Fighting Trump on the Beaches

Anniversary speeches are, generally speaking, the trivial bane of an American Presidency. They are, by definition, backward-looking. The obligatory patriotic rhetoric, the flag-drenched backdrops—it is hard for them to read as anything other than tired and trite. Speaking in Normandy on Thursday to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the Allied landings that spelled the beginning

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Anniversary speeches are, generally speaking, the trivial bane of an American Presidency. They are, by definition, backward-looking. The obligatory patriotic rhetoric, the flag-drenched backdrops—it is hard for them to read as anything other than tired and trite. Speaking in Normandy on Thursday to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the Allied landings that spelled the beginning of the end of the Second World War, Joe Biden faced all those hurdles, and a few more besides. He is, after all, running for reëlection as America’s oldest-ever President, an octogenarian whose campaign is beset by increasingly pointed questions about whether he is still up to the job. Born in the midst of the war, Biden is all but certain to be the last U.S. President who was alive on June 6, 1944; there will not be another. The solemn D Day commemorations could have easily backfired on him—serving as a reminder that he, like the one hundred and eighty veterans of the Normandy operation able to return for this year’s ceremony, is but a superannuated relic of a bygone era. I have no doubt that in the unkinder, Trumpier precincts of the Internet, this is exactly how his appearance there was received.

It is true that Biden walked slowly during the proceedings and at times stumbled over his words; the White House would do well to stop pretending that, at age eighty-one, the President has not lost a step or two. It is also true that he did not suddenly transform overnight into a spellbinding orator. But, for what may well be his final D Day encore before the great battle passes from living memory, Biden met the moment with a message that was bracing, urgent, and clarifying. In a speech at the Normandy American Cemetery that was anything but generic, he called out both Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and, though he did not use his name, Donald Trump’s isolationism—the dual threats that have animated this last political campaign of Biden’s, in a long life full of them. “The autocrats of the world are watching closely,” he said, and it was not a warning, really, so much as a statement of blunt fact about the stakes in this year’s U.S. election and the foreign-policy consequences that will flow from it. His opponent is an admirer of Putin, and, reportedly, of Hitler even. Trump truly supports neither Ukraine nor NATO.

As I write this, it still seems insane, unimaginable, that these are sentences about a once and possibly future American President. But they are real, if unfortunately so familiar by now that Trump often benefits from our failure to be shocked all over again. Just two days before Putin’s attack on his neighbor, Trump called him a strategic “genius.” On the campaign trail, Trump frequently speaks about his great relationships with the world’s current crop of autocrats and tyrants, praising Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un for their strength, while ranting about the weakness of the West. When Trump was President, he told his White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a decorated former Marine general, that he wanted America’s officers to be more like Hitler’s in their unquestioning loyalty to him. He routinely calls his enemies “vermin” and “human scum,” echoing Hitler’s language, and Kelly has said that Trump even told him that “Hitler did some good things.”

While listening to Biden’s speech, I thought about a resignation letter that Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff appointed by Trump, wrote but did not send to him in 2src2src. “It is my deeply held belief that you’re ruining the international order, and causing significant damage to our country overseas, that was fought for so hard by the Greatest Generation that they instituted in 1945,” Milley said in the letter, a draft of which I obtained in the course of writing a book on the Trump Presidency. “It’s now obvious to me that you don’t understand that world order. You don’t understand what the war was all about. In fact, you subscribe to many of the principles that we fought against.”

Biden did not have to mention any of this to make it the inescapable context of his remarks on Thursday. “To surrender to bullies, to bow down to dictators is simply unthinkable,” Biden told the audience pointedly, adding, “Were we to do that, it means we’d be forgetting what happened here on these hallowed beaches.” And yet so much forgetting has happened, and I am not thinking here about the lessons of the past century as much as I am about the lessons of just one four-year Presidential term ago. Does anyone still remember Trump in Helsinki in 2src18, tripping over himself as he took Putin’s word over that of America’s intelligence agencies? Or Trump in France, for another set of world-war commemorations later that year, fresh off midterm-election losses and skipping a cemetery visit because he reportedly did not want to get his hair wet? Or Trump, in 2src19, blackmailing Ukraine’s young new President, Volodymyr Zelensky, by holding up hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military assistance needed to fight off Russia as he demanded Zelensky dig up dirt on Biden?

It is thinkable, then, all too thinkable. At the time of Biden’s speech, the polling averages showed Trump slightly ahead of him. What will happen to Ukraine if he should win?

“Their generation, in their hour of trial—the Allied forces of D Day did their duty,” Biden said, concluding his remarks. “Now the question for us is: In our hour of trial, will we do ours?”

Just a week ago, Trump became the only former President to be convicted of a crime. In a round of interviews defiantly rejecting both the verdict and the legal system that produced it, Trump made the following observation about America’s adversaries: “So you have Russia, you have China. But if you have a smart President, you always handle them quite easily, actually,” he told the hosts of the Fox News weekend morning show. “But the enemy within—they are doing damage to this country.”

Could there be a bigger contrast with Biden’s words in Normandy? “The enemy within” is not the language of a democratic President but of a dangerous demagogue who cares more about loyalty tests than geopolitical realities. Their clashing world views are underrated—or not rated at all—as a campaign issue, in a race overwhelmed by questions about Biden’s age and Trump’s sanity, and dominated by concerns over inflation, immigration, and the general sour mood of the country. And yet I cannot think of a starker delineation between the current President and his predecessor. It says something about the politics of 2src24, indeed, that rather than seeing foreign policy as Trump’s vulnerability, some now view it as a problem for Biden, who struggled for months to get the Republican House of Representatives to provide billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, a delay that caused battlefield setbacks and a drop in morale, even as his own Democratic Party grew painfully divided over the President’s strong public support for Israel in its war against Hamas.

On the eve of Biden’s trip to France, Time magazine released a lengthy interview with him, a striking counterpoint to an interview that the magazine conducted with Trump earlier this spring. Biden’s was dominated by his concerns over the unravelling of the postwar order that he warned about again on Thursday; Trump’s was a portrait of a man consumed by grievances, whether against the “very unfair” European allies who Trump thinks should be contributing more to Ukraine’s defense, or the criminal court cases against him that he blames on Biden. When the Time interviewer told him that many Americans found his rhetoric about being a dictator “for a day” and the suspension of the Constitution contrary to “cherished democratic principles,” Trump’s reply was chilling. “I think a lot of people like it,” he said.

Reading back through the interview the other day, I was struck that Trump had said, almost word for word, the language about Russia and China and “the enemy within” that he repeated once again this week: “I think the enemy from within, in many cases, is much more dangerous for our country than the outside enemies of China, Russia, and various others that would be called enemies depending on who the President is, frankly.” This, then, was not an idle observation of Trump’s but a theme of his campaign—the theme of his campaign.

Biden must have read Trump’s interview, too, as preparation for his own. It clearly informed his passionate case for why Trump is a danger to the international order, his focus on the threat posed by Russia—Trump, in his own interview, had bragged about how well he got along with Putin—and his best off-the-cuff line: “All the bad guys are rooting for Trump, man. Not a joke.”

Neither stirring battlefield rhetoric nor snarky one-liners, though, can explain how Biden can extract himself from his current predicament, running dead even at best against a felonious ex-President who diminishes the threats from America’s adversaries abroad because he is consumed by purging disloyal citizens at home. Tell that to the boys of Pointe du Hoc. I don’t think they’d believe it. ♦

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