The moving speech that Donald Trump delivered on Thursday at the 75th anniversary commemoration of D-Day was no more than what should be expected of any American president on that occasion — and yet far more than anyone expected of him.
Trump spoke with appropriate reverence and solemnity of the generation whose last members are passing, and what their courage achieved for America, Europe, and the world. “We are gathered here on freedom’s altar,” he said at Normandy. “From across the Earth, Americans are drawn to this place as though it was part of our very soul.”
He eloquently conveyed the gratitude of the nation and the world to the heroes of that historic action, the dwindling few who still live and the thousands who lie in cemeteries, there and elsewhere. “Their mission is the story of an epic battle and the ferocious, eternal struggle between good and evil,” he said.
As uncharacteristic as the dignity and seriousness he somehow summoned was his tribute to the enduring allies who fought by America’s side in the war against the Nazis. His address, which evoked the rhetoric of Roosevelt and Eisenhower, is worth quoting at length:
Today, we remember those who fell, and we honor all who fought right here in Normandy. They won back this ground for civilization.
To more than 170 veterans of the Second World War who join us today: You are among the very greatest Americans who will ever live. You’re the pride of our nation. You are the glory of our republic. And we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Here with you are over 60 veterans who landed on D-Day. Our debt to you is everlasting. Today, we express our undying gratitude.
When you were young, these men enlisted their lives in a Great Crusade — one of the greatest of all times. Their mission is the story of an epic battle and the ferocious, eternal struggle between good and evil.
On the 6th of June, 1944, they joined a liberation force of awesome power and breathtaking scale. After months of planning, the Allies had chosen this ancient coastline to mount their campaign to vanquish the wicked tyranny of the Nazi empire from the face of the Earth.
The battle began in the skies above us. In those first tense midnight hours, 1,000 aircraft roared overhead with 17,000 Allied airborne troops preparing to leap into the darkness beyond these trees.
Then came dawn. The enemy who had occupied these heights saw the largest naval armada in the history of the world. Just a few miles offshore were 7,000 vessels bearing 130,000 warriors. They were the citizens of free and independent nations, united by their duty to their compatriots and to millions yet unborn.
There were the British, whose nobility and fortitude saw them through the worst of Dunkirk and the London Blitz. The full violence of Nazi fury was no match for the full grandeur of British pride. Thank you.
There were the Canadians, whose robust sense of honor and loyalty compelled them to take up arms alongside Britain from the very, very beginning.
There were the fighting Poles, the tough Norwegians, and the intrepid Aussies. There were the gallant French commandos, soon to be met by thousands of their brave countrymen ready to write a new chapter in the long history of French valor.
And, finally, there were the Americans. They came from the farms of a vast heartland, the streets of glowing cities, and the forges of mighty industrial towns. Before the war, many had never ventured beyond their own community. Now they had come to offer their lives half a world from home.
This beach, codenamed Omaha, was defended by the Nazis with monstrous firepower, thousands and thousands of mines and spikes driven into the sand, so deeply. It was here that tens of thousands of the Americans came.
The GIs who boarded the landing craft that morning knew that they carried on their shoulders not just the pack of a soldier, but the fate of the world.
Much more typically, Trump marred the moment by granting an awful interview to the egregious Laura Ingraham of Fox News. He misused Normandy’s field of graves as a backdrop for cheap attacks on Robert Mueller and Nancy Pelosi (who rebuked him by refusing to reply).
Still, for just a moment let’s take him at his word. Let’s even try to hope, as Joe Scarborough said, that the president understands and means what he said when he spoke of the transatlantic community as “our cherished alliance that was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war, and proven in the blessings of peace,” and then added: “Our bond is unbreakable.”
Startling words from a divisive figure who has devoted so much effort to breaking those bonds and lent so much support to sinister forces that openly seek to destroy our alliances.
If those fine phrases were sincere, he would seek to restore American leadership and drop the petty disputes that have so often made him appear to be an agent provocateur. He would turn away decisively from the heirs and remnants of the Nazi enemy that his erstwhile adviser Steve Bannon is seeking to gather under the banners of “nationalism” and “populism.” He would shun the neo-fascist politicians who inexplicably have attracted his favor in France, Italy, and elsewhere. With their undisguised hatreds and despicable intentions, they represent the same forces that our brave soldiers died to vanquish.
Yes, it was a good speech that he delivered with unexpected grace. But those inspiring words are sadly unlikely to guide even a moment of his presidency.