Friday, 26 May 2017

Hurricane Trump comes to Brussels

While the current US president bullied and berated in Brussels, Obama awed and inspired in Berlin. Which man truly represents the American people?

Perhaps no image of Donald Trump's visit to Brussels will be more enduring than the now-notorious video of him pushing the prime minister of Montenegro out of the way so that he could get to the front of a shot of NATO leaders.

As an US citizen, I felt a deep sense of shame watching the incident. There was something painfully American about it. The worst part was his expression after the shove - the brash sense of entitlement, the obscene strutting. In just a few seconds Trump had confirmed the stereotypes that so many Europeans have about Americans. And it was consistent with his behavior during the entire Brussels visit - bullying, gloating, preening.


I wasn't in Brussels for Trump's visit, instead I was 700km away in my other home, Berlin, watching former president Barack Obama speak with Angela Merkel in front of the Brandenburg Gate. It was an incredible contrast. While Trump was greeted in Brussels by massive protests, Obama was greeted in Berlin by cheering crowds. These are the two faces of America that Europeans are presented with. And they are confused as to which one is real.

Obama was here in Berlin for Kirchentag, an annual day of celebration for the Lutheran Church which some have called 'the Protestant Woodstock'. This year the German protestants have particular reason to celebrate. It is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, an act that started the Protestant Reformation.

Both Obama and Merkel spoke very personally about their religious faith, and about some of the ethical quandaries they have faced as leaders. It was a remarkably honest exchange, and it was the first time Germans have seen Merkel, a pastors daughter, speak so personally about her faith.

It is a coincidence that Obama was speaking in Berlin, at the same spot where he attracted one of the largest audiences in Berlin history when he spoke during his 2008 campaign, simultaneously with Trump's Brussels visit. It just so happened that Kirchentag fell on the same day as a NATO summit. But on a day when so many in Europe were tempted to turn their backs on America for good (if only they could), Obama's presence in Berlin served as a reminder that not all Americans are bad people. Maybe, there is hope for moral leadership to return.

Europe - America's ideological proxy battleground

Like during his final state visit in November, when observers said he appeared to be handing over the torch of 'leader of the free world' to the German chancellor, Obama and Merkel were very warm with one another. Obama praised Merkel's policy of taking in Syrian refugees. Merkel praised Obama for his leadership as president. Hours later, she flew to Brussels where she gave an icy reception to Trump at the NATO summit. 

Trump, in turn, told EU leaders in Brussels that the Germans are "bad, really bad". Trump's words about Merkel have grown increasingly hostile, even though he used to praise her. As Deutsche Welle noted today, it may stem from anger on his part that she was chosen as Time's 'Person of the Year' instead of him in 2015 (he was chosen the following year).

For Europeans, the duelling visits only add to their confusion about America's place in the world. Is Trump an aberration, or the new normal? Is America a leader that can be trusted, or an erratic agitator to be avoided?

It is a confusion that can be easily understood, considering that Europe has become the new battleground for an American ideological war between liberalism and far-right populism. So far this year, Trump's side is losing. His favored far-right candidates in The Netherlands and France have lost, and his beloved AfD in Germany is set to lose in September. In addition to this week's tacit endorsement of Merkel, Obama explicitly endorsed new French President Emmanuel Macron in April. In the political proxy war in Europe, Obama is winning.

Over the past two months Trump has shown some willingness to back off of his campaign bluster toward Europe. Though he described NATO as "obsolete" and the EU as a German-run conspiracy that should break apart, he has had an about-face on both since taking office and now says they are good. And yet, he still refused during this NATO summit to commit to NATO's mutual defence clause. He is the first US president to ever refuse to do so, which is causing anxiety in Europe (particularly in the East) that Trump would not defend them from a Russian attack.

Who speaks for America?

Even though Obama has won the ideological battles in Europe so far this year, and remains adored here while Trump is loathed, the fact remains that Trump is still president. So who really represents Americans? Is it the man who shoves the leader of a small country out of the way so he can strut in the front of a group, or the man who waxes philosophical in front of an adoring crowd?

The truth is hard for many to swallow. Trump is not an aberration. In many ways, he is more representative of the American people than Barack Obama ever was. Yes, there is a deep ideological divide in America, as represented by these two men. But Trump's words and actions have significant support in the United States, and just about half of voters supported him. Europeans would ignore that at their peril.

As I wrote in Berlin Policy Journal earlier this week, Europeans have a long-term interest in seeing Trump impeached, even if they are worried about the instability it would cause in the short term. But they should be under no illusion about what the Trump era, however brief it turns out to be, means. 

Trump is the face of America at the moment, and he represents a real ugliness and ignorance that is prevalent in the American public. Otherwise he would not be where he is today. The answer for Europeans is not to close their eyes and hope that he goes away. If lessons are to be learned, it is that Europe should not be so dependent on a population that would elect this man to office. Europe should become self-sufficient, so that the whims of the American electorate do not effect them so greatly.

The 'ugly American' seen in that video, pushing the prime minister of tiny Montenegro out of the way, is real. Those stereotypes don't come from nowhere. If Europeans don't like it, they should create a world in which they do not have to placate that ugly American, as they have had to do in Brussels this week.

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