Of all the specimens in the Donald Trump menagerie—Charming Trump, Vicious Trump, Soapbox Trump—Subdued Trump may be my least favorite. It is true that the restraint my president showed during his press conference with Theresa May is in both our countries’ interests, but it is also uncomfortably artificial, like watching a space alien trying to cheer for a football game. Trump is who he is, an energetic insult comic at his most natural when he’s dissing the size of his political opponents’ hands. Watching him strain to appear statesmanlike always leaves you with the impression that he’s been pumped full of Valium.
Nevertheless, he seems to have passed his first test, that ‘Odd Couple’ meeting with May, by which we mean he managed to get through the press conference without starting a thermonuclear war. Such are our downwardly defined presidential standards in the age of Trump. There was a brief moment of tension. After May called on a BBC reporter who asked a tough question, Trump eyed the PM and quipped, ‘This was your choice of a question,’ to laughter, and then, ‘There goes that relationship,’ to less laughter, because demolishing the transatlantic friendship over one pestering reporter is just the sort of thing Trump might do. He was kidding, however, and upon replay actually came off as rather charming.
Inhaling sharply at every jape the president makes is going to make for an exhausting four years. So, too, is the fact that both the American and the foreign press will be grilling Trump over the incendiary ideas that he regularly espouses. The debate in my country over waterboarding suspected terrorist detainees has generally been waged between those who call it ‘torture’ and believe it must stay abolished and those who prefer the euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and believe it should be authorised. Trump is the first to both call it ‘torture’ and pledge to use it aggressively. Quizzed about this alongside May, he equivocated, saying he believes waterboarding works but deferring to his new defence secretary James Mattis who has said it does not.
Points should be awarded to May here, who pressured Trump on torture during her earlier speech to a Republican retreat in Philadelphia. She also apparently coaxed him into providing at least a verbal assurance for the Nato alliance. During the presser, she turned to him and said, ‘Mister President, I think you said you’re 100 percent behind NATO.’ Translation: ‘Tell the world what you told Mommy, darling.’ May’s first session babysitting the world’s most powerful man does seem to have gone well enough. That she’s able to shave down Trump’s corners while also acknowledging the good points he makes—European nations, as she said, do need to spend more on defence—is a credit to her patience and her cleverness.
Trump is like one of those toys that you have to keep tilting in order to prevent a ball from falling in a hole. If May can manoeuvre him and keep him on-course, she may yet strike the Brexit-era friendship that she needs. In this sense, Donald Trump is valuable to her precisely because he is Donald Trump. ‘I think Brexit’s going to be a wonderful thing for your country. I think when it irons out you’re going to have your own identity,’ he said at the presser. That isn’t exactly a Kennedyesque summit of oratory, but it is what European Union leaders fear most: a statement of untrammeled populism from the most powerful man on the planet, the first American leader to show antagonism towards their project.
If May can keep this babysitter act going, she may yet secure two rewards. The first is a trade deal with the world’s largest economy to help recoup the likely loss of Britain’s membership in the EU Common Market. The second could prove even more strategic. The presence of EU fundamentalist Guy Verhofstadt on their negotiating team shows that the Europeans intend to batter Britain during the Brexit talks. In Trump, May will have a bully in her corner, an invisible ogre who grunts and drools and thumps his club, but who also cunningly harnessed the same nationalist forces that now menace the EU. That isn’t exactly Reagan-Thatcher, but it may prove to be something.
Matt Purple is the deputy editor for Rare Politics