There are certain traditional ceremonies without which the inauguration of a new American president cannot take place. Chief among them, at least on this side of the atlantic, is the opportunity such a moment provides for pondering anew the health and well-being of the ‘special relationship’.
A remarkable amount of tripe must be talked on these occasions. You will recall how Bill Clinton’s supposedly-unhappy time at Oxford prejudiced him against this country and you will recall, of course, that Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage left him temperamentally ill-disposed towards this sceptr’d isle. Obama, of course, confirmed this by removing the now famous Churchill bust from the Oval Office, an act of unpardonable impertinence. By contrast, the fact that, prior to his inauguration, George W Bush had spent more time in Scotland than any other foreign country obviously meant something good.
Other countries also parse their relationship with the United States in such terms but there is something painfully absurd – something shockingly needy – about the manner in which the UK does so. Not least since the transatlantic relationship is institutional, not personal. It is the intelligence and security and military relationship which really matters, not whether a President and a Prime Minister like one another (though that can, for sure, be useful).
But now we have a governing party so consumed by loathing of all things European that it, or at least too many of its leading members, seem determined to latch onto the presidential teat, now that the Donald has declared his own indifference towards, or even disdain for, the European project. At last, a president with whom we can do business! A president who really, really, likes us. The toadying is bad enough but the confirmation bias is even worse.
Of all the jaw-dropping things said by cabinet ministers in recent months has there been anything more extraordinary than this: ‘Trump has come along like the tooth fairy — this is one massive, magnificent gift. It’s transformative.’ I mean, good grief. And what is the evidence for this transformative gift? Merely a couple of throwaway remarks in a soft-focus interview. Trump says there’s gonna a US-UK trade deal! And it will happen soon! Quick everyone, concentrate on this and ignore all the other evidence to the contrary. Ignore, for instance, that he ran a campaign explicitly hostile to free trade. Ignore, too, that he says among his first actions will be opening up NAFTA. Making, in other words, trade between the US and its neighbours stickier, not more free. Ignore, as well, the fact that everything in Trump’s career points to a man who doesn’t believe in the concept of a win-win exchange of goods. On the contrary, if you’re happy with a deal he must be being screwed. And, on the other side of the ledger, he’s not happy unless he’s screwing you.
But all this can be forgotten because he said a couple of uncharacteristically polite things about Britain. He’s half-Scots after all and his mammy loves the Queen. Well, that should make everything peachy and tickety-boo. God knows why all these ninnies are worrying about a man so evidently ill-suited to the task he now faces that it’s entirely possible he will prove the worst, and most dangerous, president of our lifetimes.
And this is also something worth remembering: when asked whether he trusted Angela Merkel more than he trusted Vladimir Putin, he said he trusted them equally. This is consistent with his remarks elsewhere that every foreign leader begins from the same zero mark. That includes our own blessed Theresa May and seems a more likely indicator of Trump’s true instincts than nice words made to a friendly interviewer disinclined to probe or press too deeply.
Still, he is the president of the United States and we will have to learn to live with all that entails. But there is a difference between making fools of ourselves and taking a more prudent approach. ‘Verify, then trust’ is more sensible than any alternative. Not least since it is quite evident that Trump, or at least the people around him, have a disagreeable fondness for the far-right nationalist parties threatening political insurrection all across europe. In that sense, his administration is – at least initially – hostile to almost all Britain’s closest allies.
Perhaps there is something to be said for a great disruption. Brexit certainly requires that. Nevertheless, Trump – and Trumpism – should be anathema to Tories. Toryism, after all, is a sceptical sensibility. One that recognises the imperfection of our present circumstances but worries that helter-skelter change might produce something even worse. Better the devil you know than the one you don’t. (Which is one of the many reasons why Hillary Clinton was a much better Tory choice for president than Donald Trump). There is something to be said for stability and continuity and reliability. Trump threatens all these things. Radicals might enjoy that; Tories should not.
Freddy Gray, Paul Wood and Kate Andrews discuss the ‘special relationship’ in the age of Trump:
Trump has spent thirty years deploring what he considers American ‘weakness’. He complained of this during the Reagan administration, for god’s sake. The notion his presidency offers Britain significant advantages is for the birds. An America first president seems unlikely to be terribly interested in cutting a deal with the UK except on terms liable to prove humiliating for the UK. We might wish it otherwise but here too we can ask if a bad deal is actually better than no deal.
Most of all, however, there is something desperately craven about seeing ostensibly sensible people rushing to cosy up to Trump. A man, it is worth remembering, who thought the Chinese government dealt admirably with the student protestors in Tiananmen Square. That is the true measure of the man the American people have – to their eternal discredit – elected the 45th president of their republic.
We will have to work with him but there is no chump ourselves while doing so. Apart from anything else, a truly confident global Britain of the type we have been promised wouldn’t feel the need to do so. In any case, the burden of proof is on the new president and only babbling nincompoops can possibly see his arrival in Washington as a ‘massive, magnificent gift’. And this will remain the case even if the bloody Churchill bust is ‘restored’ to its rightful place in the Oval Office.