US President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office have been a breathtaking rollercoaster ride for Americans, but also for many in Europe.
He may be the least popular new president in the modern polling era (with an approval rating of just 41%) and mainstream American media (excluding Fox News and Breitbart) may talk disparagingly of ‘100 days of gibberish’, but the Trump presidency has been a wake-up call for Europeans, women, complacent liberal democrats, progressives, minorities of all kinds and for ‘citizens of the world’.
Trump and Brexit have taught us that we can no longer take values like democracy, human rights and freedom of expression for granted. No more can we believe that racism and bigotry are evils of the past. We cannot be lazy about defending minorities, refugees, the vulnerable and the marginalised.
After years of inertia and complacency about the progress we have made in living together, we now know that everything we have struggled to achieve – respect, human dignity, tolerance and building inclusive societies – can be taken away from us at any moment.
We have learned about the evil and wickedness in people – the lies they can tell and the insults they can hurl. How ‘alternative facts’ can be more powerful than the truth. We have learned about stupidity and the power of a tweet.
It’s been a steep learning curve. At times, the hateful narrative of the populists against the media, women, Jews, Muslims, African Americans and others has been cause for despair.
But it’s also been energising, galvanising and reassuring. More than ever before, it’s made many of us appreciate the values, the raisons d’être and the significance of the European Union.
In America, we’ve been impressed by the resilience of institutions and traditions of democratic constitutionalism as well as the formidable resistance put up by women, judges, officials and ordinary folk.
The media, after having helped create the Trump phenomenon by abdicating their responsibility to question lies, are now back to performing their true function of speaking truth to power and checking facts.
It’s been a steep learning curve. At times, a cause for despair. But it’s also been energising, galvanising and reassuring.
As highlighted at a panel discussion organised in Brussels by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists last week, and ahead of the World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, the press is more aware than ever of its historical duty to challenge untruths and ‘fake news’.
Here in Europe, we’ve also been learning fast. Europeans remain unsure and uncertain about what to make of President Trump and how to deal with him.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s cringe-making kowtowing visit to the White House doesn’t appear to have made much of an impression on Trump. He recently underlined that his priority was to do a trade deal with the EU, ahead of a similar pact with Britain.
The US leader’s far-right acolytes in Europe – Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France – haven’t been as successful as Trump would have hoped.
Wilders did not secure the crushing victory that many anticipated in the Dutch elections held in March. And (fingers crossed) Marine Le Pen is likely to lose out to the tolerant and pro-diversity candidate Emmanuel Macron in the second round of French presidential elections on 7 May.
The British elections will probably result in a victory for the Conservatives, but Theresa May and her hopes for a “strong and stable government” is being challenged as never before.
Across Europe, the conversation on immigration, refugees and Muslims is getting ever more animated. The European Commission is finally getting tough on Hungary.
Trump has blown hot and cold on Europe and NATO. After having urged other EU states to follow Britain’s lead by leaving the EU, Trump now believes that Europe is a “good thing”. NATO appears to have salvaged its reputation after having been denounced as an “obsolete” organisation.
Even as they hanker for an American partner and ally that they could rely on, European leaders are learning, slowly and hesitatingly, to walk alone.
The greatest test of whether Trump’s hold on Europe is truly broken will come on Sunday, with the French presidential vote.
If, as many expect, Macron does win, Europe’s message to Trump will be clear: populism and bigotry are not universally popular. Not all Europeans want to turn back the clock. Many have the confidence and the courage to make globalisation work for them. Many believe in an open and progressive Europe. Many want hope.
True, Trump is still the most powerful man in the world who can probably count on other ‘strongmen’ like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Abdel Fatah El-Sisi of Egypt or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But power in the 21st century isn’t about who shouts the loudest, has the most people in jail, the biggest missiles and the most destructive bombs. It’s about building societies based on hope, openness and inclusion.