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.
Except for a brief stay in London, the president will mostly avoid Britain’s cities. But protesters plan to gather across the country—and he’s far from their only grievance.
As Donald Trump prepares for his first state visit to the U.K. on Thursday, London is poised for what organizers are calling a “carnival of resistance.” Green Day’s American Idiot is now topping the U.K. singles chart thanks to music buyers voicing their discontent, and a Facebook event for a mass demonstration in London already has a following 60,000 strong.
The one thing that will be absent from all this will likely be the president himself. Partly to shield him from the discomfort of mass protest, his state visit has been set up not as a pilgrimage to the Mother of All Parliaments, but as a kind of Downton Abbey tour of the U.K.
The rule governing the trip seems to be as follows: If a meeting location couldn’t feature as a lavish backdrop to a costume drama of aristos desperately trying to control their upper lip, we’re not letting Donald near it. Accordingly, Trump will mainly be shuttling between grand piles in the London stockbroker belt, including sumptuous baroque Blenheim Palace, boxy Elizabethan Chequers, and the flashy martial splendor of Windsor Castle. The idea could be to impress the president by shaking historic trinkets in his face, but it also helps that these venues are safely hidden from public access behind dense ramparts of wall and topiary.
The only time Trump will see London is during a one-night stay on Thursday at the Ambassador’s residence, whose parkland setting is being surrounded in “riot fencing” for the occasion. But sure enough, there will indeed be mass demonstrations wherever Trump goes—even in the heart of the countryside.
To rise to the occasion, British police are planning their heaviest national mobilization since the riot season of summer 2011, intended to provide a buffer between the Trump and protestors. There’s an irony to this: If London does in fact face some rise in unrest during the president’s visit, the situation could be complicated by the fact that much of the police force will be elsewhere to accommodate his travels.
So why all the fuss about the state visit? As the leader who unilaterally trashed the Paris Treaty, promoted the views of British fascists, relocated the U.S.’s Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem, and separated migrant children from their parents, Trump is as widely disliked in Britain as he is across Europe. There’s more in the mix than his international unpopularity alone, however. Britain is currently going through a politically turbulent, disaffected period, and part of the frustration with that is falling on Trump’s shoulders.
In 2018, it seems quaint to cite the old cliché about a week being a long time in politics. This week is practically a century. Indeed, just seven days ago, the looming protests were front-of-mind for Trump’s visit. This week, we’re wondering less about his reception and more about whether the country will even have a government left for him to actually meet up with.
That’s because there’s been a perplexing game of musical chairs going on in the U.K. government, with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Minister David Davis resigning Monday in protest against what they see as a too-passive approach to Brexit from Theresa May. Following the upheaval, May is now facing a confidence vote (albeit one she could probably win), creating a bizarre background of upheaval to the already controversial visit. A sign of how off-kilter the times are is that the death by poisoning of a 44-year-old woman this week, quite possibly at the hands of the Russians, went by with barely any official notice. Britain’s opposition Labour Party is also divided over the course of Brexit, meaning there’s little sense of common ground in any part of the political spectrum for an increasingly weary, divided population.
Against this backdrop, a passionate dislike for Donald Trump is one of the few bipartisan positions that British people—even many on the right—have left to assume. In a country where every decision has no clean, tidy answers, this dislike is partly a receptacle for other, less black-and-white frustrations.
In the end, it seems that Londoners may actually get an eyeful of Trump despite all the security precautions. They won’t see him in the flesh, however. They’ll see him as a huge balloon effigy (albeit one with tiny hands), due to float serenely about the city clad only in a diaper. That such a spectacle is possible—given the green light as a form of satirical protest by Mayor Sadiq Khan—shows where the president stands in Britain. As long as a politician doesn’t have to deal with Trump directly, there are easy points to score by criticizing him. Just last week, Sheffield’s Lord Mayor Magid Magid deemed Trump a “wasteman” and nominally banned him from visiting the city.
In some ways, the visit is a perfect snapshot of Britain’s current confused, hysterical state. Trump will be frantically managed by a government desperate to win his capricious favor without being tainted by his image. He’ll meet a foreign secretary only three days into the job, against a backdrop intentionally removed from the realities of contemporary Britain. Meanwhile, crowds of disaffected citizens in a city he called a “war zone” are waiting to express their anger at a figure widely seen to be destructive—but all they have to shake their fists at is a giant carnival balloon.