President Trump’s initially vague critique of the white supremacist march through Charlottesville, Va., is being viewed in Europe as a clear sign of divergence between American and European leadership in the face of new expressions of hate in the West.
Europeans have expressed doubts about Trump's commitment to post-war bodies such as NATO and to the liberal ideals that undergird the transatlantic relationship. But the devastating events of this weekend have delivered a shock – creating a moment that may prompt Europeans to reevaluate where America is heading.
Trump more forcefully denounced white nationalism Monday, telling journalists at the White House that “racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups.” For some observers, however – even across the Atlantic – the delay meant it rang hollow.
Perhaps no one captured the sense of disbelief better than France’s left-wing daily Libération, whose front page features a group of supremacists on the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, campus above the words “The White House” in capital letters.
“It is true that Trump was elected by setting one half of America against the other, supported by certain advisers close to the most extreme right wing and by white supremacists,” reads a Libération editorial. “But one never imagined one day seeing the president of the United States treating anti-racist and neo-Nazi demonstrators equally.”
Florian Hartleb, a German political consultant who specializes in populism and extremism in Europe, says that the continent grapples with its own extremist tendencies, and that Virginia could serve as a wake-up. “We look at such confrontations and ask, 'Can this also happen in Europe? Germany? In France? In the UK?' ”
But the sense of disbelief is particularly about the way the deadly protest was acknowledged, he says: only belatedly, and without ascribing clear culpability. “This is actually about the response; this is not what we are used to from the US.”
The German approach
The divide in understanding is broadest in Germany, where the burden of history weighs at every turn.
The fate, for example, of the dilapidated Nazi Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, where Adolf Hitler assembled German masses to his cause, has long vexed Germany. To preserve them could turn them into a new rallying point for neo-Nazis in present times, especially after the anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) has gained a foothold in political life. But the prevailing attitude is to let them stand – even if it costs money to preserve them – to continue to obligate Germany to remember what drove the country to the devastation of World War II.
Alexander Schmidt, a historian at the documentation center of the Nazi Party rally grounds, explained it in a Monitor cover story on how to deal with Nazi remnants: “We can’t hide history.”
It is but one example of the solemnity and seriousness with which Germany takes its obligation to history, and it stands in stark contrast to the scenes in Virginia over the weekend. In Germany, schoolchildren must make mandatory visits to concentration camps, memorials are found across the country, and perhaps above all, authorities exhibit zero tolerance. Just a few weeks ago, two Chinese tourists were arrested after making Hitler salutes in front of the Reichstag building that houses the German parliament in Berlin.
At home, when Muslim immigrants angry at Israel turned to anti-Semitic rhetoric in 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed it without ambivalence. “The fact that today there are again more than 100,000 Jews living in Germany is nothing short of a miracle,” Ms. Merkel said. “It’s a precious gift which fills me with profound gratitude.... Jewish life belongs in our country. It’s part of our identity and culture.”
She had tough words for protesters in Virginia today. “The scenes at the right-wing extremist march were absolutely repulsive – naked racism, anti-Semitism, and hate in their most evil form were on display,” her spokesman told reporters Monday. “Such images and chants are disgusting wherever they may be and they are diametrically opposed to the political goals of the chancellor and the entire German government.”
Soul-searching beyond America's shores
Europeans are not just pointing fingers across the Atlantic. Indeed, if the events in Charlottesville are viewed as a tipping moment for America, so too could it lead to soul-searching in Europe about why and how it’s come to this.
European electorates have flirted with far-right leaders in national elections from France to the Netherlands who utter the kind of rhetoric long banned from mainstream politics.
Much of their target is Muslim immigration, but Jews are anxious about new expressions of anti-Semitism – sometimes by Muslim immigrants, other times by nationalist public figures. Anti-immigration sentiment has been its most alarming in eastern Europe, where bands of paramilitary thugs from the extreme right have taken to patrolling borders and trains to keep migrants and refugees out.
It is a messy picture across the European Union, with signs of bigotry that have drawn anxious comparison to the 1930s.
When Nigel Farage, the face of the pro-Brexit movement in Britain, took to Twitter and wrote, “Cannot believe we’re seeing Nazi salutes in 21st century America,” he was hounded for his own role in forging divides at home. His main argument for pushing Britain to leave the EU was to rid the country of migration. Ahead of that vote, a poster with a queue of refugees that read “Breaking Point: The EU has failed us” was widely condemned.
In the Netherlands, political maverick Geert Wilders unapologetically espouses anti-Muslim sentiment, having called for the Quran to be banned and having led chants for fewer Moroccans on Dutch soil.
That’s one reason that sitting heads of state have been so clear in their admonishment of white supremacy in the US. British Prime Minister Theresa May immediately tweeted “our thoughts and prayers are with #Charlottesville. The UK stands with the US against racism, hatred and violence.”
Mainstream politicians have not always taken the high ground; plenty have employed their own exclusionary rhetoric to capture votes And the sentiment predates Trump. But many see a moral failure in what is widely viewed as his veering from the norm. A Guardian editorial says Trump has “shamed America.”
“If Donald Trump’s words about the violent white extremist mobilisation in Virginia on Saturday – which an under-pressure White House was desperately trying to clarify on Sunday – are an expression of its soul,” the British paper wrote in an editorial, “America may be on the road to perdition.”