Trump might not see the protests this week, but they’re still important – here’s why

As Theresa May cuddles up to the US president, he's getting a whole lot of undeserved credibility. But during his visit to London, British people will take to the streets in their thousands and American audiences will know that the UK wants nothing to do with him

Nash Riggins
Monday 09 July 2018 17:09 BST
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Is the concept of ‘shared values’ just some wishy-washy jargon we use to describe a thinly veiled fear of Islam, immigration and Vladimir Putin?
Is the concept of ‘shared values’ just some wishy-washy jargon we use to describe a thinly veiled fear of Islam, immigration and Vladimir Putin? (PA)

America’s “special relationship” with the United Kingdom has always felt a little bit shallow and opportunistic.

Career politicians love to prattle on about this generations-old Anglo-American partnership that seems to keep the world spinning. They brag about the noble, ironclad values our two countries share, and never stop trying to mansplain how those shared values seem to inspire raging fascists and flamboyant, banana republic dictators to cast aside their weapons, listen to reason and embrace democracy.

That’s a super nice narrative, and there’s a lot of history to back it up. After all, it was the special relationship that obliterated the fiery Nazi menace (let’s ignore the USSR’s role in that) and brought down the oppressive Berlin Wall. From Churchill and Roosevelt to Thatcher and Reagan, you can’t deny that Anglo-American power couples have effectively reimagined and reshaped the entire world as we know it.

But let’s not kid ourselves, here. That was a really long time ago – and in this day and age, “shared values” is just some wishy-washy jargon we use to describe a thinly veiled fear of Islam, immigration and Vladimir Putin.

From bungled wars on terror to the biggest financial crash in generations, our special relationship has taken some pretty big hits over the past couple of decades. Both the US and the UK have lost considerable political credibility and capital in recent years, and it’s difficult to picture the two countries working together in order to claw that prestige back.

Then again, it looks like Donald Trump and Theresa May can’t really afford to do much else right now. Because for all its faults, the souring friendship between our two countries is absolutely critical to their political survival.

Ever since the George Bush-Tony Blair era, there’s been huge negativity surrounding the special connection the US and UK share
Ever since the George Bush-Tony Blair era, there’s been huge negativity surrounding the special connection the US and UK share (Getty)

Here in Britain, May’s near disastrous Brexit negotiations and cabinet fall out seem more or less built around the presumption that an American trade deal will help to mitigate the choppy waters of a mediocre bargain with Europe. The UK government needs powerful friends now more than ever, and a pugnacious Trump with his populist, far-right attitude towards globalisation makes for a more natural bedfellow than might seem to be the case at first glance.

On the flip side, Trump’s half-decent rapport with Britain gives the president a whole lot of undeserved credibility in terms of his administration’s foreign policy capabilities. The Donald might have a fanatically loyal basket of deplorables in America’s heartland, but his command over the GOP is fickle at best. In order to cling onto power, he needs to be able to prove he can preserve one of the world’s most low-maintenance political partnerships.

It’s this pathetic backdrop of lukewarm friendship and outright desperation that sets the stage for Trump’s big visit to the UK on Friday. He might act like it’s no big deal, but Trump really needs this visit to look good for him – which is why May will be rolling out the red carpet and putting on the Ritz.

The friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill all but saved the world
The friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill all but saved the world (Getty)

America’s commander-in-chief will get to go to meet the Queen, chill out at Windsor Castle, get wined and dined in fancy West London and hang with the cabinet at Chequers. It’s all but certain Trump will come up to Scotland for a round or two at one of his controversial, loss-making golf courses, too. As an American living north of the border, I can’t wait.

Make no mistake: over the next few days, you can expect more pomp and pretence than you know what to do with. Yet on just about every street corner in the UK, Trump and his disgusting brand of politics will be met with a flurry of unbridled and characteristically no-nonsense defiance from the British people.

There are going to be festival-like protests and demonstrations happening all across Britain. Scottish politicians are leading rallies in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and organisers are expecting tens of thousands of protestors at Blenheim Palace, Regent’s Park and Chequers. Hell, we’ve even got that eerily identical (if a little nightmare-inducing) Trump baby balloon to look forward to, fluttering in the breeze above Parliament Square – and it is going to be a gorgeous sight.

After all, this is what democracy is all about, right?

Protests are planned in Edinburgh and Glasgow in expectation of Trump’s presence in Scotland
Protests are planned in Edinburgh and Glasgow in expectation of Trump’s presence in Scotland (PA)

Theresa May might need to cuddle up to Donald Trump to shelter herself from the ramifications of Brexit, but it’s crystal clear at this point that the vast majority of the UK actually wants nothing to do with the guy.

Quite right, too. Since his meteoric and ham-fisted rise to power, Trump has promoted hate speech on Twitter via Britain First, used every possible opportunity to needlessly have a pop at Sadiq Khan and keeps insulting the UK by trying to exploit and distort tragedies such as the Manchester bombing in order to serve his own backwards agenda.

And those are only the ways he’s wronged Britain – never mind locking children in cages, launching a campaign to ban Muslims from entering America, pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and ripping apart the Iran nuclear deal. Any half decent human being would rather cross the street than shake hands with Trump, and so it’s truly comforting to know there are enough good people in Britain willing to stand up and tell their government’s number one ally exactly what they think of him and his uninformed, bigoted views.

But in a shallow political climate where nothing is sacred and image is everything, how are these ballsy British demonstrations actually going to impact America’s supposed friendship with the UK?

First and foremost, let’s just go ahead and assume that Trump’s carefully choreographed visit will steer him clear of all the biggest and loudest protests being planned for this week. After all, the UK government is getting pretty good at sidestepping political demonstrations. When China’s Xi Jinping came for a visit in 2015, he didn’t seem to come into contact with so much as a single grumpy placard.

That’s why these protests aren’t actually going to do a whole lot for Trump and the way he feels about the UK. He knows British liberals hate his guts (1.8 million voters signed a petition asking the government to cancel his visit to the UK), and at this point it looks like he couldn’t care less. May won’t care, either. As long as she stays in Trump’s good books, her tenure as prime minister may yet stretch beyond March next year.

But while Trump is tweeting bitchy one-liners about the ineffectiveness of political demonstrations from his limousine, American news outlets are going to be broadcasting these protests around the clock.

And against all odds, the way viewers digest that coverage could go on to have pretty big implications.

Images of mass demonstrations in the UK are going to fire up Trump supporters like never before
Images of mass demonstrations in the UK are going to fire up Trump supporters like never before (PA)

On the one hand, you’re going to have a sizeable minority of Americans who’ll be watching the UK’s carnival of opposition with open disgust. Believe it or not, more than 40 per cent of US voters still think their president is doing a bang-up job leading the free world. Trump’s obsessive fan base absolutely cannot be convinced otherwise. That’s why images of these mass demonstrations in Britain are going to fire up Trump supporters like never before.

Right-wing pundits are already scoffing at what’s more or less being branded a state-sanctioned middle finger at conservative America’s great orange defender, and any and all acts of disrespect while Trump is abroad will totally validate the inherent misgivings heartland inhabitants may already harbour about the special relationship and their disgustingly liberal British cousins.

Ordinarily, those outlandish opinions wouldn’t bother anybody very much. Yet as America marches nervously into its crucial November midterm elections, there’s plenty to fear from a well-organised and rabid conservative voting bloc. Congress can’t afford to tumble any further to the right – and so by pissing off the crazies, British protesters may go on to unknowingly and inadvertently perpetuate America’s nightmarish transformation into a far-right, isolationist autocracy via the election of a few new Trump carbon copies.

Okay, so that might seem a little melodramatic in the context of a few anti-Trump protests here in the UK. But in this day and age, melodrama is the lifeblood of domestic politics – and it’s absolutely impossible to emphasise enough just how important these November elections are going to be for American politics.

One in five American voters has participated in a protest or rally since Trump rose to power in 2016
One in five American voters has participated in a protest or rally since Trump rose to power in 2016 (Reuters)

Then again, this week’s demonstrations are also going to earn a whole lot of respect from Democrats and the deeply fragmented alliance of political creeds that form the fragile American left. After all, Americans love a good protest – and boy do a lot of us despise Donald Trump and what he’s done to the United States.

The numbers speak for themselves.

We’ve finally reached the point where half of Americans think their president is a racist, pushing an unprecedented one in five voters to participate in a protest or a rally since Trump rose to power in 2016. From women’s rights marches and rallies to support scientists, to demonstrations against gun violence and police brutality, it seems like there’s always something on the go across the pond.

In seeing that rebellious spirit echoed over in Britain, American liberals should start to feel much better in knowing they are not alone.

After the 2016 Brexit referendum, many perplexed Democrats started to wonder if the UK hadn’t regressed into some grandstanding political hellhole. And while the jury’s still kind of out on that one, at least this weekend’s British defiance will prove to Democrats that rhyme and reason still indeed have some sort of place in America’s relationship with the UK.

And despite the terrifying threat of a proverbial, conservative red wedding in November, it’s that message of hope that should ultimately resonate louder across the United States. Ever since the Bush-Blair era, there’s been huge negativity and many misgivings surrounding the special connection our two countries share – and that negativity is totally justified.

We’ve made some horrible decisions together, and it’s not easy being friends with a country whose voters would willingly elect a feckless demagogue like Donald Trump.

But in rediscovering a few of the genuine values our two peoples have in common through the act of protest (beyond a fear of Vladimir Putin, that is), perhaps the UK and the US can circumvent loudmouthed billionaires and out-of-touch career politicians in order to restore some of the positivity and promise that the special relationship has been missing for all these years.

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