The most disturbing thing about President Trump’s disgraceful performance in France this past weekend is the clear signal it sent that, under his thumb, the United States has left the West.
He came to the continent to join with other world leaders to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. But the significance of the armistice is not so much to commemorate the fallen in an absurd and ghastly war as it is to celebrate the special peace—grounded in a democratic European Union and a trans-Atlantic alliance—that grew in its wake and the greater war that followed.
And yet, after flying nearly 4,000 miles across the Atlantic, Trump stayed in his room in Paris on Saturday rather than making the additional 50-mile trip to the Aisne-Marne cemetery, where 50,000 American soldiers were laid to rest a century ago. His excuse for not attending was lame, to say the least. His aides said, after the fact, that rainfall precluded a trip by helicopter—a claim refuted by the writer James Fallows, an instrument-certified pilot who, as a former White House official, is familiar with this helicopter.
A later claim, that the route posed a challenge to the large presidential motorcade, is doubly insulting. It’s insulting, first, to the Secret Service and White House travel office whose professionals prepare for, and surmount, any and all obstacles on such trips (an insult exacerbated by the fact that none of the other leaders’ security teams had any trouble dealing with the route); second, to the armed forces and allies, who must wonder whether Trump might turn away from the challenges of mobilizing armored battalions to the front lines in the event of an invasion.
Let us stipulate that Trump didn’t want to get his hair mussed or that security risks frightened him, which may also explain the fact that he hasn’t yet visited American troops in any war zone. (By contrast, Obama made his first trip to Iraq three months into his term and, in his time as president, flew eight times to Afghanistan; George W. Bush, in his two terms, made four trips to Iraq and two to Afghanistan.) However, this does not explain Trump’s late showing for Sunday’s ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, or his skipping of the march toward that event down the Champs-Elysees.
Among the more than 60 world leaders who gathered for the ceremony, only he and Russian President Vladimir Putin were latecomers. (British Prime Minister Theresa May didn’t come to France at all, perhaps owing to her own current problems with the EU.) Many cocked eyebrows have been thrown at the photo of Trump beaming at Putin, while other allied leaders went deadpan, as his friend from the Kremlin approached.
Back in 1917, Russia was the first allied nation to leave the war as the Bolsheviks took power, in part thanks to the Germans, who smuggled Lenin onto a train from Zurich back home, where he proceeded to lead the revolution. That same year, the United States was the last allied nation to enter the war, supplying the aid and firepower that helped break the stalemate and secure victory.
President Woodrow Wilson then led negotiations for a peace on such onerous terms to the defeated powers—historian David Fromkin called it “a peace to end all peace”—that a resumption of war 20 years later was almost inevitable. World War II was fueled by nationalist impulses and facilitated by the crumbling of empires—both of which resonate with developments in global politics today.
This was the context of French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the Arc de Triomphe, in which he condemned nationalism—the “selfishness of nations only looking after their own interests”—as a “betrayal of patriotism.” In part, and most obviously, he was jabbing at Trump, who listened with a scowl; but he was also warning against, as he put it, “old demons coming back to wreak chaos and death.” Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, George Santayana once wrote. The problem with Trump is he never knew history—and doesn’t think he needs to learn it. His election marked Year Zero, as far as he is concerned: He frequently says that he’s unlike, and better than, any previous president, so any lessons of the past are irrelevant.
Macron and everyone else at the Arc had not only the rise of Trump in mind but also the turn toward right-wing nationalism in Hungary and Poland, the uncertain course of Brexit in Britain, and the collapse of Angela Merkel’s centrist coalition in Germany—leaving Macron as the last surviving celebrator of the post-WWII Western traditions, and he too is buffeted by pressures from the left and the right.
At such an occasion so rife with moment and symbolism, any other American president would have felt compelled to repair and strengthen this union. If there were any doubts that President Trump understands little about his mission, and cares even less, this trip dispelled them once and for all.
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