by Rob Marchant
It seems that nothing can really surprise us any more. Just as Jeremy Corbyn has, as the FT’s Janan Ganesh put it so beautifully last year, been “exactly as bad as he was always going to be”, Trump has already dulled our senses by doing, well, exactly what he said he was going to. Many did not really believe him; they said he should not be “taken literally”. Turns out they were wrong.
A ban on Muslim refugees, temporary though it is in theory, has actually been enacted. On Holocaust Memorial Day. Trump has demonstrated that, if you really don’t care that much what people think of you, there will always be some who will love you precisely because of that.
People are already normalising Trump, simply because he is president of the world’s most powerful nation. But that does not make his actions normal, in any historical sense, and we would all do well to remember that.
Presidents do not lie casually, as a rule. Neither do they enact overtly racist (or, to be more accurate, sectarian) executive orders. Since the 1930s, one cannot remember a time when it was considered perfectly ok to target large and vulnerable groups of people, and bar them from entering the country on grounds of religion or country of origin. And that time didn’t end well.
It is up to liberals to find a way out of this which does not reinforce Trump. Playing the victim is the favourite trick of the populist politician, and the outrage of liberals is easy to mock. But that does not mean, either, that we should shut up: that way lies madness. The fact that someone has been democratically elected does not mean that we have to just accept every idiotic thing they might do.
At the same time, opinions have differed on Theresa May’s mercy dash across the Atlantic. This, too, has been normalised by some commentators as a normal US-UK meeting. It should not be, for some glaringly obvious reasons.
One. None of the previous such summits, in living memory at least, had been against the backdrop of a seismic shock to Britain’s trading position relative to the world. Particularly with a Secretary of State who sees it as an opportunity for America to take trade away from Britain.
Two. None of them had been with a president who made clear his dislike for NATO, the cornerstone of European peace these last seventy years. Or someone who was happy to appease a powerful and aggressive quasi-dictator, fond of invading his European neighbours and armed to the teeth with both conventional and nuclear weapons.
Three. None of them had been with a man with self-evident problems relating to women and minorities, and certainly not in combination with a British woman prime minister.
Four. None of them had been with a man who has refused to separate his business from political interests or declare his financials, facts which may yet bring him down.
Those quick to compare May’s visit with Blair’s relationship with Bush might do well to remember the different circumstances. For one, Blair would never have done what the Tories have done and let his country fall prey to the Eurosceptics, thus putting it in the position of supplicant. Britain under Labour had grown to be the world’s fourth largest economy.
Neither was Britain entirely without influence in helping shape world events, whether you believe this was for better or worse. Britain today, in contrast, has but one geopolitical option: to decide whether or not it wishes to join a Trump-led coalition against ISIS, ironically a power nurtured by his putative ally, Putin, during his proxy war in Syria.
But Trump may well not have grasped the Orwellian idea that an authoritarian might actually celebrate the idea of perpetual war; to always have a common enemy that unites the people. On the other hand, there is a worse possibility: that he may even want one himself.
Finally, Trump’s given reason, to protect Americans rather the rest of the world, fails to hold water too. Since 9/11, casualties from Islamist terrorist attacks in the US have been dwarfed by those in other countries. And that’s not to mention also being dwarfed, of course, by other “loner” killings facilitated by the imbecilic gun laws upheld by Trump’s supporters.
No, this was in no way business as usual. In her trip across the pond May took a punt, as politicians often do, in the face of a very high-risk situation at home. Brexit is a ticking bomb that might explode in May’s face at any time over the next three years.
But there are three possible outcomes. If Trump’s presidency dissolves in ignominy, as it might, May will suffer eternal shame for her cravenness. And if it survives and becomes something bordering on the horrific, which it also might (look at what it did in three days!), she will suffer the same by association. It is only if Trump is to unexpectedly mellow, and actually become a half-presentable president, that May’s gamble will pay off. And who would bet their future on that happening? Only, we imagine, someone holding a time-bomb, with precious little to lose.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left