The 75th anniversary of the Allied attack on Normandy Beach in France, the first vital step toward dismantling Nazi Germany’s “Fortress Europe” and ending Adolf Hitler’s reign of atrocity, is Thursday. Donald Trump will be there, probably. That old battlefield, considered hallowed ground by many, has become the scene of another fight. This time, the contest is between actual history and beloved mythology.
Specifically, the argument centers around the 100-foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc overlooking the landing zone of Omaha Beach, which U.S. Army Rangers scaled using ropes and ladders to assault a German gun battery and secure the high ground. The Rangers accomplished their mission under withering, lethal fire, taking scores of casualties. The 1962 film, “The Longest Day,” starring John Wayne, Richard Burton and Henry Fonda among other big names of the era, canonized the Pointe du Hoc assault for generations to come.
The thing is, however, the whole assault may have been a glaring strategic error. Gary Sterne, a World War II historian, author and subject of a fascinating Washington Post piece from the weekend, discovered a much larger German gun battery — the “Maisy Battery” — three miles down the coast from Pointe du Hoc. After spending 10 years unearthing the battery, which had been buried by the U.S. Army after the Normandy landing, the historian found himself confronted by facts that profoundly contradicted the accepted Normandy Beach narrative.
Sterne’s conclusions, according to The Post: “The [Pointe du Hoc] assault was unnecessary, the commander of the U.S. Army Ranger unit failed to follow orders, putting his men directly in harm’s way, and U.S. military leaders should have targeted Maisy and its battery of heavy artillery guns instead of Pointe du Hoc, which the Germans had largely abandoned by the time of the Normandy invasion.”
Of course, Sterne has been bombarded by those who hold the accepted Normandy narrative dear as an example of American courage and self-sacrifice. “Pointe du Hoc is such sacred ground,” he says in The Post article, “it’s like bringing someone to Gettysburg and saying, ‘Actually, there was a much bigger battle fought just a few miles away.’” Sterne properly and correctly honors the soldiers who stormed Point du Hoc at great personal cost to themselves, but his critics take his new account of history deeply personally.
“Historians always shatter the idol,” says Sterne in the report, “but let me tell you, when they do, they get a lot of pushback and angry emails in the middle of the night. I have nothing but respect for the Rangers and what they did at Pointe du Hoc. It was truly heroic. But the facts are the facts.”
The timely argument over the real history of Normandy, which had seemed utterly settled for so many years, is an eloquent allegory for a larger conundrum confronting the U.S. If you expose a lie to someone, they will thank you. If you burst a cherished bit of mythology, however, you have made an enemy for life.
In the U.S., this phenomenon lies at the core of the dilemma being faced by the powerful and the privileged. For generations, they have been able to camouflage their plunder with mass-produced myths about capitalism and opportunity, the patriotic nature of war, the absence of racism and misogyny in “The Land of the Free,” and so forth.
Now, however, more and more people are getting hip to the jive. Mythology is no longer able to paper over the fact that American capitalism and the growth-at-all-costs economy are stealing from us financially and threatening us environmentally. Racism, sexism and other forms of oppression are as alive as they ever were. After so many years of ceaseless war, even enforced patriotism grows threadbare. Knowledge is caustic to power, but especially caustic to those who have embraced the mythology and made it part of who they are.
There are essentially two types of people in this equation. One type of person, upon finding out that George Washington’s famous dentures were not wooden but were likely crafted from the actual teeth of slaves, comes away from the discovery wiser, with a greater awareness of the cruel and oppressive truths behind the U.S.’s origin story. Another type of person, when confronted with a gruesome story that serves to tarnish the sterling reputation of a Founding Father, will reel from the information in a cloud of excuse-making and cognitive dissonance. Such is the power of myth.
Politicians, even relative rookies like Donald Trump, know this “Backfire Effect” trick by rote. Some of the white voters who have attached themselves to Trump are the same ones who have been so badly used by the carnivorous capitalism he promotes, one that has been firmly glued to the concept of “America” itself. Trump, himself a master craftsman of his own personal mythology, has woven for them an idealized past that never actually existed, and promises an idealized future he cannot possibly deliver.
As he has done with steaks, vodka and buildings, Trump has slapped his name onto various chunks of that American mythology, making himself inseparable from the fictions that impart a sense of identity and belonging to people who are living proof of the sham of the “American Dream.” Trump has also mastered the art of the outlet pass: When opportunity does not present itself, find some defenseless “others” to blame. That, too, is an old American story.
When you wonder why these voters stand with Trump no matter what he says or does, this canny positioning is a significant portion of the explanation. He has set himself up in such a way that, in the minds of his most ardent supporters, an attack on Trump is an attack on the United States itself and the mythology which sustains it. This was not an accident; it is the smartest thing Trump has ever done in his languid, sloppy, greedy little life.
Unless protesters or raindrops frighten him off, Donald Trump will disgrace the legacy of Normandy with his presence on Thursday. This president, who cannot bring himself to criticize actual Nazis and keeps vivid fascists on his senior staff, will take the stage and bloviate his ghastly nationalism astride a beach where better men than him gave their last full measure of devotion to ideals he steps on as a matter of daily routine.
It will be a fascinating collision if he shows up, because mythology is both Donald Trump’s sword and his Achilles heel. The day facts and history overtake Trump’s tailored myths will be the day he is finished in politics. As with Pointe du Hoc, the truth about him was buried just a few miles down the beach. It has been meticulously dug up and exposed to the light for all to see. Not everyone will accept it, because mythology is muscular. When enough people do, however, the narrative will change forever.