There can be few people with experience of living in both the United Kingdom and the United States who do not conclude that we two English-speaking peoples have at least as much that divides us as we have in common. The language is a long-standing example. The latest exhibit could be Donald Trump.
From his name to his manner to his money, Trump exudes a certain idea of America. And it is not one that endears itself to Britons, or for that matter to many Europeans. The clashes over his plans for a Scottish golf resort - grand and brash as opposed to proportionate and discreet (and preferably not at all) - offered one high-profile instance of the culture clash. Since then, Trump’s campaign for his party’s presidential nomination has produced a whole lot more.
Trump began his campaign by insulting Mexicans and migrants. He threatened a (temporary) bar on Muslims entering the US. He condemned a female television presenter in a way that could not but be interpreted as a slur on all women. None of this seemed calculated to court those whose votes he might one day need. And all this came before he presented anything that might hint at a policy.
The response, on this side of the Atlantic - and replicated among old-school and educated elites of both major parties in the US - has passed from ridicule through distaste to alarm. David Cameron described Trump’s remarks about banning Muslims as “divisive, stupid, and wrong”. That was back in December. Invited to withdraw those remarks this week, Cameron refused. Whether he would use quite the same words in quite the same way today shows how the US electoral dynamic has changed.
Now that Trump has seen off his last two rivals for the nomination - Texas Senator Ted Cruz and the Ohio governor John Kasich - Republicans are having to take sides: Trump or, dare to whisper it, Hillary Clinton. To many, the very notion of Trump and his third wife, former model Melania, posing at the White House door seems repellent. If the picture of the Obamas entering the official residence for the first time illustrated the very best of America, a similar portrait of the Trump family might well be construed as the worst.
But how bad - for the US, and the rest of us - would a Trump presidency really be? Would it even be bad at all? Here is a look, albeit from a distance, on the bright side.
US presidential campaigns can be brutal affairs; the language, even the insults, may be vicious, but they belong in the context of battle. Trump may have overplayed his hand. He may already have lost some sections - especially of the women’s vote - already. But there is time, in the campaign proper, to try to woo some of them back. And while Trump has alienated elements of his party’s elite, he has done something few thought possible: united the grassroots and neutralised the Tea Party.
Some aspects of his policy that recur in European critiques barely cause a flicker in the US. One is his talk of building a wall along the border with Mexico - for the distinction here is not between a wall and nothing; it is between a wall and the 18-foot fence that already blocks at least one third of the border. Many Americans, especially those in the southern states, are all in favour. Employers may like illegal immigration, but what are its actual social benefits?
A central criticism is that Trump has no political experience. Indeed, he would be the first US president in that position since Dwight Eisenhower. Given the mistakes and misjudgements made in recent decades by some of the most seasoned US politicians to reach the White House, however, it can surely be argued that experience of elected office might at the very least be over-rated. With confidence in all politicians so dismal, and living standards in low-growth first-world economies stalling, someone with a different sort of experience, different methods and different ideas might just have some new answers.
Like it or not, Trump certainly has business acumen. Successful businesspeople also tend to choose staff and advisers well. Trump could turn out to be a far better deal-maker than Obama with Congress. And something similar could apply abroad. Whatever anyone says, Trump is not ignorant - of his own country or the world. He just knows different things, from a different perspective – one that is perhaps closer to that of many ordinary Americans today.
And while he may not have many well-developed policies – “fuzziness” is a word used by his critics - he has taken positions on a string of issues. On income tax, he would lower it for the rich, but abolish it for those on less than $25,000 a year. He is for the status quo on retirement benefits (social security). On the vexed question of health insurance, he wants more competition. On defence, he wants a bit more spending, but adamantly opposes military intervention abroad unless vital US interests are threatened. He says allies should pay their way and Nato is outdated. Not only does none of this sound outlandish, most of it chimes very well with the mid-point of American opinion. He is also more socially liberal and less extreme than his rivals and his reputation in some quarters would suggest.
Which, of course, might increase his appeal to those Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders - and make him more dangerous to Hillary Clinton. It is true that those who know about such things say the US electoral college system makes it nigh impossible for Clinton to lose the presidency, but the reliability or otherwise of opinion polling should caution against undue confidence.
It is also worth considering how much, for all his self-promotion, we do not yet know Donald Trump. A recent letter to the Financial Times cast him in a different light. A lawyer who had encountered him as a witness in court said this: “He testified in a calm and soft-spoken way that was lucid, intelligent and always precisely to the point. My abiding memory is of a very gifted and thoughtful man who had earned whatever success he had attained ... by his intelligence and acumen.”
Stand by, then. We may see a very different Donald Trump in the months to come. It might even be a Trump we could imagine, if not supporting, then at least as someone we could do business with.
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