Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The U.S. president began his U.K. trip by insulting London Mayor Sadiq Khan; soon the Trump baby blimp will fly again.
For Trump-watchers, there’s a strange feeling of déjà vu to the U.S. president’s arrival in London for a three-day state visit. Just like his previous U.K. trip last summer, there have already been catty attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, displays of uncomfortable civility from representatives of the U.K. government, and lots of mass demonstrations planned for this week. Protesters are pumping up the Trump baby blimp for another round of public appearances, while the usual round of artistic interventions is joined this year by a giant grass penis etched in the fields next to the runway where Trump landed. The “carnival of resistance” is coming back to town.
Hi @realDonaldTrump. Just so you know, you’re wildly unpopular here in Britain. SAD! People REALLY don’t like you (though they love @BarackObama). Hope you like seeing your FAILING approval numbers projected onto the Tower of London. #TrumpUKvisit pic.twitter.com/oT332Fd6fE— Led By Donkeys (@ByDonkeys) June 3, 2019
But despite the sense of (bad) business as usual, two things are already becoming clear that both highlight the particularly disturbed nature of current British politics, and the U.S.’s general loss of global standing under Trump. Firstly, the president’s popularity in Britain is so low that attacking him has become an easy way for local officials to build political capital. And secondly, that even among potential allies, Trump is now mainly seen as an agent of chaos.
The approach of London’s Mayor Khan makes this first point clear. Involved in a minor feud with Trump since 2015, Khan has attacked the president with unusual forthrightness. Writing in The Observer Sunday, the mayor compared Trump to a 20th-century fascist, “just one of the most egregious examples of a growing global threat” that included Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and France’s Marine Le Pen—both figures whose racist views and general demagoguery have made them pariahs on the European political scene.
Khan can say things like this because, among his constituents, they are views so widely held as to not be especially controversial. Indeed, headline-wise, they represent an easy win for Khan. Trump didn’t even wait until Air Force One had landed before rising to the bait, calling the mayor a “stone cold loser” and comparing him to “very dumb” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (“only half his height”) in a midair tweet. That kind of characteristically unstatesmanlike response only serves to boost Kahn’s standing locally and across Europe.
Conservative party figures in Britain, however, don’t have the same freedom to speak their minds (whatever their real opinions). That makes their reception of the president far more awkward. His ally-ship is potentially valuable, even if his closest relationship still seems to be with populist anti-E.U. campaigner Nigel Farage, whose newly founded Brexit Party grabbed much of the Conservative vote in last week’s European elections. The problem is that Trump and his staff persist in making even right-leaning politicians look bad by association, during a moment when their public image is vulnerable.
This vulnerability could scarcely be higher right now. Prime Minister Theresa May is due to stand down on June 7. A power struggle to succeed her as head of the party—and de facto prime minister—is well underway. While the country as a whole is heavily divided over Brexit, the Conservative party members (40 percent of whom are over 65) who will select May’s successor are overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the European Union. As a result, a pro-Leave candidate is likely to win the leadership contest, and the winner, and subsequent prime minister, will thus be placing themselves in the position of selling a Brexit process that most Conservative MPs are probably inwardly well aware will impoverish the country.
A few pro-Brexit words from Trump might help this future leader sell the process to a doubtful and divided electorate—or at least the small part of it that will vote for a new Conservative leader—but so far, they’re not getting it. Indeed, on Sunday, U.S. ambassador to the U.K. and Trump ally Woody Johnson did the exact opposite. In an interview with the BBC, Johnson said “all aspects” of the U.K. economy would be up for negotiation during a post-Brexit U.S./U.K. trade deal—including healthcare. By this he meant opening up Britain’s National Health Service to tenders from U.S. health companies, a move that could well presage the break-up of the system as we know it. Whatever party they support, this kind of talk turns most British people’s blood to ice.
It’s hard to overestimate how toxic such comments can be. Britain’s National Health Service is loved in the U.K. with fiery intensity that largely spans the political spectrum. While beleaguered by years of cuts, the service is still largely free at point of use and its standards are generally superlative. The idea of leaving this service open to cherry-picking from U.S. health corporations, which have an execrable international reputation, could not be more calculated to alarm the British electorate. (All this, meanwhile, comes before we even discuss American attempts to open Britain’s door to E.U.-banned American chlorine-washed chicken.)
So this is where we are. Not even a day in to the state visit, the capital’s popular mayor has has been attacked—for his height. Rather than assuage public concern, Trump’s choice of ambassador has confirmed everybody’s worst nightmares about what the U.S. might try to force us into if we leave the E.U. as planned. And even those in Britain who might be considered the president’s political allies are careful to keep this human wrecking ball at arm’s length.
That’s quite a turnaround. Typically, representatives of the U.K. government would jump at the chance to glad-hand a U.S. president—any president—in order to look influential and internationally connected. But any association with Trump is a dicey proposition; it that can easily backfire and risks making the person connected to him look weak and servile, as Theresa May’s awkward hand-holding with the president last year showed.
As Trump’s visit proceeds this week, he’s set to visit Buckingham Palace (behind whose curtains Ivanka was already spotted today), attend a state banquet, and participate in commemorations of the 75th anniversary of D-Day in the naval port of Portsmouth Wednesday. Protesters, meanwhile, will be massing Tuesday evening in Trafalgar Square at a demonstration to be addressed by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party opposition. Aware of the unpopularity that has sparked these protests, British public figures who have to interact with the president may mainly be hoping he leaves the country as soon as possible without getting egg on his—and their—faces.