Trump’s disdain for Europe only strengthens JFK nostalgia
JOHN F Kennedy, whose charisma, drive and sunny outlook exhilarated the public, instilling a new American idealism, would have turned 100 last Monday.
Americans this week looked back to his presidency — cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1963 — with some nostalgia.
Comparisons with the current occupant in the White House were inevitable. The difference between Kennedy and Donald Trump is like chalk and cheese. Kennedy was handsome, suave, erudite and outgoing. Trump is austere, wooden, self-centred and buffoonish.
Their backgrounds are also different. Kennedy was royalty, his family part of the monied class, and he came to the presidency after stints in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Trump is an angry outsider, with no political experience, who chanced his arm at the presidency and won.
Whereas Kennedy was part of the establishment, Trump seems to be taking the axe to the establishment with some relish. Kennedy was a liberal Democrat, acutely aware and sensitive to the wrongs in society; Trump, on the other hand, is a mercenary, a man of no fixed or discernible ideology.
He seems to hanker for the almost lily-white US of bygone years. Most of his followers are people of that bent. He doesn’t even seem to mind treading on sensitive Republican corns.
Kennedy was in confrontation with the Soviet Union immediately after taking office. First it was the Bay of Pigs invasion, a botched attempt by Cuban exiles sponsored by the CIA to overthrow Fidel Castro.
Then a year later came the Cuban missile crisis, a confrontation with the Soviet Union over the deployment of its ballistic missiles in Cuba, not far from Florida. It was the closest the Cold War came to a full-scale nuclear exchange. The Soviets blinked and the danger was averted.
Half a century later, Trump makes it into the White House, aided by the Russians who hack into the e-mail server of Hillary Clinton, his opponent, exposing embarrassing details of her campaign. To Trump, Vladimir Putin seems not to be a foe but an ally, even a patron, for whom he doesn’t have a bad word.
Trump has turned Republican orthodoxy on its head. The party, fiercely anticommunist throughout the Cold War, and whose faith in a strong US military defence was partly responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union, has, within a few months of the Trump presidency, turned into a Russian lapdog.
That could not have been clearer during the Nato and G7 meetings in Europe last month, Trump’s first foreign trip since taking office. In 1963 Kennedy went to West Berlin and delivered his Ich bin ein Berliner address, perhaps his greatest speech about America’s place in the world, giving hope and solidarity to a city surrounded by communist East Germany with Soviet nuclear rockets a stone’s throw away.
Trump spent his time in Europe last week sulking and throwing his toys out of the cot. Apparently, in his estimation, the assembled heads of state failed to accord him the respect befitting the leader of the biggest power on earth.
He gave a lukewarm commitment to Nato, which he had previously referred to as obsolete, and refused to give an undertaking to abide by the Paris climate agreement. He then went back home and proceeded, with much fanfare, to chuck the agreement in the wastepaper basket.
Putin must be overcome with joy. Nothing will delight him more than the breakup of Nato or the transatlantic alliance. In the past it was the Soviet Union which used to unite Europe; now it’s the US.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a studiously careful, measured sort of person, the epitome of soft power. But, addressing a campaign rally last Sunday she told supporters the US and Britain could no longer be relied upon to be the guarantors of Europe’s security, adding pointedly: “I’ve experienced this in the past few days.”
For her, this is personal. She grew up in East Germany. And Trump has made no secret of his antipathy towards her, even during his election campaign.
Merkel seems, with good reason, to bunch the emergence of the Trump phenomenon with Brexit, which has led to uncertainty and apprehension in some quarters. It’s incredible that, a year after the referendum, nobody seems to know what Brexit is all about or what Britain will look like after it’s been accomplished. It’s a leap in the dark.
Britain seems to think it can get out of the EU and continue to have cordial relations with its members as if nothing has happened. Such a rupture is bound to leave deep scars.
Britain and the US were pivotal in creating a strong postwar West with a liberal market economy that successfully saw off the Soviet Union; they also ensured that an economically resurgent Germany was kept in check.
Ironically, their withdrawal from the world stage leaves Germany as the only undisputed leader, especially in Europe. It could also allow a newly assertive Russia, under Putin, free rein.