The images of mayhem in Charlottesville led the main national newscast on Sunday night in the Netherlands — a country that, like much of Europe and the rest of the world, has a keen interest in what goes on in the United States.
The coverage — and the conversations in newspapers, cafes and on the streets of Amsterdam, a city I visit frequently — quickly moved beyond the ugly scenes of hatred in Virginia and on to the controversial reaction by US President Donald Trump.
On a continent where people lived under Nazi occupation, Trump’s condemnation of “all sides” in a conflict involving neo-Nazis did more than raise eyebrows. It left many horrified and others — who had grown to admire and respect the US — deeply dismayed.
I spoke to dozens of people here. Not everyone had heard about the weekend violence. Some told me the news has become so disturbing lately that they deliberately disconnect.
But to the many who knew about Charlottesville, the most shocking element was Trump’s reluctance to issue an unambiguous rejection of extremists.
“It is terrible — and amazing,” said Charles Van Renesse, 53, reading the news in the morning paper on the stoop of his house on an Amsterdam canal. “It makes a lot of people sad,” he said. America, he said, “used to be an example of freedom, equality, democracy. The reality is different now.”
Not far from there, 28-year-old George Thomas, another Amsterdam resident, shook his head in disbelief. “To condemn both sides seems strange when one side are Nazis,” he remarked. He predicted that Trump’s hazy words would have an impact, emboldening nationalist extremists on both sides of the Atlantic. “They’re going to feel more confident, not only in America but here in Europe too.”
Just across, on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht canal, hundreds of people stood in line to visit Anne Frank’s House: the place where a young Jewish diarist hid from the Nazis until she was discovered and sent to her death for no reason other than being Jewish.
The Solís family from Mexico had come to Amsterdam to meet with daughter Carmen Solis, who studies in Germany. Trump is making racists “feel protected,” noted Carmen, who said she has felt the change in attitudes. Her father, Rafael, said Trump is moving America backward. “The US used to be the leader in fighting racism.” But he added: “I still have confidence that the people of the US don’t agree with him.”
Elliot Schorrick, visiting from London, heard echoes of Anne Frank’s days in the anti-Semitic chants and the Swastikas in Charlottesville. “We don’t learn from the mistakes of history,” he worried. “It’s happening everywhere,” he said. “But (leaders) not condemning it, that doesn’t happen everywhere.”
Perhaps I should have expected to hear strong criticism of Trump’s failure to condemn neo-Nazis while standing in the shadow of Anne Frank’s House, but the views I heard are hardly isolated.
A recent Pew poll showed confidence in the US president collapsing in 37 countries surveyed. The image of the US is also sliding, though on a less steep slope. Confidence in Trump stood at just 22% back in June, about a third of where it stood at the end of Obama’s presidency. Favorable views of the US during the same period dropped from 64 to 49%.
It’s hard to imagine that recent events have reversed that trend.
Germany’s De Welt reported the “clarification,” from the White House with a headline that dripped with sarcasm: “Naturally, the president also means the Neo-Nazis.”
France’s daily Le Monde described Trump’s history of “complacency” before the extreme right, while Belgium’s Le Soir speculated that Trump “cultivates ambiguity” to avoid angering his base.
In Britain, The Independent newspaper’s analyst, Matthew Norman, saw little ambiguity. He placed the blame for the rise of the neo-Nazis squarely on Trump: “He brought them back out of the shadows and into the light of the flaming cross.”
As for the question of whether it’s politics or ideology that motivates Trump’s reticence, he saw little moral escape. “Which is more repulsive,” he asked, “someone who genuinely admires Hitler, or someone who cynically courts that person for electoral advantage.” The choice, he said, is too bleak to contemplate.
Despite the White House claim that Trump’s statement in fact included criticism of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, many Europeans had little patience for the fuzzy language. In a land that was the battleground for World War II, where millions were killed by Nazis — and millions more were saved by Americans and their allies — people cannot fathom the failure of the president to bluntly shut down the heirs to Nazism in the US.
It’s not just in Europe where people are taking notice. All across the globe, the words spoken — or not spoken — by the president are reverberating.
From Latin America to Asia, the controversy is raising eyebrows. The Australian, under the headline “Nazi seems to be the hardest word,” offered a compilation of criticism from the mainstream and social media about Trump’s odd willingness to criticize just about anyone, coupled with his difficulty speaking firmly against white nationalists.
Even China’s state-owned China Daily had the story.
In Amsterdam, the main sentiment is a mixture of disappointment and disbelief. According to the Pew poll, just 17% of the Dutch have confidence in Trump. That’s a stunning drop from the 92% who trusted Obama.
The people I spoke with were divided about how much it matters to the world what Trump says. A few said the US is now in moral retreat and is much less influential than before.
But there was also a recognition that the US is not a normal nation. The world’s largest superpower has a special responsibility. Its president, they told me, should set the tone.
It’s not just in the US where we see extremism on the rise. But to most of the people I spoke with, the curiously timid words from the leader of the world’s most powerful country proved at least as disturbing as the ugly chants from the gangs of neo-Nazis.