, that many American commentators were inclined to embrace a couple of vague lines about alliances as a sop to the international institutions he has worked to destroy–and continues working to destroy. (All this to the delight of Vladimir Putin, btw, who was meeting with China’s Xi Jinping on June 6, looking for ways around Trump’s dollar intimidation.)
In Normandy, Trump talked about evil in wonderfully vague terms, not about the motives and methods that breed it, some of which he shares. There is no question he has aided and abetted the European heirs to the white nationalist ideologues that the U.S. was fighting against on D-Day.
The Europeans are not fooled. Most of the French press relegated Trump's presence in Normandy to less than half an inside page. The big news in France on June 7 was the Women's World Cup.
The Brits gave Trump a lot more ink. But the Brits are divided between those whose nostalgic notions of grandeur have no credibility in the modern world, and the disorganized center and left who try to disguise their political ineptitude with arch snarking.
Which is why, as we wrote this week, the "special relationship" is such a delusional farce, especially when we talk about WWII, which marked an enormous reversal of fortune, prestige, and position. The ties before the war were between a growing power, the United States, and an enormous established British Empire; the ties after the war were between a superpower and a plucky but rather quaint, and often pretentious, island.