Donald Trump strutted on the European stage last week and, it seems to me, put in a boffo performance. He wore white tie and tails. He charmed Queen Elizabeth. He gave the heroes of Normandy what may be, sadly, their final curtain call.
Beyond the theatrics, he signified something. His speech commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy included a robust defense of nationalism – the kind of nationalism, he explicitly argued, that won World War II; the kind of nationalism, he implicitly argued, that will be necessary to defeat those waging a war against the West today.
Let me back up for a moment to make sure you’re seeing the big picture. On the left, nationalism has become a dirty word, implying nothing less than proto-fascism.
In Paris last November, at ceremonies commemorating the World War I Armistice, French President Emmanuel Macron called nationalism “a betrayal of patriotism,” and “the opposite of patriotism.”
He went on to explain (more or less) that, “By pursuing our own interests first, with no regard to others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds most precious, that which gives it life and makes it great: its moral values.” President Trump, sitting a few feet away, stared, stony-faced, into the middle distance.
On the right, there is now a sharp split over nationalism. At its inaugural conference in Washington next month, the Edmund Burke Foundation will pose the question: “Is the new American and British nationalism a usurper that has arrived on the scene to displace political conservatism? Or is nationalism an essential part of the Anglo-American conservative tradition at its best?”
Keynote speakers include National Security Advisor John Bolton, and the chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, Yoram Hazony, an Israeli political philosopher and the author of “The Virtue of Nationalism,” the subject of intense controversy since its publication last fall.
Mr. Trump has called himself a “nationalist” and in this speech — in others, too, those in Warsaw and Riyadh, for example — he has been putting some meat on that bone. He recalled the “citizens of free and independent nations” who formed an alliance to “vanquish the wicked tyranny of the Nazi empire.”
He referenced the “nobility and fortitude” of the British, the “honor and loyalty” of the Canadians, the “gallant French commandoes,” the “fighting Poles, the tough Norwegians, and the intrepid Aussies.”
He added: “And finally, there were the Americans” who “knew that they carried on their shoulders not just the pack of a soldier, but the fate of the world.”
Naming nationalities, noting differences among them, and employing such terms as “sovereignty” and “self-rule” – all this was clearly intended to trigger those who reject the vision of benign nationalism, a political order based on free peoples with diverse historical, cultural and religious traditions who nonetheless come together against common enemies and in support of common values (not least classical liberal values).
He sees such a political order as clearly preferable to its primary competitor: globalism, the nations of the West surrendering sovereignty to the U.N. and other transnational authorities.
Some readers of this column are doubtless thinking: “But Cliff, it was a speechwriter, not the president, who crafted those remarks!” Of course, but the task of skilled presidential speech writers – Peggy Noonan, Peter Robinson, Clark Judge and Anthony Dolan spring to mind – has always been to weave their boss’s ideas, instincts and inclinations into a coherent tapestry. And every president wields a red pencil.
Interestingly, President Trump didn’t use that pencil to strike out “crusade,” a term prohibited by enforcers of political correctness because it evokes a medieval war between Christian and Muslim armies.
President George W. Bush used that word just once, sparking furious criticism. The headline in the Christian Science Monitor on Sept. 19, 2001: “Europe cringes at Bush ‘crusade’ against terrorists.”
I heard no similar response after President Trump said that the men who stormed Omaha Beach had committed “their lives in a great crusade,” and when, in his toast to the Queen a few days earlier, he spoke of World War II as a “Great Crusade.”
Why not? Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to Mr. Trump’s critics: Perhaps they recognized that his use of the term was an homage to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower whose memoir of World War II was titled, “Crusade in Europe.”
This, too, was clever: In Portsmouth, the English city from which the D-Day forces set out for the French coast, President Trump read excerpts from the prayer that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had recited in a radio address on June 6, 1944.
“Almighty God, our sons, pride of our nation, this day, have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion and our civilization and to set free a suffering humanity,” Trump read against a backdrop of the American flag and a portrait of FDR. Imagine the reaction had those words been his own.
Did Mr. Trump make any missteps in Europe? It seems to me he did. The interviews he gave should have reinforced the messages he was intending to communicate. They distracted from them instead.
He complained to television host Piers Morgan that Meghan Markle, the American-born Duchess of Sussex, “was nasty to me.” He tweeted something combative about singer Bette Midler. He responded to insults from London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
By now, this seems to me apparent: While Mr. Trump is often capable of rising to the occasion, he can seldom resist rising to the bait.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.