Well, President Trump came to Britain, and the state visit went off well, as did the D-Day commemorations, which dominated the headlines here. It was so moving to watch, on our computers or TVs, the elderly veterans — all over 90 now — standing there on the Normandy beaches, and to see them square their shoulders and stand in tribute to those who fell alongside them.
And, for my generation, born into freedom in a postwar Britain that still bore its scars (air-raid shelters in the parks and gardens, occasional bombsites still visible on city streets), it was a reminder of our need for gratitude. We grew up with the 1960s message of “pop, pot and the Pill” all around us, and now as we approach our own old age we remember a different heritage.
At the state banquet given by the Queen to mark the start of President Trump’s visit — boycotted by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who instead spoke at a protest meeting in Trafalgar Square the next day — there were the usual speeches. The Queen, as always, spoke well and graciously. But President Trump was the only one to mention God, and as he did so, the words suddenly had a startling feel, a sense of the rightness of the thing combined with a slight astonishment that he would dare to use this once-familiar language at this 21st-century event.
The British are of course used to having Christianity as part of a general sort of overwash for formal national events: the laying of wreaths at a War Memorial, thanksgiving for a landmark anniversary, and so on. But here was an American using religious language in a stark, moving and worryingly ordinary way. “As we honor our shared victory and heritage,” Trump said, “we affirm the common values that will unite us long into the future: freedom, sovereignty, self-determination, the rule of law and reverence for the rights given to us by almighty God.”
It was those last words that stood out. People in public life mostly don’t talk like that much at the moment. But they most certainly did so back in 1944 when the Normandy landings were being planned and organized — and Trump reminded us all of that again at the D-Day commemoration itself, when he read aloud the prayer of President Roosevelt asking for God’s protection on America’s “sons, pride of our nation” who had “set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.” The prayer spoke in simple terms of the sacrifices that were to be made: “Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.”
Attitudes in Britain toward America are ambivalent. The culture is, and has been for decades, heavily Americanized: denim jeans, hamburgers, jargon, everyday expressions, shared transatlantic attitudes on fashionable causes from feminism to vegan diets. But most British millennials have, to a greater or lesser degree, imbibed a certain automatic anti-Americanism, and especially assumptions about President Trump. At least in public it is considered normal to regard him as a nasty and dangerous arrival on the international scene. Those of us — mostly older people — who have a more nuanced approach tend to feel somewhat marginalized.
None of this alters the reality of a shared history, and shared sacrifices in defense of great and noble things. The world will be a nastier and more frightening place if the Atlantic alliance is allowed to crumble. Grown-ups — and not just those with some understanding of WWII and the Cold War — recognize this, and pray that the God-given rights defended so nobly in the recent past may be recognized and honored afresh by those to whose care they will in due course be entrusted.