Never mind the polls, British Conservative insiders are more terrified about something else at the moment. The Donald is coming. Black Friday has been followed by Orange Monday in London, as the US president touches down again in Great Britain ahead of another Nato summit.
Trump is, we all know, a news-cycle hurricane. What havoc might he wreak this time? One disastrous Trump quote, the Tories fear, could blow Boris Johnson’s chances of a majority away.
Well, yes but no. What the Westminster bubbleheads don’t realize is that most British people will be relishing — even if we don’t admit it — the arrival of Trump the human-wrecking-ball just days before a general election. Politics may be a serious business — important people like Stormzy tell us — but these days people don’t take it that seriously. We want entertainment. We want LOLs. That’s where Trump comes in.
What might he do? Will he tell us what a great guy Prince Andrew is? (‘I met him at Jeffrey Epstein’s…I’m kidding. Oh boy, I shouldn’t say that..’) Will he start slagging off the National Health Service (‘People tell me it’s for sale’)? Will he fantasize about turning hospitals into spa hotels? Nobody knows. That’s Trump: he’s an improvisational performance artist. And even if you can’t stand him you must admit the act is funny.
My colleague Toby Young has written a typically excellent column this week about the left-wing politicization of pantomimes, and he’s right. Yet a more dramatic (and hilarious) phenomenon is the pantomimization of politics. We don’t want to hear about policy. We want villains to boo and laugh at.
He may not be aware of the British Christmas pantomime tradition, but Trump is perfectly cast for it. He is farcical by nature, and his experience in TV and WWE has taught him that people don’t want boring reality. They want to jeer and cheer and howl at absurdity. Why did the president post a picture of his head photoshopped on to the body of Rocky Balboa yesterday? Because it’s funny. He knew po-faced journalists would insist on pointing out that the image was in fact ‘doctored’, which makes it even funnier.
Perhaps Trump’s greatest strength is that he appreciates (or intuits) the role of social media in modern life and the way it makes us all the participating audience in the divine comedy of human affairs. We now react together to events live online. All the world’s a stage and we are the noisy crowd. Trump just hams it up for our amusement.
We can feel passionate about politics, but that’s an act too. On Tuesday, three million of us watched Andrew Neil’s big interview with Jeremy Corbyn. We discovered, among other things, that Corbyn would tax the lower paid more, but what were the real highlights? Wasn’t it watching the Labour leader squirm over and over: ‘Andrew.. Andrew.’ Did we not really enjoy, in a vaudeville way, feeling outraged at his refusal to apologize for Labour’s anti-Semitism? Booooo! Booooo!
This is why, in their nervousness around the general election, the Tories are making a big mistake. In Boris Johnson, they have a pantomime genius, a man of great comic timing and wit. He’s as funny as Trump and less objectionable (unless you are sitting in the deadhead Corbynista stalls). Focus-group analysts probably say that the prime minister’s clownishness doesn’t play well, so his advisers make him tuck his tie into his shirt when touring hospitals. He forces himself to look earnest wherever he goes, which is in itself funny. He wants to show he cares. But in this age of LOLitics, nobody cares if you care.
Boris should lean in, as they say, and join the farce. Rather than running away from Trump, as he did last time the president visited London, he should try to meet him in public. Boris is, as David Cameron pointed out, the only politician who can get stuck on a zipwire and not ruin his career. That’s because, like Trump, Boris has the guts not to take himself too seriously. Voters quite like that
Never mind the PR banana skins. Give the crowd what they want.