Will he? Won’t he? Ever since Donald Trump emerged as a serious presidential contender last year, the British have been excited at the thought of his arrival in the motherland. Better yet, we have delighted ourselves with the possibility of denying him a visit to meet the Queen. That sort of thing makes us Brits feel terrifically important. As much as we pretend to have ditched the class system and not to care about our past glories, we get a real kick out of the idea that Americans are still in awe of our monarchy and our history. We know that President Trump is interested in meeting Her Majesty because he admires what he calls “the pomp and circumstance” of British public life, or at least he says his Scottish mother did. And, although most Brits think that Trump is a fraud, our innate jingoism means we fall for such flattery every time. I was at his Turnberry Golf Course the day after Britain voted to leave the E.U. in June of last year. The Donald helicoptered in and announced at a press conference that, unlike President Obama, he would put us “first in the queue” for a trade deal after we left the E.U. Even the most Trumpophobic British hacks in the crowd warmed a little at that.
That January, we’d already had a fatuous debate in Parliament about whether Donald Trump should be banned from the U.K. because he had said he wanted a temporary ban on Muslims entering America. That has set the tone for almost all British discussions about Trump. Now that he is President, the subject of a Trump “state visit” and the pompous limey hostility at the very idea swirl about the media at regular intervals. Prime Minister Theresa May was the first foreign leader to see him in Washington, and she was quick to extend an invitation in return. Yet for a large—or at least a very vocal—section of the British population, offering to welcome the leader of the most powerful democracy on earth is “unacceptable.” Two million people signed a petition calling for Trump’s visit to be downgraded to an official visit, which would mean less pomp, less circumstance—no traveling down the Mall in an Open Coach with Elizabeth II and the Household Cavalry, no speech to a joint session of Parliament, no spending the night in Buckingham Palace. The last might be a relief for Trump, given that he seems to prefer Versaillesesque bling to austere Regency neoclassicism, but it does seem like a deliberate attempt to affront his substantial ego.
Yet even downgrading Trump’s visit isn’t enough for some British lefties. Various spokesmen for various groups take to the airwaves every time the President says something outrageous on Twitter to insist that he must never be welcomed on these shores. After Charlottesville, for instance, when Trump was widely perceived as having aligned himself with white supremacists, somebody representing something called Global Justice Now demanded that May publicly rescind the invite because Trump had been caught “nakedly sympathising with neo-Nazis.” (Hell of a story, if true.)
It seems certain, then, that any Trump visit to the U.K. will prompt an outburst of British anti-Americanism masquerading as antifascism on our streets. Civil servants have been tying themselves in knots over what to do about the official nightmare that is the Donald. The idea of a “dummy run”—a short official visit, in and out, with minimal public exposure—has been mooted. If that went without incident, officials briefed out, perhaps the American President could have the honor of the full-monty ceremonial next year. What nonsense. For starters, that’s no way to treat the highest office of Britain’s most valuable ally, no matter who the 45th president is. Do Whitehall mandarins really think an American president should accept the indignity of being smuggled through the country like diplomatic contraband? And did anyone—I mean anyone—think that such a low-profile trip would appeal to Trump? Team Trump have now apparently let the British government know that, until a more hospitable welcome can be assured, President Trump will not be coming over.
You don’t have to be one of those Special Relationship bores to think that such an impasse is sad news. But it helps. Trump may be a liar, a crook, and an online nuisance, but that’s not what most British people have against him. It is left-liberal political correctness that really drives the animus against Trump. The American President is a racist, sexist, homophobe, etc., and we need to teach him a lesson.
While the self-righteous preen over the British “Never Trump” effort, however, realpolitik has moved on. The new French President Emmanuel Macron has done his fair share of grandstanding against Trump in public. Yet he was quick to give Trump the full red-carpet treatment in Paris, on Bastille Day no less. The Internet will remember the occasion largely for the hilariously long handshake between the two men as they walked along the Champs-Élysées, and Trump’s blunderbuss flattery of Macron’s 64-year-old wife, Brigitte. (“You’re in good shape,” he said, before pointing to her, turning to Emmanuel, and adding: “She’s in such good physical shape.” The old charm strikes again.) Yet, as many paranoid Brits were quick to point out, Macron’s hospitality was shrewd. Trump’s statements on Britain and Europe until that point had been music to the British government’s ears: He had called Brexit “beautiful” and, in an interview, seemed to suggest that the E.U. was a protection racket for German manufacturing. Macron, an ardent Europhile, had showed that European France could be America’s true friend—unlike the perfidious Brits, who wouldn’t even invite him over, despite the populist warmth over Brexit. Moreover, the French, who normally love a street protest, and tend to be more anti-American than we are, seemed strangely calm and accommodating to President Trump. Christopher Meyer, Britain’s former ambassador to Washington, put that down to “the start of the French summer holidays or the exhaustion of the French contingent at the G20 riots in Hamburg a few days previously.” Plus, “the French were just pleased to score one over the rosbifs and get Trump to Paris before London and to do it in style.”
It felt like one in the eye for the British government, which is desperate to make the most of Trump and the Republican Party’s pro-Brexit inclinations. The U.S. is Britain’s second-largest trading partner: American imports are approximately 20 percent of all Britain’s exports. If Britain can strike the “beautiful” bilateral trade deal Trump has promised us, and soon, it would not only be good news in and of itself, but greatly strengthen our negotiating position against Brussels as we set about withdrawing from the E.U.
Over the summer, May’s ministers sought a number of assurances from the Trump administration that he will honor that offer, and each time the Trump administration responded warmly. Still, nothing concrete appears to be happening. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has said he is confident that U.K.-U.S. trade talks will end on a “happy finish.” In July, Liam Fox, Britain’s secretary of state for international trade, went to the White House to discuss a trade deal, and afterward President Trump duly tweeted, “Working on major Trade Deal with the United Kingdom. Could be very big & exciting. JOBS! The E.U. is very protectionist with the U.S. STOP!” That set Brexiteer hearts fluttering. For the substantial number of Remainers in Britain, however, upbeat news about a special relationship between Brexit Britain and Trump’s America was not what they wanted to hear. They all began grumbling about bleached chicken. In the pages of the Guardian, and other pro-E.U. papers, mad scare stories about chlorinated American poultry started to appear. Pundits gravely intoned that, when it came to agriculture and farming, American health and safety rules were not up to European standards—so up yours, Uncle Sam! The issue of chlorinated meat had been a sticking point in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. European officials had insisted chicken dipped in bleaching solution was verboten. What probably lay behind the Great Chicken Scare was really a protectionist fear about American produce flooding the market and undercutting British and European agribusiness, or just old-fashioned European snobbishness about fat Americans and fast-food culture. Whatever the case, such an arcane quibble could easily have been circumnavigated by any diplomat with half a brain. It hardly represented grounds for bringing a vital trade deal to a halt.
The more serious obstacle to an improved U.S.-U.K. trade relationship is the sheer instability of both governments. Theresa May, who sold herself as a “strong and stable” leader before the general election in June, is now clinging to the leadership by her fingernails. Her own cabinet are bitterly divided over how best to proceed with Brexit—at least half are closet or not-so-closet Remainers, and, as we approached the party conference at the beginning of October, it looked as if a coup against her were underway. By the time you read this, she may be gone, though whether she will be replaced by a Tory Remainer such as Chancellor Philip Hammond or an ardent Brexiteer such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is anyone’s guess. Similarly, while Trump may dismiss all talk of chaos within his administration as “fake news,” he can’t be fairly described as a steady hand on the ship of state. His administration is just too unpredictable to be a reliable ally. Brexiteers cheered again in July, for instance, when Anthony Scaramucci, the new communication director of the White House, said a trade deal was “100 percent certain,” but then he was fired after ten days into the job. Also, Steve Bannon has left, a move that was widely cheered by the global political class everywhere, including here. Yet Bannon was a Brexitophile, and he appears to have been behind many of Trump’s overtures toward Britain in the early days of his presidency. Bannon’s populist nationalism in the White House has now been replaced by a more internationalist cabal of generals and millionaires, who are probably at least as keen on multilateral deals as they are on bilateral ones. The global house always wins, and that means an element of doubt now hangs over Trump’s enthusiasm for Brexit. The fact that we still haven’t welcomed him to Britain doesn’t help. We need Uncle Sam desperately, but the British government isn’t certain that it can trust Team Trump. It’s also scared, if he does come to London, of what the political fallout might be, or what inappropriate remark the brash Commander in Chief might make to Her Majesty. My goodness! The relationship between our two countries now seems more strange than special.