Speaking about terrorism at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, Donald Trump said this, quoting his mysterious friend Jim, “a very, very substantial guy”: “I said, ‘Jim, let me ask you a question, how's Paris doing?’ ‘Paris? I don't go there any more, Paris is no longer Paris.’ That was four years, four or five years, hasn't gone there. He wouldn't miss it for anything. Now he doesn’t even think in terms of going there.”
What happened to Paris?
Although “Jim” stopped going to Paris, the number of international visitors has continued to rise every year. Paris falls behind only London as Europe’s most visited city. More people visited Paris in 2015 than New York. What happened to Paris? Nothing.
The countries of Western Europe have been our closest allies for 70 years. Along with Canada, Australia and Japan, they most closely share our fundamental political values. After Canada, the European Union is America’s biggest trading partner. Why would Trump make a gratuitous attack on Paris?
Paris endured terrible terrorist attacks in January and November 2015: 130 people were killed in November, most of them in a crowded theater. Fear of terrorism might be a reason to avoid Paris, as well as Fort Lauderdale, New York, Boston, Orlando, Dallas, and San Bernardino, just to name a few places in America where terrorists have recently attacked. That doesn’t explain why “Jim” stopped going to Paris four years ago.
Conservatives are unhappy with Europeans and often seek ways to criticize them, especially the French. When France did not support President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 in the United Nations, Republican congressman Bob Ney renamed French fries in the Congressional cafeterias “Freedom fries”. More generally, the idea that liberals liked French food has been used by conservatives to characterize liberals as not manly, elitist, un-American (and they still do it!).
Most of Europe offers a model of government and society that appears decidedly un-American to conservatives. Universal health care, strong social and economic support for the less fortunate, much less economic inequality, and broad government regulations protecting consumers and the environment are fundamental elements of the social democratic systems developed and supported for decades by liberal and conservative parties in western and northern Europe. Generous policies on immigration and refugees contrast with Trump’s emphasis on building walls. The unique model of international cooperation represented by the European Union and the euro offers such a striking contrast to the American exceptionalism promoted by the Republican Party that conservatives seek every opportunity to predict the downfall of the EU and the failure of the euro.
Trump’s “America first” ideology justifies his attacks on everyone else. No major nation has been spared unprovoked criticisms based on mostly untrue “facts”. If all other countries are bad, America must be the best. But this is bigger than Trump’s crude nationalism.
It’s tempting to believe that “Jim” and Trump just made up the idea that their familiar Paris is gone in order to bolster the claim that only America is good. But there may be something more sinister behind this remark.
Paris has changed over the past few decades, as have London, Berlin, Amsterdam and the other great cities of Western Europe. They are not white any more. On the street, sitting in cafés, in the subways, you can hear many languages and see many colors. About one out of five Parisians is an immigrant. About 18% of Berliners are non-European. London has 25% born outside of Europe, and perhaps only 60% of Londoners are white. Amsterdam is even more diverse: more than half of its people do not have Dutch origin, and over one third are non-Western. Maybe “Jim”, like many of Trump’s supporters, is uncomfortable when he feels surrounded by non-whites.
Right-wing media push anti-European attitudes by making up stories about how Western European immigration policies have resulted in public insecurity. FOX News claimed in 2015 that there were hundreds of dangerous “no-go zones” in England and France, many in Paris, “neighborhoods where neither tourists nor cops dare enter”. FOX apologized publically for its “regrettable errors”, but only after a week of worldwide derision for false reporting.
More recently, Breitbart News created its own alternative facts about Germany. In January, this headline appeared on its website: “Revealed: 1,000-Man Mob Attack Police, Set Germany’s Oldest Church Alight on New Year’s Eve”. Nothing in that alarming headline was true.
Breitbart’s journalistic methods were clear from its reference to a German news article as its source. That article presented an entirely different set of events. About 1000 people gathered in the center of Dortmund to celebrate New Year’s Eve, including “families with children”. The night was generally peaceful, and the police chief said he was “provisionally satisfied” with “the peaceful course of events”. The usual New Year’s Eve fireworks were set off, some of which landed near the policemen gathered to provide security. One rocket landed in the netting covering restoration scaffolding on the church, causing a small fire which was quickly doused.
In response to international criticism, Breitbart did correct its article: the church in Dortmund is not Germany’s oldest. Otherwise, “Breitbart News stands by all other substantive facts in this article.” A few days later, Breitbart defended its original article and called the normal news outlets “fake news”. Breitbart is now preparing to open an office in Germany.
We can expect Trump and his administration to continue to condemn Europe. Both Steve Bannon and Trump’s appointee as ambassador to the European Union, Ted Malloch, have openly expressed their desire to break up the EU.
They ought to visit Paris. It’s a wonderful city, especially in the spring.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 7, 2017