Donald Trump’s election in 2016 reminded Americans that the national interest is rarely the same as the interests of the people. The moments when the strategies of the leaders coincide with the hopes of the led are rare, and often symbolic. The commemoration this week of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings is one of those moments, resonant not just with military scale but also with the democratic intimacy of the 20th century.
The state visit of President Trump resonates, however, with the bitterness and division of the 21st century. So does its symbolic content: the giant inflatable orange baby that London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has again permitted to float over London, and the enormous phallus that, the British being nation of horticulturalists, was someone mowed into a field near Stansted Airport in the hope of spoiling Trump’s first look at the land of his mother’s birth.
It is in the American national interest for the President to cultivate alliances and trade. It is in the British national interest to do everything and anything possible to strengthen its links with the United States. It is unusually patient and generous of Donald Trump to put up with the rudeness of some British people, let alone the shaming incompetence of Theresa May and her ministers.
The trolling of Trump by Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, serves the interests of neither the British people nor the people of London, who these days might as well be an independent city-state, so little do they care about the barbarians of the British hinterland. This demonstrative piety might, however, serve the ambitions of Sadiq Khan who, like Boris Johnson before him, may soon use the mayoralty as a stepping stone to nomination as party leader.
It is historically illiterate of Khan to compare Trump to “the fascists of the 20th century”. The enemies of fascism — the classical liberal state, democratic capitalism, the Jews — are the friends and even family of Donald Trump. He represents a hyper-charged, highly American form of democratic politics which, despite its British roots, is now almost incomprehensible to Europeans. Today, it is practised in only one European society and, to be precise, in only one European city — London, the city ruled, or rather misruled, by Sadiq Khan.
Trump compared Khan to the bumbling mayor of New York City: “Kahn [sic.] reminds me very much of our dumb and incompetent Mayor of NYC, de Blasio, who has also done a terrible job — only half his height.”
Trump’s misspelling of the Muslim Khan’s surname as the Jewish ‘Kahn’ is only one indication of the difference between New York City and London, a city whose vibrant and multicultural Muslim population means that it is unlikely to elect a Jewish mayor. Sadiq Kahn isn’t just shorter than de Blasio; he’s also much weaker. The mayor of New York City is a temporary king, but the mayor of London is a glorified parking attendant.
So Trump’s response was both degrading to what remains of the dignity of his office, and flattering to his political pygmy of an antagonist. Khan, he said, is a ‘stone cold loser’, and should concentrate on London’s runaway problem with knife crime. As so often, Trump’s opinions are closer to the people than their leaders.
Khan’s subjects were polled last December by the Standard, the London newspaper which, typically for London these days, is owned by a Russian oligarch and edited by a widely detested Conservative politician. Only 32 per cent declared themselves ‘satisfied’ by their mayor. A similar 33 per cent were ‘dissatisfied’, and 19 per cent were ‘very dissatisfied’. The other 15 per cent of so were, it appears, too busy dealing drugs and stabbing each other to have noticed who the mayor was.
Just as London in the decades since the Big Bang has turned into a caricature of New York City in the Eighties, so the arrival of an American president is not just descriptive of current relations, but also prescriptive. Perhaps it has always been this way: after the American Revolution, William Blake, a quintessential Londoner in his contempt for central authority, wrote America: A Prophecy. Since 1945, Britain has tied its future to the United States so thoroughly that the condition of America is a kind of prophecy about the future of Britain.
For this reason, it would be foolish of Britons to shoot the presidential messenger, or even to mow symbols of Blakean hostility into their fields. Trump is, like Blake, an impossible mixture of anarchist and authoritarian in spirit, the spirit in Trump’s case being the animal spirits of the market. So Trump’s casual aggravation of the wounds of Brexit — send Nigel Farage to Brussels, replace Theresa May with Boris Johnson, sign that free trade deal — was entirely in character. He is a showman, a wisecracker from Queens, and despite the best efforts of some of the British, he retains an evident fondness for the Queen and her people.
It is evident to the entire world that the May government, and a majority of the Conservatives in the House of Commons, would struggle to organize a children’s tea party. The wisdom of appointing Nigel Farage as emissary to the imperial court at Brussels may be questionable, but the British might learn something from the suggestion — and Farage and Boris Johnson, I suspect, have already learnt it.
Across the West, voters are rejecting the distant, patronising and self-serving managerialism of the professional political class. It matters little whether we approve or disapprove. These are the facts of democracy after mass outsourcing, mass immigration, and the hollowing of the middle class. These are the facts that Trump represents, and which he delights in stating.
The credibility of democracy is eroded when, as in the expansion of the European Union or the bungling of Brexit, the managers overrule the voters, citing a national or, in the case of the EU, supranational interest indistinguishable from the material interest of the ruling caste. The credibility of the American-led system is eroded when, as Barack Obama did before Brexit, the plebs of the provinces are threatened with being sent to the ‘back of the queue’ if they vote the wrong way.
Democracy is strengthened when the elected respond to their electors. The American-led system is strengthened when America’s partners contribute to their own defense, and send a clear message to America’s rivals about their commitment to sustaining that system. The links between Britain and the United States are integral to that system.
Britain now suffers the disadvantage of being a small state in a world of major trade blocs, but it also has the advantage of being able to set new terms for its economic future. The next prime minister should embrace Trump’s offer of an expedited free-trade deal between the US and the UK as in the national interest, and also in the interest of the British people. For a people need leisure and liberty if they are to mow obscene images on the fields of Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’.
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