A National Embarrassment

President Donald Trump meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at Élysée Palace Saturday.

President Donald Trump had a bad week. He and his party — the party of Trump, aka, the Republican Party — received an electoral trouncing last Tuesday. Then, he went to France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, only to be lectured by French President Emmanuel Macron on the dangers of nationalism. No wonder Trump sulked through the whole trip!

Unfortunately, when the president of the United States sulks on the world stage, he embarrasses America. Even when his is not sulking, he embarrasses America. Trump is very good at embarrassing America while abroad. Oh, yes, he has done it before. In May 2017, he shoved past the prime minister of Montenegro during a tour of NATO headquarters in Brussels. No doubt, Trump thought, as leader of the world’s most powerful nation, he could jostle the head of a tiny Balkan nation of 600,000 people. Then, there was the infamous macho 29-second handshake with Macron during a visit to Paris for a Bastille Day parade in July 2017. Last spring, Trump abruptly revoked American support for a joint communique at a Group of Seven summit because he was upset at mild criticism from Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, who Trump promptly insulted. Then, in July 2018, on a trip to London, he disparaged British Prime Minster Theresa May in an interview published just prior to a joint meeting with her. 

President Trump was absent as many of the world’s leaders walked to the Arc de Triomphe as part of the commemoration of the end of World War I.

Trump continued his boorish overseas behavior (do not misunderstand, the president is a boor wherever he is) on this past weekend’s trip to Paris. As many world leaders walked down the city’s fabled Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, the American president was AWOL. Trump showed up a few minutes after the significant moment when the bells at Notre Dame Cathedral tolled (at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the armistice ending the Great War, as it was then known, went into effect). A White House spokesperson cited “security protocols” for Trump not walking with the other heads of state. Perhaps so, but that did not deter most of the others, and the president has a past history of declining to walk with his colleagues. In Sicily in 2017 for a G7 meeting, the other leaders walked about 700 yards to a group photo. Trump followed in golf cart, which is the usual extent of his exercise. 

Adolf Hitler and other top Nazi leaders in Compiègne to accept the surrender of France in 1940.

The day before the November 11 commemoration, Trump failed to show at an American cemetery near Paris, citing rain as an excuse. Rain did not deter Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who made it to a ceremony at Compiègne, the site of the German surrender in 1918. She was the first German leader to visit Compiègne since Adolf Hitler, who insisted on further humiliating a defeated France in 1940 by forcing French leaders to surrender in the same railway car in which German generals signed the armistice of 1918. But, then, Merkel knows her history, which the unread and untutored Donald Trump does not.

And, so does Macron, which is, no doubt, why he used the centenary of the end of World War I to lecture Trump and others about the dangers of nationalism. The causes of the Great War were complex, but nationalism — both as expressed in the desires of the suppressed ethnic groups in the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires and in the imperial rivalries of the great nation-states of Europe — played a dominant role.

Government officials in Versailles in 1919 to draft the peace treaty concluding World War I.

The failure of the peace of 1919 at Versailles to quench the spirit of nationalism — rather, the treaty stoked nationalism — contributed, in part, to the rise of Hitler and the Second World War just two decades later. The outcome of that conflagration led to the creation of the liberal world order that has largely kept the peace since 1945.

President Trump has challenged the postwar global system, as has Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also showed up late for the November 11 ceremony. Before the recent midterm elections, Trump embraced the term “nationalist” with fervor. “You know what I am?” he told a rally of supporters in Houston in late October. “I’m a nationalist, O.K.? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!”

French President Emmanuel Macron warning of the dangers of nationalism.

Trump’s “America First” brand may be out of step with Merkel and Macron, but he has allies in some other European countries — Italy, Hungary, and Poland, in particular — that have seen the rise of ultra-nationalist leaders. Macron used his speech to highlight the ways in which nationalist movements undermine world unity. “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” the French leader said. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying: ‘Our interest first. Who cares about the others?’” Citing the emotions in play before the start of World War I, Macron warned that “the old demons” are reappearing, and he counseled that “giving into the fascination for withdrawal, isolationism, violence and domination would be a grave error that future generations would very rightly make us responsible for.” 

The president reportedly sat grim-faced through Macron’s speech and clapped tepidly at the end. Indeed, Trump appeared to be sleepwalking through the entire trip, looking as if he would rather be anywhere else than in Paris. Trump’s disinterest does not obscure the correctness of Macron’s assessment. While the French president declined to name names, it was obvious to whom he was referring. Trump has struck repeatedly at the global order, abandoning international agreements on trade, nuclear proliferation, and climate change and disparaging alliances like NATO and the European Union, all of which are important to Macron.

President Trump speaking in Houston in October.

Macron’s speech was a rebuttal to Trump’s railing against the “rule of corrupt, power-hungry globalists,” as he put it in Houston. “You know what a globalist is, right? You know what a globalist is? A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that.” Macron — in contrast — spoke of how one can be a patriot without resorting to nationalism. “I do defend my country,” Macron said. “I do believe that we have a strong identity. But I’m a strong believer in cooperation between the different peoples, and I’m a strong believer of the fact that this cooperation is good for everybody, where the nationalists are sometimes much more based on a unilateral approach and the law of the strongest, which is not my case.”

To Macron’s words, President Trump could only sulk, further embarrassing his countrymen when he travels. On the other hand, when he stays home, he causes untold problems.

An embarrassment abroad, a problem at home. What is to be done? Well, we will have a Democratic House come January 2019, part of why Donald Trump had a very bad week. 

Posted November 13, 2018


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