The foaming cocktail of official alarm and voter distain which greeted Donald Trump’s first flurry of presidential tweets and executive orders around the world was not mixed the same way in Brexit Britain, any more than it was in the American heartland. The Trump feedback loop is both negative and positive. Hey, if he’s upsetting all those protesting liberals, Silicon Valley and the foreigners, he must be doing something right, yes?
The conflicted response is more acute in Britain because even fastidious conservatives know their country is currently in need of powerful friends. Last summer, Candidate Trump was quick to claim ownership of the not-so-United Kingdom’s June 23 vote to leave the European Union as a precursor of the “forgotten man” – and woman’s – revolt in Middle America.
Unsurprisingly, plenty of Brexit supporters reciprocated, warmly applauding both his victory on November 8 and the new president’s subsequent assault on the “liberal elite’s” cultural and economic orthodoxies – from the global open trading system and immigration to water boarding and state-regulated health care. They liked the manner in which he did it all too, action, not mealy-mouthed words or consultation. Friend-of-Trump, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) now backs his stance on torture too.
So the quickening pace of events since the January 20 inauguration creates the sense of being in an echo chamber. When Britain’s rookie Prime Minister, Theresa May, tries to pick her way through the minefield of an orderly, negotiated exit from the EU – key January speeches in London and Davos - impatient Brexit hardliners say “ Just leave.” When the UK’s Supreme Court (itself a US-inspired constitutional novelty from the Blair era) insists she must first obtain the legislative consent of her sovereign parliament – it finally did so on January 24 . Brexit’s equivalent of the Tea Party rails against “unelected judges” who defy the will of the people and of Rupert Murdoch.
Sounds familiar to American ears? Yes. So Brexit Brits felt as cheered by what they heard from the Oval Office as stock markets did, salivating at all that promised infrastructure investment, to be paid for by tax cuts and Mexicans. And, if the President’s inaugural “America First” speech on the steps of the Congress sounded too stridently authoritarian and nationalist, even for Fleet St’s right wing tabloids, it sounded just fine to Brits of a similar mind-set. “The best thing that’s happened to Britain since America entered World War II,” wrote one excited columnist.
Never mind that the administration was forced to backtrack rapidly on some of Mr Trump’s unscripted and ill-prepared pronouncements – some of them self-evidently counter-productive - and the chaos they caused at airports, among NATO planners (is the alliance “ important” or “obsolete”?) and in world markets. Contrary to the fashionable “take him seriously, but not literally” trope, the White House was actually doing what Trump supporters had voted for, at least for now.
All of which has left Britain ill at ease with its own feelings, even more ignorant of how the US system of checks and balances work (let’s hope they do) to restrain a wayward commander in chief than of their own uncoded - and therefore much more adaptable - constitutional arrangements.
Much was made at the time of Trump’s promise to reverse Barack Obama’s warning that a Brexit Britain would be “at the back of the queue” (note that bilingual concession on “line”) for a trade deal. Having served notice to divorce the EU, Brexit Brits were more than ever dependent on old friends – the “special relationship” with their former colony and its replacement, the Commonwealth, both tiny New Zealand (pop.4.4 million) and India (1.25 billion). There was a further echo of that Anglo-American nostalgia in the President’s exclusion of white English-speaking countries like Canada, Australia and NZ from his tighter visa restrictions. It may not make much sense in security terms, but it feels good.
So, the President’s invitation to Britain’s second woman prime minister to be his first foreign VIP visitor and become “My Maggie” Thatcher – despite distinct official UK coolness until he actually won - sent a thrill through Whitehall and the patriotic tabloids at a hyper-sensitive moment. Mrs May repaid the favour with the offer of a state visit, the format that means staying at Buckingham Palace and hob-nobbing with the 90-year-old Queen Elizabeth. Ronald Reagan (1982), Bill Clinton (1985, George W Bush (2003) and Barack Obama (2011) all had to wait longer. No firm date has actually yet been set for the Trumps either. Is Her Majesty privately betting on early impeachment?
But Buck House’s gold paint is the real deal, its bling has cachet even greater than the Trump Towers elevator, and this President is impatient. So are demonstrators promised for London streets now that May has rejected calls – and a 1.7 million name petition - for her to cancel the trip in response to the selective ban on Muslim entry to the US. Caught in the air between Washington and Istanbul (Needy May makes new friends where she can) the PM was wrong-footed in her ultra-cautious, first response to the ban, which initially netted some famous Brits.
Those caught included Somali-born Mo Farah, the popular Olympic marathon man who lives and trains in the US, as well as an Iraqi born Conservative MP who represents William Shakespeare’s constituency. May played catch-up, but stood accused of appeasing Trump, the “fascist” and “dictator.” Retired diplomats protested that the invitation was premature and will embarrass the Queen. They’re right, but necessity drives policy. Plenty of past state visits – including Japanese emperor, Hirohito (1971) and Chinese emperors more recently – have been controversial. The Queen remains impassive.
At the Davos plutocrats summit and more formally in London the previous week, May had finally set out her broad strategy for leaving the EU once the Article 50 exit clause in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty has been formally triggered, originally planned for March 31, but since brought forward to March 9. Her words were more soothingly emollient than her party conference speech in October. Mrs May emphasised the importance of an outward-looking Britain with a thriving EU (Mr Trump flip flops on that point too) on its doorstep and for a harmonious (“economically rational”) relationship between both. It is in their many mutual interests, security and defence as well as trade and travel, she said.
But May’s speech also contained a sting: if the EU 27 seek to punish the UK for its temerity (the Brexit deal must be worse than the status quo to discourage further defection, some EU leaders have publicly insisted), then “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal.” Though May explicitly wants to leave both the EU’s single market (which requires free movement of EU citizens) and its customs union (which restricts separate trade deals) she wants to retain access(italic) to both.
Anything less would amount to “calamitous self-harm” to Brussels, Downing Street argues, not least because the City of London remains the EU’s major financial centre, despite being outside the euro-based currency union. Harsh terms might force Britain to “change the basis of our economic model,” May explained. That was widely taken as a threat to become Europe’s Singapore, offshore, low tax and low regulated, as if the post-Thatcher UK is not a lot of those things already.
EU leaders reacted much as they did to Donald Trump’s first week in office, with a mixture of horror and lofty distain – the same sort of feelings which the US president’s opening gambits aroused in his opponents. Can a nation with Britain’s proud history stoop to this, they asked?
But, just as Mr Trump makes valid points about Chinese or German currency strategies (the euro renders the price of Germans exports more competitive than they should be) or the deindustrialisation of laggard regions, so May and her allies can point to the EU’s bureaucratic rigidities, contracting economies and shocking youth unemployment across southern Europe.
On austerity, the currency model and the emotive issue of mass migration from the south and east, the EU’s leadership has manifestly failed its electorates. Some admit that, but most offer a remedy that is more of the same. Brexit is not proving to be a catalyst for a fundamental change of direction.
In consequence, leaders in France, the usually moderate Netherlands and Germany, the EU’s sheet anchor, all face serious challenges from the far right this year, from challengers attracted to the authoritarian populism of Mr Trump. More worrying still, they also seem to like his temporary new best friend, Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president’s disruptive strategy – Its alleged anti-Clinton hacking bias now being investigated by Congress – has parallels in Europe, including covert funding. Who needs to bother with flagging left wing parties – struggling as they have usually done in major economic crises for 150 years – when you can use right wing ones to undermine the legitimacy of so-called democratic rivals?
The Germans, in particular, are braced for trouble when Angela Merkel seeks a fourth term in the federal election of September 24. The Dutch centrist coalition faces a rising populist threat from Geert Wilders Freedom Party on March 15. The first round of France’s presidential election will be on April 23 (the run-off on May 7) with Trump fan, Marine le Pen, leading the polls for the far right National Front (NF).
Elite assurances that respectable France will rally behind whoever is her opponent in the runoff has been shaken, not just by Trumpismo either. The socialists primaries have ended with leftwinger, Benoit Hamon - roughly similar in outlook to British Labour’s marginalised Jeremy Corbyn – as their champion, now that Francois Hollande has withdrawn. And scandal now engulfs ex-PM the mainstream (but hardline) conservatives candidate, Francois Fillon, hitherto the establishment frontrunner. Fillon’s British wife, Penelope, is accused of taking 500,000 euros of taxpayers money during eight years as a fictitious “parliamentary aide” – plus another 100,000 as a “literary adviser” to a Fillon publishing pal. Can Fillon recover? Can the centrist insurgency of Emmanuel Macron (39), boyish reformer and ex-economics minister, seize the opportunity now opening? All but le Pen are French equivalents of the “Washington elite.” Anything may happen. But a Le Pen win would finish off the euro, possibly the EU too.
Even without the shadow of three uncertain EU elections, few at either end of the Channel Tunnel think that Mrs May can complete her exit negotiations – the terms of the divorce and settlement of outstanding bills - let alone the framework of the UK’s future relationship. Both depend on the third strand of immensely complex talks, the transitional arrangements arising from the other two strands, all in the 24 month time frame designated by Article 50.
The choice is stark and scary. There must either be an extension or a “Hard Brexit” with no deal. Like President Trump’s megaphone trade diplomacy with Mexico or with the emerging economic giant that is China, that would be bad for all concerned. The White House’s new dealmaker “exaggerates for effect and then gets down to negotiating a deal,” one of his new appointees explained on the BBC, sounding more like an anthropologist than a diplomat.
In all these standoffs in the new world of muscular, nationalistic self-assertion there is bluff on all sides, awareness of the scope for mutual “self harm.” But there are also politics of the kind that can move from sentimental to vicious and back again quite quickly. Just look at Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey. Events ricochet so that President Trump’s assault upon Obamacare and the prospect that a trade deal with stand-alone Britain might open up the UK’s protected-but-popular National Health Service (NHS) to predatory US providers (as the TTIP trade deal with the EU would not) might backfire among Brits. Investigative reporters from BBC TV recently traced a 76-year-old American with Alzheimer’s, abandoned in a carpark in rural Hereford, to a granny dumping family in Los Angeles. Clearly the NHS’s patchy reputation for elderly care is higher in LA than it should be.
Fuelled by consumer spending, plus nervously looser monetary and fiscal policy since Brexit, the UK economy has actually performed better than the EU Remain camp (“Remoaners” in Brexit-speak) gloomily predicted. At 2% for 2016 (0.6% for Q4) it currently leads the sluggish G7 pack. Is growth driven by borrowing sustainable? All sorts of inward investment, from Danish windfarms and Indian bike makers to tech giants building European HQs, has helped sustain the feel-good factor . It offsets jittery, footloose bankers like Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein who gave May a hard time over Brexit in Davos.
Growth notwithstanding, it is hard for Americans and their media to grasp how neurotically insecure the Brits are about their “special relationship” with the cousins whose granny dumped George III in 1776. Did Donald and Theresa - elegant enough for US Vogue, but far from being an extrovert - really hit it off on a personal level? Are Mr Trump’s declarations of goodwill to be relied on? Did the pair really hold hands for a few seconds on their way to the Rose Garden – or was one of them (which one?) simply nervous about descending a slope?
This week British MPs debated the hastily-drafted bill on which the Supreme Court insisted ahead of the triggering of Article 50. “Trust the people,” they were told by Brexit minister, David Davis. But 48% of voters on June 23 opposed Brexit and don’t trust you much, came the reply. Labour’s lacklustre Mr. Corbyn, a life-long rebel (428 times) against his own party, failed to impose his ruling that all his MPs must now back Brexit. Instead they split three ways, securing May her Commons majority.
Tuesday’s split, accompanied by noisy resignations, serves to underline how frail effective political opposition currently is to whatever May decides. Across the Atlantic, President Trump used day 11 of the new order to revive his “You’re Fired” TV catchline on acting attorney general, Sally Yates, while shoring up the conservative component of his own Supreme Court. Is this the future? Will Team Trump’s designated grownups soon show up and take charge of the teenage party they fear may wreck the family home? Was former Belgian premier, Guy Verhofstadt right when he said this week that Trump now ranks with radical Islam and Vladimir Putin as a major threat to Europe – or was he too guilty of anti-American hysteria and self-delusion? More startling. Poland's Donald Tusk, the usually Keep Calm president of the elected EU council of ministers, endorsed the sentiment.
All that can be certain is that the future will not be quite as any of the protagonists now predict. Challenging times ahead, but not dull times.
Michael White is a former political editor and Washington correspondent of The Guardian in London.