Trump’s dis­dain for Europe only strength­ens JFK nos­tal­gia

Sunday Times - - OPIN­ION -

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.

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