Trump’s Speech: A View From The Beach

So, full disclosure from the start. I am not a US citizen. I have children and grandchildren living in the country, and I have friends here going back 20 years or more. So, no, I don’t have an official view on the new President. Like so many I have watched his progress from the European sidelines and, like so many, I have often been baffled. I do, though, have a particular perspective: and it really came home to me yesterday as I followed President Trump’s inaugural address.

My perspective comes from my address. I live in Normandy, roughly 40 miles inland from Juno and Sword Beaches. Where I live, America is remembered for the moment in history when, perhaps more than at any other time, the word “great” could be applied to her. I have walked the landing beaches often, and pondered why I feel such a deep sense of gratitude and awe. The reason, I have come to see, is that the young men who threw themselves onto those bloody shores with scant chance of survival weren’t doing it to protect their loved ones, or their lifestyle, or even their country. None of the matrix of motivational threads that habitually fuel the fires of courage could be applied to them. They were strangers, in a land whose language they didn’t even speak; whose history they barely grasped. Many of them were teenagers, but they put their lives unflinchingly on the line.

Why did they do it?

They did it for an idea. The idea was this — the values that make up the American dream, expressed in various ways but always touching on freedom, democracy, justice and equality — do not belong to America alone. They are values that matter across the world, and they are worth defending. Those young men, alongside the Canadians, the Brits the French and others, planted the Stars and Stripes in the sands of Normandy not for the sake of America but for the sake of humanity. That’s the kind of greatness America is capable of. And I realised yesterday that it is the opposite — the polar opposite — of “America First”. The last time that slogan was widely used, in fact, was when it was deployed by those who didn’t want American lives offered up in an overseas war. Had they succeeded in their campaign, Europe would have had a different history altogether.

So I hope you will forgive me if I suggest that “America First” and “Make America Great Again” are mutually exclusive goals. America is great when she understands that her ideals are bigger than her nationhood — just as each of us touches greatness to the extent that we realises that the gifts we has been given are worth more than the meeting of our own needs. Patriotism is a high and lofty ideal. Nationalism is not.

And I hope you will allow me, a left-leaning sentimental European, to express the strange longing that came over me as President Trump made his first official speech. It was like an itching hunger; a thirst I didn’t know I had. I found myself yearning, more deeply than I ever would have thought, for a leader who really would make America great again.