Trump’s Charlottesville reaction driving European allies further away

By George N. Tzogopoulos Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/21 20:13:39

A protest over the planned removal of a statue depicting Confederate military commander Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville has turned into a violent drama tarnishing US politics. The clash between white supremacist groups and anti-far right protesters left a 32 year-old woman dead and 19 others injured. The subsequent reaction of US President Donald Trump has generated an intense debate - domestically and internationally - on whether his stance is appropriate under these difficult and emotional circumstances. Although he condemned white supremacists and neo-Nazis, he generally put the blame "on many sides." Also, his reference to the participation of "very fine" people among the protesters is leading to the current firestorm.

The mother of the woman killed in Charlottesville was the first to express her anger. Although she first issued a statement thanking Trump for his "words of comfort and for denouncing those who promote violence and hatred," she later said in a TV interview that she was not interested in hearing from the president because she believes he equated her daughter to white supremacists.

Beyond persons directly involved in the episode, the days after were even more difficult for Trump at the political level. Some of his colleagues are slowly abandoning him. There is no better example than the decision of eight executives to quit Trump's business advisory groups, leading the president to disband the groups. Many Republicans as well as US generals have also started to publicly criticize Trump for not protecting diversity.

Internationally, the already existing antipathy toward Trump is growing. The Economist cover page was characteristic in asserting that he "has no grasp of what it means to be president." In parallel with the cover of the British leading magazine, the editorial of the French Libération newspaper read: "One never imagined one day seeing the president of the US treating anti-racist and neo-Nazi demonstrators equally."

More importantly, some European leaders negatively commented on his position. British Prime Minister Theresa May laid emphasis on the need of condemning far-right views. As she pointed out, "I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them." This constitutes a rare rebuke of Trump by an important foreign ally.

May was the first leader to visit the White House after Trump's inauguration and is currently in almost desperate need to foster closer ties with the US while negotiating her country's exit from the EU. Trump's forthcoming UK visit will hardly be cancelled on the initiative of the British prime minister though.

In comparison to May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were equally keen on denouncing racist violence, but preferred to be careful and avoided personal references to Trump. The former used lemmas such as "disgusting" and "evil" to describe violent scenes and the latter expressed his proximity to "those who combat racism and xenophobia."

As far as the European far-right is concerned, no solid response can be diagnosed. Parties of extreme right-wing ideology might in principle agree with Trump's analysis, but are concerned about openly expressing their support. They are afraid of becoming more isolated due to general outcry on the matter worldwide.

What is more worrying is that in the medium term the Charlottesville racist rally can inspire several far-right movements in Europe.

It is a commonplace that transatlantic relations have witnessed a widening gap since last January. According to a Pew research poll organized weeks before the Charlottesville fiasco, an overwhelming 87 percent of respondents in Germany, 86 percent in France and 75 in the UK expressed that they had no confidence in the new US president. The situation is not expected to improve after Charlottesville. By contrast, deterioration is a likely scenario.

In spite of some initial efforts made to close the gap during meetings between Trump and some European leaders either in the US or in Europe, divergent positions, political behaviors and styles of governance are evident. What is even more discouraging for the future of transatlantic relations is that the US president does not seem to take international reactions into account, employing the same indifferent approach he is using domestically.

The author is a lecturer at the European Institute in Nice, France. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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