President Trump gave one of the best speeches of his presidency while many Americans were brushing their teeth. His remarks at the seventy-fifth commemoration of D-Day at the Normandy American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, were gracious, moving, poetic, and delivered in a time zone six hours ahead of the East Coast.
Which is too bad. The address deserves a wide audience not only for its content but also because it fits into the larger themes of this presidency. Speaking from what he described as "Freedom's Altar," Donald Trump once again made the case for reviving America's national spirit, sovereignty, and strength.
Trump told the story of D-Day and of some exemplary GIs before an audience that included more than 60 veterans of the landings themselves. Adding to the poignancy of the scene was the knowledge that the Greatest Generation is slowly fading into posterity. "When you were young, these men enlisted their lives in a Great Crusade—one of the greatest of all times," the president said. "Their mission is the story of an epic battle and the ferocious, eternal struggle between good and evil."
The phrase "Great Crusade" harks back to General Eisenhower's statement to the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and to FDR's D-Day prayer. The language of good and evil, and the invocation of God, echoes earlier Trump speeches as well as those of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In his prepared speeches, Trump has been unafraid to speak in plainly moral terms, and to call on the best traditions of American rhetoric.
What makes Trump's language unique is his emphasis on nations. Trump catalogued the Allies who fought the Nazis at Normandy. He noted the "nobility and fortitude" of the British people and "the full grandeur of British pride." He acknowledged the "sense of honor and loyalty" of the Canadians. He recognized "the fighting Poles, the tough Norwegians, and the intrepid Aussies." He saluted "the gallant French commandos, soon to be met by thousands of their brave countrymen ready to write a new chapter in the long history of French valor."
Trump's most stirring words, of course, were dedicated to the American people. "They came from the farms of a vast heartland, the streets of glowing cities, and the forges of mighty industrial towns." The Americans who fought in World War II, and who charged Omaha beach, "ran through the fires of hell moved by a force no weapon could destroy: the fierce patriotism of a free, proud, and sovereign people. They battled not for control and domination, but for liberty, democracy, and self-rule."
As he did in his 2017 address to the people of Poland, Trump connects heroism and valor to nationhood and religious feeling. "The exceptional might came from a truly exceptional spirit," he said at Normandy. "The abundance of courage came from an abundance of faith. The great deeds of an Army came from the great depths of their love."
In the Warsaw speech, he said, "Through four decades of communist rule, Poland and the other captive nations of Europe endured a brutal campaign to demolish freedom, your faith, your laws, your history, your identity—indeed the very essence of your culture and your humanity. Yet, through it all, you never lost that spirit."
It is sometimes jarring to hear the proprietor of Mar-a-Lago direct our attention to the spiritual realm. Here, too, Trump's rhetoric maintains its ties to some of America's greatest orators. In his "Time for Choosing" speech of October 1964, Ronald Reagan quoted Winston Churchill, who said, "The destiny of man is not measured by material computations. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we're spirits—not animals." Churchill, Reagan continued, also said, "There's something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty." The men who fought for freedom at Normandy know what he meant.
Beginning with his Inaugural Address, but developed more fully in his speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, in his Warsaw appearance, and in his 2017 remarks at the U.N. General Assembly, Donald Trump has offered a consistent perspective on foreign affairs. The world is composed of nations that, at the end of the day, are accountable only to themselves and to their people. The strength of a nation manifests itself in economics and military might, but ultimately depends on patriotic feeling, communal sensibility, and religious belief.
Each nation has the right to exercise sovereignty. It will try to advance its interests, but also must understand that other nations will do the same. When nations enter into trade relationships or alliances, they ought not to take advantage of one another. And they ought not to infringe on sovereign rights.
"We must reject threats to sovereignty," Trump told the UNGA, "from the Ukraine to the South China Sea. We must uphold respect for law, respect for borders, and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow. And just as the founders of this body intended, we must work together and confront together those who threaten us with chaos, turmoil, and terror."
What makes the United States unique is our culture of popular sovereignty and individual liberty. "We know what these men did," Trump said of the WWII vets arrayed around him. "We knew how brave they were. They came here and saved freedom, and then, they went home and showed us all what freedom is all about."
The argument of Donald Trump's presidency is that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago this November, both America's adversaries and (controversially) America's allies exploited the international system for self-gain, and America's political class did nothing about it or, worse, benefited from it.
Trump, the argument runs, is here to revive America's national sensibility through appeals to common purpose, political community, and historical memory. He wants to build a growing economy that can finance a resourced military. He's redirected strategy toward great-power confrontation with China. He is also here to renegotiate settlements with our allies on better terms for the United States, and to enforce national borders, even if it means disrupting settled patterns of doing business and inflaming diplomatic tensions.
He has not yet been entirely successful. Not only because of his many opponents. It is also because Trump's public persona, honed in the world of reality television, often distracts from or undermines the goal of reviving American nationhood. It cannot be an accident that President Trump's strongest moments have been when he conformed to the traditional expectations and duties of his office.
He did at Normandy. There he made an excellent speech whose sentiments and principles ought to be, and will be, remembered. Its animating ideas are expressed in the words of his peroration. "As we stand together upon this sacred Earth," he said, "we pledge that our nations will forever be strong and united. We will forever be together. Our people will forever be bold. Our hearts will forever be loyal. And our children, and their children, will forever and always be free."