President Trump may be the polariser-in-chief of the ever-more-divided States of America, yet something interesting happens when those late-night Oval Office tweets cross oceans and time zones to arrive on British screens as we head to bed or wake up to the alarm clock.
Donald Trump divides America, but he unites Britain. Just look at the breadth of the unusual alliances which sprang up in the Commons yesterday. As the arch-Brexiteer Peter Bone and the liberal Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, joked about the benefits for the world of the US President deleting his twitter account, Remainers and Brexiteers, Scottish nationalists and unionists, Corbynistas and austerity hawks all found themselves on the same side of the argument.
After the 2016 referendum and 2017 election demonstrated deep cultural and generational divides, sustained by the endless attrition of social media battles about politics, it is often asserted that politics will inevitably turn into a culture war.
Perhaps we should be grateful to Donald Trump for showing us how that need not be the case – in Britain at least.
Except that, of course, the cause of this outbreak of unity was the US President’s decision to retweet videos from the Britain First group, which can stake a fairly strong claim to be the most extreme of any racist or anti-Muslim hate group in British society that has not been legally proscribed. Since nobody in the United States has heard of Britain First, few will realise just how much more extreme, violent and marginal it is than even controversial far-right populist parties, such as the French Front National.
Britain faces absolutely no electoral threat from Britain First – but the group’s potential for menace in the streets and stirring up hatred online is rather greater.
As a political party, there is now as much life in Britain First as there was in Monty Python’s famous dead parrot. It is strange kind of political party that could not field any candidates at all in the 2015 or 2017 General Elections. It was deputy leader Jayda Fransen, now retweeted by the President, who made the party’s last attempt to get into Parliament back in 2014, winning 56 votes (0.14 per cent) in the Rochester by-election, while the Monster Raving Loony Party won three times as many. Its official deregistration by the Electoral Commission last month confirms that the defunct party has indeed expired and ceased to exist: it is an ex-party, as John Cleese might put it. It is hardly surprising that it has so little interest in the ballot box, when the voters have such a miniscule interest in its offering.
Britain’s First’s real threat – their thirst for promoting violent confrontation, as with their project of mosque “invasions” to intimidate those going to their place of worship – was on display when they did stand for the Mayoralty of London. Nobody expected them to react with any democratic dignity to finishing on one per cent, well over one million votes behind London’s choice, Sadiq Khan.
But the reaction was far more chilling than the candidate’s childish decision to turn his back on the new Mayor as a mark of disrespect. The group also declared its intention to undertake “militant direct action” against the new Mayor – on the grounds that any British Muslim whom the public chose to elect should be regarded as an “occupier”.
That was a characteristic and chilling example of its hankering for violence. A few weeks later, as Labour MP Jo Cox was assassinated in her constituency, a week before the EU referendum: her murderer shouted “Britain First”. Jo Cox’s widow Brendan has seen the reaction to Trump’s twitter efforts to promote extremism and hatred as showing that Jo’s own vision of a country that still has “more in common” prevails.
This week has shown that Britain’s bipartisan anti-hatred norms are clearly in better shape than those in the United States – where remarkably, both the reputation of Ku Klux Klan white supremacists and even norms against paedophilia have now become issues of tribal partisan dispute.
But Trump’s tweets meant that Christmas has come early for the obscure Britain First group. They have no chance of winning the public argument in Britain – but Trump’s tweets will help them to engage more of the 1 per cent to 5 per cent of the population with the angriest and most toxic views, and indeed to tell them that they do have powerful and influential allies in the White House. A group with literally no votes was immediately back in front of the TV cameras, highlighting the dilemma for media producers about how to judge how much voice and oxygen to give the violent hate group which becomes part of such a big international diplomatic row.
Britain First’s snaring of the Presidential retweet button may have been more luck than judgement, but it offers both an extraordinary headline-grabbing and yet curiously typical example of how this zero-support party can generate social media reach. It is not clear whether a tweet from the pro-Trump commentator Ann Coulter put the group’s tweets in the President’s timeline – or whether a clever Twitter algorithm worked out that these anti-Muslim diatribes looked like the sort of thing the President might enjoy sharing. In common with many in Britain who see or share Britain First material, Trump will have had not much idea who the group were. But his own reclaiming of the old isolationist slogan “America First” will have suggested a kindred Trumpesque spirit.
Characteristically, Trump doubled down rather than backing-off when challenged. There is much focus on what that means for a State visit.
Britain has to try to work with any US administration government – but the honour of a state visit would now be entirely unmerited. But a state visit may well slip into the never-never, given that Trump’s main aim for the visit would be to deliver the picture postcard scenes for the US news networks.
The White House must today understand that the “optics” of a visit to Britain can never be that Trump is admired and respected around the world – because in Britain, he simply is not. More than three-quarters of Britain had no confidence in his handling of world affairs in Pew’s global survey this summer. Trump’s latest social media antics might yet help us close the gap with Mexico, where no confidence in Trump has reached 95 per cent.
But the real reason that the Government had to speak up was not the public pressure to do so. What is most damaging about Trump’s tweets is that they undermine a key plank of the government’s anti-terrorism and anti-extremism strategy.
An anti-extremism strategy must target every threat we face if it is to eradicate and isolate violent Islamism effectively. That is why Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s party conference speech spoke about the evils of the Manchester bombing and the murder by driving a van into worshippers at Finsbury Park mosque as representing similarly evil threats to the shared values of British society.
Rudd clearly recognises the symbiotic relationship which makes Britain First and Islamist extremists such important recruiting sergeants for each other. The groups have a shared project to somehow prove that our multi-ethnic and multi-faith society is an impossibility. They need each other to make the violent clash of civilisations they envisage a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Again, the British consensus on this point could hardly be much broader. Commentator Melanie Phillips, amongst the staunchest critic of Islamism, declared herself “appalled” by how badly Donald Trump is undermining the challenge to Islamist extremism, by simply failing to understand the importance of shunning racist and anti-Muslim groups who spread extremism and hatred too.
As with Trump supporter Mica Moshaber telling Newsnight last night that “2.6 million Muslims in the census” were proof of the extremist threat to Britain, it is striking just how often the US President supporters are entirely oblivious to how essential a distinction between Muslims and Islamist extremists is to the strategy of any western democracy in rooting out Islamist extremism.
Whether or when Donald Trump wants to come to Britain to hear in person what this country really thinks of him is a minor issue. The really important debate is how we now re-establish that essential foundation as we seek to get not just counter-extremism but also our positive strategy for integration right.