LONDON — Britain is in the grip of its most unrelenting heatwave in forever. The England national football team has made the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in 28 years, succumbing to Croatia on the eve of President Trump’s arrival in the capital. In a beer-fuelled, sun-drenched haze, the not-quite-state-visit of the Commander-in-Chief takes on an ever greater significance.
Having seen the full works laid on for Chinese premier Xi Jinping in 2015, despite his reputation and undemocratic consolidation of power in a brutal, corrupt leadership, and, earlier this year, treating new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to a lavish reception, it is only the visit of Donald Trump that has stirred the public imagination into action. And whilst there is much to protest in Trump’s politics, he has not yet reached the murderous, dictatorial lows of some of the men greeted with embrace or indifference. So what is it about Donald Trump that so offends British sensibilities?
Hanging over Parliament Square, the rather useless stretch of grass that divides London’s great institutions — the Palaces of Westminster, Whitehall, Wesminster Abbey — is an inflatable representation of Donald Trump as an iPhone clutching baby. It was crowdfunded (raising £31,302) to be the symbol of the anti-Trump protests in London (though a counter-fundraiser to create a similar balloon of London mayor Sadiq Khan raised £51,176). Tethered rather limply some 50ft of the ground, it’s an image that will be relayed via news stations around the world, communicating one simple message: Britain hates Trump.
The balloon is, put simply, grotesque, childish and not very big. It is headline grabbing rather than a particularly effective piece of public art. It is reminiscent of the cartoons at magazines like The Economist and the New Yorker, who have tried to explain Trump’s idiosyncratic behaviour by depicting him as a baby or toddler.
Above all else — and perhaps because it is set so beautifully against that sky of unblemished blue — it reminds me of the cover illustration for the novel Pussy by British Booker prize-winning author Howard Jacobson. That Trumpian satire is filled with silhouette images of the President in baby form, all provided by former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell, and the diapered leader appears on the cover, clutching not a phone here but a nude Barbie doll.
There is something in Trump that Britain finds revolting. The explanation lies, to some extent, in Britain’s affinity with his predecessor, Barack Obama. There is an old adage in Britain, with some truth to it, that America’s Democrats are no further left than Britain’s Conservatives. A welfare state, free healthcare, 45% top rate of tax: these are fairly uncontested tenets of British politics. So the UK’s response to America’s political situation cannot be divided as simply as assuming Labour supporters will back the Democrat and Tories will support the Republican. Even as Barack Obama’s ratings at home began to slump in his second term, polling of Brits proved that he was held in hugely high regard — on a European visit in 2014, pollsters YouGov reported that 76% of Brits thought he had done a good job as President. The same company, conducting approval ratings of Trump during his 2018 visit, have reported that 77% of Brits have an unfavourable view of the new President. The turnaround has been quite something.
Obama stood, politically, for many of the issues core to the British national psyche. The NHS is considered by many to be the closest thing we have to a secular religion, and Nye Bevan, the architect of the project in 1948, is almost universally revered. In Obamacare, many in Britain saw an attempt to emulate European health service ideals, and Trump’s dismantling of that immediately undermined his credibility in the UK. But the biggest problem Trump faces in Britain is the question of immigration, which is as thorny an issue this side of the Atlantic as it is with voters back home.
The ‘Stop Trump’ rallies springing up across the UK to mark the President’s visit were created with the expressed purpose of challenging his politics. Their website observes: ‘Trumpism directly threatens steps towards tackling: Inequality; Peace and disarmament; Climate change; Fighting discrimination, particularly against already marginalised groups like migrants and Muslims; Corporate greed’. There is no mention of any simply domestic policies, but a grander vision of Trump as cannibalising America’s global goodness. But for all the anger over nuclear threats (there has been a grudging respect in the UK for progress made on the Korean peninsula), climate change and non-specific ‘corporate greed’, the concern that really mobilises British protestors is immigration. And much of that fury is self hatred.
In June 1982, towards the end of the Falklands War, Ronald Reagan visited London and 250,000 people were said to have protested him in Hyde Park. The cause was, nominally, his nuclear policy, but this was also a period of deep dissatisfaction with employment, an economy in recession, and social justice issues that had caused rioting in the capital in 1981. The figurehead of all that was Margaret Thatcher, and her popularity would not start to improve until later that summer. And in 2003 when George W. Bush visited, 100,000 people turned out to protest the President’s Iraq War policies, but they were also expressing dissatisfaction with Tony Blair, whose extraordinary popularity had plummeted 20 points following the invasion of Iraq.
Britain’s anger with America does not happen in a vacuum. The public in Britain see America as a divergent sibling of mutual parentage. America is what could’ve been, what might yet be, for Britain. Shared language, culture, and history bind the public imagination of Britain to America in a way that could never happen with our close neighbours, France, Germany, Spain, Italy. They hated Reagan because Reagan reflected Thatcher; they hated Bush because he reflected Blair. And now, Brits are livid with and disgusted by Trump because he and his movement are governed by familiar impulses, impulses that have shaken the UK in the last two years and divested the majority of people of the power to make change.
Much, too much, has been written about the similarities between Trump and Brexit, and Trump’s intervention on the subject of Brexit moments after touching down on British soil has only compounded that. But where metropolitan watchers of Obama could look on the US President and see the best qualities of British democracy beaming back, with Trump the situation is reversed. How can we be so indignant about his hard line on immigration when 52% of Brits voted to end freedom of movement from our European friends? How can we express our anger with Trump’s border wall as we regress further into our island shell? How can we feel superior to the US in its moment of crisis, when we are fighting a crisis of our own? And that sense that the best of Britain is no longer refracted by the US is what amplifies our sense of dread with Trump.
The thousands of people marching through London, placards at the ready, to show their hatred of the man, are sincere in their anger. But the self-hatred has been internalised, metastasising into something almost unstable. Banners and slogans against Trump are self-consciously British, whether through Monty Python, Sex Pistols, or Morrissey reference, or the classic ‘polite insult’ which has become a cliché of these shores. The attempt to make Trump un-British, anti-British, is desperate.
The fear, of course, is that there is nothing particularly un-British about Donald Trump’s politics. He is isolationist at a time when Britain is increasingly isolationist. He is a hostile negotiator at a time when Britain is a hostile negotiator. He is in charge of a divided nation whilst Britain is an ever more divided nation. In order to reject these similarities, to punch outwards, Britain falls back on comparing Trump to Hitler, the figure against which our national self-conception is defined.
But there is something un-British about Trump, as a man. Meeting the Queen and visiting Blenheim Palace only throw that into relief. He is gaudy, new money (by British standards), uncultured. Britain’s sense of its aristocracy is discreet, old, artistic. The reality is that Trump is least British in the area where we should be least concerned. He drinks Diet Coke rather than high tea, watches cable TV rather than reading a book. That frisson of un-Britishness is caused, not by his politics, but by the fact that he’s crass and vulgar, and Britain’s idea of itself is still languishing snootily in the 1920s. Trump isn’t very British, but that ought not to thrill us.
Britain is angry at Trump. Britain is angry at itself. Britain is angry. These protests, the giant balloon hovering above our democracy’s home, are symbolic both of our closeness to America, and our ever growing distance from ourselves. Reagan and Thatcher, Bush and Blair, even Obama and Cameron; there has been a balance and harmony to US/UK relations in the past. Not any more. Now, as two disgusted and disgusting nations look ever more alike, we can barely look at one another.
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