Forget the state visit, what should really worry us is that Trump’s on course to win a second term as president

His approach, which is so out of kilter with politics as we have known it in the west for many years, is working – and not only for Trump

Will Gore
Monday 03 June 2019 12:42
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Crowds gather outside Buckingham Palace following Donald Trump's arrival in the UK

In the end, this state visit was always bound to happen.

When Theresa May made her simpering trip to Washington in January 2017, she was still (hard though it is to fathom) a prime minister with a healthy parliamentary majority – and Brexit was not yet in the mire.

Even so, her invitation to the president to make a return visit to the UK caused a storm: it was an early sign both of May’s weakness and the extent of the divide in British politics.

Such was the level of angst that a neat fudge was concocted whereby Donald Trump visited Britain last summer but without being afforded the pomp and ceremony of a full state occasion. It was never likely to be enough for a man who appears more concerned by the respect he believes is his due than almost anything else.

And to be fair, given the historical ties between the US and the UK, denying the president a state visit would have been the most almighty snub, causing difficulties beyond merely irritating the present inhabitant of the White House.

Even so, protests against his appearance on these shores will be loud and colourful. If Trump leaves with a message that a significant portion of the British population has no truck with his policies or his personality, well, that is all to the good.

Will it make a difference though? The truth is that Trump thrives on hostility. Indeed, his success is predicated on being opposed to things: the establishment, liberal elites, the “MSM”, immigration. Trump stands in opposition to the status quo, and anyone who disagrees with him is – by his own definition – a barrier to change. The logic is flawed, of course, but no matter.

What’s more, by stirring the pot – whether by aggressive rhetoric at a campaign rally, support for a particularly divisive policy, or a Twitter rant of the sort he launched this morning against Sadiq Khan – Trump assures himself of the public’s attention. You only have to look at the media coverage of his visit to Britain already this week to see how much interest there is in his arrival. Some will love him, some will hate him: but we’re all watching.

And fundamentally this approach, which is so out of kilter with politics as we have known it in the west for many years, is working – and not only for Trump. It has worked for Matteo Salvini in Italy, for Viktor Orban in Hungary and, to different ends, for Nigel Farage here.

Still, Trump is the poster boy for this neo-authoritarianism, which has nationalism and conservatism at its heart – but which is primarily about ego and pride.

And what is most striking of all is not that he has got his banquet at Buckingham Palace, but that he is on course to win a second term of office back home.

Two and a half years ago, when Trump won the 2016 American election against all the odds, I was woken in the early hours by a stunned news editor who was after a speedy piece of analysis. Like him, I could scarcely believe what had happened, although after the Brexit earthquake we should perhaps have seen it coming.

In the months that followed, Trump was so bombastic, so narcissistic – and on the face of it both inherently stupid, and careless with the facts – that a narrative took hold in which his presidency seemed bound to unravel. Physical protests, and the establishment of the Mueller inquiry both seemed to offer a counterpoint that would ultimately force the president out.

Really though, Trump’s actions in office have been a very simple continuation of his actions on the campaign trail. Nothing has happened which is likely to convince his supporters that the man they picked in 2016 is not the one they should vote for again in 2020. His approval rating may still be below 50 per cent, but his core support has barely wavered.

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For those who stand for progressive values and decency in politics, the Trump phenomenon therefore poses a problem. After all, if a movement gains momentum from the protests it faces, should protesters simply go home and wait for the chill wind to pass?

It is tempting to think so.

But as Sadiq Khan noted at the weekend, history shows the dangers of not speaking out against authoritarians who would clamp down on hard-won freedoms. Even if protesting seems to fuel Trump’s fire in the short term, there is a longer game to be played by progressives – and not only in the United States. We must be in it to win it.

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