LONDON >> At London’s flagship modern art gallery, Tate Modern, one of this summer’s most lauded exhibitions features work by African-American artists made in the age of Martin Luther King Jr. Yet, while “Soul of a Nation” is nominally a historical display, gallery goers spilling out of the show this week found an obvious contemporary resonance to the art they had just seen.
“There’s still a struggle, right?” said Chris Daley, a designer, in a reference to President Donald Trump’s remarks this week on white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. “We’re still in a system where one part benefits from suppressing the other.”
But though visitors to the exhibition were angered by Trump’s words, several did not see it as the turning point that it has perhaps been considered in some quarters of America.
Daley, a 34-year-old Londoner, ran through a series of previous actions by Trump that he said had already highlighted the president’s position.
There was the proposed wall on the Mexican border. The suggestion that some Mexican immigrants were rapists. “There’s a long list,” said Daley. “Nobody is really that surprised on this side of the pond because we’re on the outside looking in.”
It is a sentiment that has been echoed in parts of the British and European commentariat. While there is plenty of outrage at Trump’s comments — Germany’s justice minister called the president’s reaction “unbearable” — many do not see this as the moment when a mask slipped. They feel it slipped some time ago.
It was “no surprise,” wrote Anthony Zurcher, a BBC reporter, in an article posted on the news organization’s website. “Clues for how the president would react to such a situation as president were scattered across his presidential campaign.”
In The Guardian, Matthew d’Ancona, a center-right columnist who has also been a regular contributor to the opinion pages of The New York Times, described the violence in Charlottesville as a “wholly predictable” outcome of Trump’s behavior as a candidate and as president.
At most British newspapers, Trump’s comparison of neo-Nazis with their opponents on Aug. 15 did not make the front pages on Aug. 16.
The Times of London, a center-right paper, covered Trump’s Charlottesville comments on an inside page in its later editions, but gave greater prominence to a lighthearted story about the president’s Twitter account.
Trump’s administration has been involved in so many controversies that some British newsrooms may have become wary of placing too much importance on any new outburst from the president. August is named the “silly season” in British journalism because of the prevalence of frivolous articles that “fill the void while politicians are on holiday,” said Dominic Ponsford, editor of Press Gazette, a trade publication that chronicles the British news media.
“It feels like Trump’s latest outburst is seen in that context,” Ponsford added. “It is difficult to take anything he says seriously because there has been so much other outrageous stuff up to this point.”
For Sir Nigel Sheinwald, a former British ambassador to the United States, this comparatively subdued reaction spoke of the contrast between the low expectations that many foreigners have long had of Trump’s administration and the deferred judgment shown by some parts of the American establishment.
“I’ve been to the U.S. a number of times this year, and a number of people whose views I respect have said you’ve got to give it a little bit longer because it’s an administration that didn’t expect to get elected,” Sheinwald said.
In Europe, by contrast, Trump’s words this week have not “opened people’s eyes because to some degree they were open already,” Sheinwald said. “As far as President Trump is concerned, most people in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe took a view about him in his campaign and early in his presidency, and it was a pretty negative view.”
Europeans were much more alarmed by Trump’s recent rhetoric on North Korea, which raised the specter of nuclear war, and by his decision to abandon the Paris climate agreement, said Gerald Knaus, the head of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based research group.
Additionally, the specifics of the post-Charlottesville debate may have been lost on Europeans, since the American Civil War and its legacy are “not issues that Europeans are familiar with,” said Knaus. “For Trump to say that Jefferson and the generals of the Confederacy are sort of similar — that creates a very different resonance in the U.S. than in Europe.”
For others across the Atlantic, however, it nevertheless seems clear that a threshold has been crossed, even when viewed from a distance.
Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, called Trump’s comments “a transgression that is without precedent” — an alarm that was matched by some on the streets of Paris. The idea that neo-Nazis could be in any way compared to their opponents appalled Aurelien Laval, a banker.
“He’s putting them all in the same sack,” said Laval. “That they can parade with the Nazi flag, that’s shocking. That’s forbidden in France.”
In Germany, demonstrators gathered at the Brandenburg Gate, a prominent monument close to the German parliament, to protest the far-right violence in Charlottesville, and Trump’s reaction to it.
“It’s shocking,” said Carol Scherer, one of the protesters, who remembers protesting at the same monument in 1991 to denounce violence against foreigners in Germany. “I can’t believe that I’m standing here today protesting the violence against Americans.”
There are also those in Germany, France and Britain — each with their own vexed and unfinished history of racism and empire — who have cautioned against feeling too superior.
French voters sent a far-right populist, Marine Le Pen, into the second round of the recent presidential election. In Germany, where the Nazi party ruled from 1933 to 1945, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned this week that her country had also witnessed a recent resurgence in anti-Semitism and that Germans had “quite a lot to do at home ourselves.”
Parts of the British commentariat, meanwhile, are engaged in a debate about the legacy of the British Empire, with some arguing that the country has failed to come to terms with the atrocities and injustices committed in pursuit of its imperial ambitions.
The day after the Charlottesville clashes, an article published in The Observer, a British weekly newspaper, reminded readers how racist groups had marched through parts of South London — and been forced off the streets by anti-racist demonstrators.
A prominent classics professor recently sparked a row by highlighting evidence of black people living in the country during the Roman era. The recent blockbuster about World War II, Dunkirk, has been criticized in Britain for failing to show the faces of thousands of Indian troops who fought alongside white Britons during that conflict.
“I don’t know how England can be smug about America,” said Daley as he strolled out of Tate Modern this week. “They’re two parts of the same vehicle.”