In June of 1984, President Ronald Reagan traveled to Normandy, France, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day. “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” he said in one of his most memorable speeches. “These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”
Even his most committed opponents would acknowledge that this was what Reagan was best at: the occasions that demanded rhetoric both grand and grounded, meant to make every American feel connected to the country’s history, delivered with perfectly pitched emotion by a skilled actor.
There is about to be another commemoration at Normandy, but this one may not be quite so inspiring:
World leaders will gather in solemn assembly next week above the sandy beaches of Normandy to mark the 75th anniversary of the world-changing D-Day invasion of France. It’s typically a heartfelt tribute to alliance and sacrifice and a unified vow for enduring unity, outweighing any national or political skirmish of the moment.
That’s what has some U.S. veterans and others worried about President Donald Trump’s attendance. The president has shown a repeated willingness to inject nationalistic rhetoric and political partisanship into moments once aimed at unity. For Trump, there is no water’s edge for politics, no veneer of nonpartisanship around military or national security matters.
The president, who did not serve in the military before becoming commander in chief, has feuded with Gold Star families, blasted political opponents on foreign soil, and mocked Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war, for being captured by the enemy. Trump’s antipathy for the late senator was so well known that the White House this week requested that the Navy keep the USS McCain out of the president’s line of sight during a recent trip to Japan, so as not to rile the president.
We all know that the chances that Trump will do something to ruin this occasion are extremely high. As much as he loves talking about “my military,” there’s one part of the values we associate with the military that Trump is not so comfortable with: sacrifice.
Trump likes the toughness, he’ll float a pardon for accused war criminals, but the idea of giving something up for a larger cause is not something he can relate to.
I suspect that’s one of the sources of his long-standing hatred of McCain. It was the way McCain was so often praised for his suffering and sacrifice as a prisoner of war in Vietnam that irked Trump so much, which is why he tried to recast McCain’s war record as one of weakness. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, okay?”
An event marking the anniversary of D-Day is all about honoring sacrifice. Can you imagine Trump paying tribute to “the men who took the cliffs”? I doubt he’ll even be able to speak the words, much less do so in a way that makes Americans feel connected to that history.
This is one of the key roles of a president — or at least something that until recently we expected from presidents. On ceremonial occasions or moments of crisis and loss. they’re called upon to represent the entire nation, to make us remember or understand something and feel the same thing at the same time.
As the two parties have sorted themselves more completely into opposing ideological camps and negative partisanship has increased, that has become more difficult. But not impossible, at least not until now. Just after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, for instance, George W. Bush’s approval ratings shot past 90 percent, not so much because he did anything in particular but because he made some public statements that conveyed a combination of sorrow and resolve that resonated with what Americans were feeling.
One certainly wonders whether Republicans would have rallied around Al Gore in the same way Democrats did with Bush had Gore been president at the time. We don’t have to wonder about how they treated Barack Obama, with some of them constantly insisting not just that his policy priorities were wrong but that he was not even an American and therefore his entire presidency was illegitimate.
The leader of that racist effort was, of course, none other than Donald Trump. Yet despite it, Obama never stopped trying to tell a story about America that included everyone. His rhetoric shared something with Reagan’s, in that they both liked to describe ordinary Americans who became heroic in the service of their country. Here’s part of the speech Obama gave at the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala.:
What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
Trump couldn’t give a speech like that, either. He calls us not to sacrifice or common purpose but to selfishness and greed, the characteristics he himself embodies so completely. He thinks not paying his taxes “makes me smart.” He sees every interaction with another person or another country as a zero-sum contest where you’re either the winner or the loser.
It’s on occasions such as the D-Day anniversary when we’re reminded just what we’re missing with Trump in the Oval Office. It would be challenging at this point for any president to bind us together, to tell us our history in a way that could make us feel even for a moment that we’re connected to one another. But it would never occur to Donald Trump to even try.