Thursday 23 May 2019

Trump cosying up to far-right is polar opposite of D-Day's legacy

The Normandy landings on and after June 6, 1944, resulted in 10,000 casualties for the Allies. Photo: Reuters
The Normandy landings on and after June 6, 1944, resulted in 10,000 casualties for the Allies. Photo: Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

The beaches of Normandy - and the multiple rows of graves in the nearby war cemeteries - are a moving sight at any time of the year, but particularly this week with the marking of the anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Seventy-four years ago, more than 150,000 soldiers from the US, Canada, Britain and other Allied countries waded into the waters off the coast of Normandy as part of the biggest sea and air invasion ever attempted.

US ambassador Richard Grenell who backed European right-wingers’ xenophobia. Photo: Reuters
US ambassador Richard Grenell who backed European right-wingers’ xenophobia. Photo: Reuters

This audacious penetration of then Nazi-occupied France - which cost the Allies more than 10,000 forces wounded or killed - was a key moment in turning the course of World War II and its legacy has coloured relations between the US and Europe ever since.

Walking the rain-sodden beaches this week and reading the testimonies of those who were there during the landings - including the photographer Robert Capa, who captured the drama of D-Day in several iconic images - I couldn't help wonder about the state of the transatlantic relationship in this age of Trump.

Just days before the anniversary, Trump's newly installed ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell, had given an interview to the right-wing Breitbart website beloved of Trump supporters, including white nationalists, praising the rise of the far-right across Europe. Breitbart has a history of fawning coverage of far-right movements and political parties in the EU, including the Front National in France.

In the interview, Grenell referred positively to recent elections that have propelled far-right parties to greater power in countries like Germany, Italy, Hungary and Austria.

He told Breitbart that he "absolutely [wants] to empower" European conservatives who are "experiencing an awakening from the silent majority".

Such electoral showings, he argued, indicate "a groundswell of conservative policies are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left. There's no question about that, it's an exciting time for me."

Grenell also praised Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who heads a right-wing coalition government with the Freedom Party, a far-right group founded by former Nazis. Kurz himself campaigned on an xenophobic, anti-immigration platform.

"I think Sebastian Kurz is a rock star. I'm a big fan," he said.

The remarks by Grenell - a Trump political appointee, not a career diplomat - caused outrage in Germany and warnings against interfering in domestic politics.

The new ambassador is behaving "not like a diplomat, but like a far-right colonial officer", former European Parliament president Martin Schulz said. Grenell later claimed on Twitter that he had been misinterpreted.

"The idea that I'd endorse candidates/parties is ridiculous," he wrote.

"I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority - those who reject the elites & their bubble. Led by Trump."

Not only did Grenell's comments rile Berlin, the offence was compounded when US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert - hired from Fox News by the Trump administration - cited the D-Day invasion anniversary in an attempt to brush off the controversy.

"We have a very strong relationship with the government of Germany," Nauert said on June 5.

"Looking back in the history books, today is the 71st anniversary of the speech that announced the Marshall Plan. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

"We obviously have a very long history with the government of Germany, and we have a strong relationship with the government of Germany."

The imbroglio comes at a time of increasing strain in the Washington-Berlin relationship - and US-Europe relations - due to Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate change agreement, plus his decision to level steel and aluminium tariffs on the EU.

It was not the first time Grenell has sparked controversy since taking up the post of ambassador last month.

Only hours after he arrived in Berlin, he took to Twitter to crassly warn German firms to "wind down their operations" in Iran following Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and slap Tehran again with sanctions.

Trump's blustering, blunt and damaging approach towards Europe - despite US-Europe relations being a key pillar of the post-war international order - and his cosying up to autocrats beyond the continent couldn't be further from the legacy of D-Day, with its emphasis on bonds built through shared sacrifice for the common good.

The fact his emissary to Germany is praising the rise of populist xenophobes across Europe also taints that memory. These are difficult days for the transatlantic relationship.

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