President Donald Trump attends the main ceremony on June 6 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Nobody booed on the Normandy beaches. When President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump stepped out of the presidential helicopter at the solemn D-Day commemorations on Thursday, the crowd applauded. As the president read remarks telling stories of the heroism of some of the veterans present, he was interrupted by cheers. French president Emmanuel Macron, too, was all smiles, assuring reporters that he and Trump agreed on the core goal of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and everything else was “technicalities.”
Macron, and Europe, got the 75th anniversary commemoration they wanted. The event was dignified, moving, and evocative of the very best memories of the U.S.–European alliance — founded on shared values, bound by shared sacrifice, courageous, outward looking, and ultimately crushingly successful.
But Trump’s swing through Western Europe this week also did much to normalize a reality that is none of those things. For two years, his American opponents have told each other that our European friends would hold out and preserve the old relations we remember until the U.S. elects a new president; the Europeans might even fight with Trump and push him to stay within existing rules and norms. (Never mind that the system was badly frayed before he got there.) Instead, European leaders have shown they understand that one man’s whims and preferences now drive our still-powerful economic and military apparatus. And they are doing what smaller countries have always done: adapt.
On Trump’s brief stop in Ireland on Wednesday, he confidently assured Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar that he’d just been talking Brexit in London, and “I think that will all work out very well, and also for you with your wall, your border.” He then alluded to the situation on the southern U.S. border. A wall is, actually, the one thing that citizens of Ireland and U.K.-held Northern Ireland — Catholic and Protestant, left and right — agree that they don’t want. You know who wants walls in Northern Ireland? Thugs and extremists who shoot from behind them. Varadkar offered a bit of pushback, saying, “I think one thing we want to avoid, of course, is a wall or border between us.” But did Varadkar give Trump a history lesson? No. Will Trump be able to return next year and say the same thing, as long as American companies continue their enormous offshore operations in the country? Yes.
Remember, two years ago, London’s popular Labour mayor Sadiq Khan said the U.K. shouldn’t “roll out the red carpet” for Trump, and thousands of protesters signaled that they agreed. After several delays, his first trip to the U.K. as president was downgraded to a “working visit.” But Trump eventually got his state visit, and enough photo ops to keep his social media feeds full for weeks. I don’t care that his tuxedo didn’t fit; I do care that Britain’s royals decided they should put their distaste aside and let themselves be used as a backdrop for a Trump family PR blitz.
The Trump administration spent the run-up to the visit telling the British public that it would gain bigly from a close relationship with the U.S. post-Brexit — but then it fueled public anxieties about all the points where London would have to bend to Washington’s will. For instance, Trump has dangled a trade agreement, suggesting that the U.S. could replace the E.U. as Britain’s primary trading partner with far more beneficial results. Sound familiar? Of course, this would require a massive reworking of Britain’s economy, with hugely disruptive outcomes for many individual workers and communities. What is more, Washington’s proposals are explicitly designed to force the U.K. to choose between U.S. and European standards and practices on a range of health, safety, intellectual property, and other business practices. The British media has been fretting over the prospect of U.S. drug companies destroying Britain’s National Health Service, or U.K. consumers being poisoned by “chlorinated chicken” imports. (U.S. producers are allowed to keep less sanitary conditions and then disinfect the birds after slaughter.)
But Theresa May, in her last days as prime minister, has nothing to gain from pushing back on Trump. While one might have hoped that the Tories vying to replace her might challenge the president, they did not — even as Trump met with some of the most extreme conservative figures in the country. And on the left, Trump managed to pull opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn down into the mud with him, with the two men arguing over who declined to meet with whom.
In an odd bookend to the ceremony in Normandy, German chancellor Angela Merkel started her week in Cambridge, where she delivered Harvard’s commencement address. Her speech was a rousing defense of alliances and liberal values that was interpreted as a rebuke of Trump, though she never mentioned him by name. But Merkel, too, will soon be gone. This year’s D-Day commemoration was a poignant farewell to the very last of the World War II survivors — more than 300 veterans of that war die every day— but also to the leaders and relationships that were shaped by their legacy.
Trump, his falsehoods, and his transactional, zero-sum view of the U.S.–European relationship are now fully normalized. He has found a crop of partners in right-wing European parties; and he has understood very keenly that Europe’s centrist leaders are too beleaguered themselves to lead a stand against him. Perhaps the saddest realization of the D-Day commemoration is that its sacrifices and heroism are no longer enough of an anchor. The great-grandchildren of GIs and Resistance fighters and Nazis will have to find new inspiration and build new touchstones — and a mere distaste for Donald Trump is far, far too weak a reed.