Last summer, the crowds in the fields at Glastonbury music festival, in England, filmed themselves chanting ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’. It was a tribute to the left-wing leader of the Labour opposition, and the fashionable political statement of the summer. This year, there’s no Glastonbury — those fields lie fallow — and Corbynmania suddenly feels very 2017. Britain’s Instagram-addled middle classes are eager for a substitute form of mass entertainment dressed up as radicalism. How else do you stay cool and smug in this hot weather?
The answer, apparently, is to join the protests against Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States, as he visits Britain next week. Britain’s ‘Stop Trump’ campaign has been busy organising a ‘carnival of resistance’, and it looks as if they’ll put on one hell of a virtue show. Perhaps the most ludicrous proposal is to have a specially made Trump Baby, a six-metre-tall inflatable blimp of the President as an infant wearing a nappy, to float high and huge above him.
It’s hilarious, and if you don’t laugh you must be a fascist. ‘Taking the piss is one of the few areas where Britain still leads the world,’ says Leo Murray, the activist behind the prank.
Hundreds of thousands are expected to throng the streets of London next Friday. The idea is to humiliate Trump for being a right-wing bigot and to show, as the campaign website says, that ‘his rhetoric of hate and divisiveness isn’t accepted here’.
It won’t work. It will cost the government millions. Worse, it will be counterproductive. All the demonstration will really demonstrate is how very little our best-educated, most privileged citizens and young people actually think about their actions at all.
At its crudest, the anti-Trump demo might be thought of as punishment — an attempt to make a dent in the Trumpian ego. But if Britain’s Stop Trumpers really believe they can send Trump a message, they are mistaken. Donald Trump doesn’t really care. And even if his pride is successfully wounded, then what? Will he see the error of his divisive ways? Will his American supporters suddenly realise what a huge embarrassment their President is, and repent by hammering his party in the upcoming mid-terms in November?
The Stop Trumpers can’t be that thick. They must know, deep down, that the President’s political success is in large part due to the apoplexy he induces in those who think he is ‘unacceptable’. Lots of people in America and even Britain like him precisely because the sort of people who go to trendy music festivals loathe him. So why play into his notoriously small hands? Why would people who claim to believe in unity be so needlessly polarising?
Next week, as the BBC shows endless footage of protesters filling up central London, it’ll be worth remembering that most Britons are saner than the Stop -Trumpers. We can distinguish between the office of the presidency and the man himself. We might not like him, but we see the need not to insult the Commander-in-Chief of our greatest ally. Most citizens understand that when we extricate ourselves from the European Union, we will need Trump on our side whether we like it or not. That ‘beautiful’ post-Brexit US-UK trade deal he offered us may turn out to be hot air, but it would be foolish to alienate him. Still, maybe that’s the point: most Stop Trump celebrities — Lily Allen, Gary Lineker, Bianca Jagger et al — are ardent Remainers. They would probably rather not have the most powerful man on the planet in our Brexit corner.
Britain’s Stop Trumpers prefer to see themselves as part of a global coalition against right-wing populism, as well as partners of the anti-Trump resistance in America. They are right to think that the many Americans who loathe Trump will appreciate their London protests. But the Stop Trumpers ignore the even larger numbers of Americans who will, if they notice at all, see only a bunch of self-righteous limeys dissing their President — and feel slightly aggrieved. To them, an anti-Trump carnival will only prove their President’s big foreign policy point: America’s Nato allies don’t respect their country.
In the days leading up to the visit, Theresa May and Trump will be at the Nato summit in Brussels. The Prime Minister and other leaders will be spending large amounts of diplomatic capital trying to persuade Trump to remain committed to the western alliance. A huge Trump protest in London could undo any progress on that front, especially if the President is as capricious as his enemies make out. Are all those -celebrity anti-Trumpers really so sure they want to dismantle Nato? Have they thought about that at all?
The truth is that none of this much matters to the Stop Trump movement. It’s just too boring to think sensibly about long-term consequences when there is so much fun to be had. Across the country, anti-Trump banners and placards are being lovingly stitched and drawn. A special LGBQT drag protest is being put on. A ‘Dump the Trump’ beer, brewed in New Zealand, has been shipped over so everybody can get drunk as well as political (it’s hard to be one without the other, especially in July).
Anti-Trumpism is about feelings more than politics. Leo, the man behind the Trump Baby blimp, says that he cried (not unlike a baby) on the Tube the morning President Trump was elected. He’s now determined to take his — and Britain’s — revenge. ‘As Trump Baby swells and begins to ascend to the sky above Westminster, our spirits will be lifted,’ he says. ‘What could have been a day of infamy for Britain instead becomes a day of national pride and unity.’
Unfortunately for Leo, health and safety are even more important in modern Britain than pride and unity, and piss-taking. Mayor Sadiq Khan’s office has ruled that the blimp may not fly over Parliament. That must be particularly galling for protesters, since Khan, having pulled quite a few anti-Trump stunts himself, is supposed to be on their side. Leo has duly set up another petition (just shy of 10,000 signatures as I write) asking the Mayor to reconsider.
It’s safe to say that Trump Baby will appear in the skies next week one way or another, and Britain’s anti-Trumpists will hail him as a triumph of hope over hate, one in the eye for the nasty American right. But most Brits will just be a bit embarrassed.
The French aren’t exactly Trump fans, but they understand better than us that diplomacy is about more than emotion. That’s why, while our government was trying to figure out a way of inviting President Trump without triggering mass protests, the then newly elected President Emmanuel Macron stole a march on Britain and rolled out the reddest of carpets for him and his wife for Bastille Day. The French barely complained. The Parisian media seemed more interested in complimenting Melania Trump’s fashion sense than in signalling their contempt for her husband.
Britain would benefit from showing such tact, but recent history suggests there’s little chance of that. British progressives have long felt entitled, even duty-bound, to shout our disgust at American Republicans, and invariably it backfires. Remember the Guardian’s ‘Operation Clark County’? In 2004, the then G2 editor Ian Katz had a brainwave. He asked his paper’s readers to write letters to the voters of Clark County in Ohio, a crucial swing state in the presidential election, urging them to vote for John Kerry over George W. Bush.
The campaign generated a strong backlash among the US electorate. The reaction was so ferocious, in fact, that the Guardian felt compelled to scrap it. They did so after publishing some letters from angry Americans. A favourite: ‘Real Americans aren’t interested in your pansy-ass, tea–sipping opinions. If you want to save the world, begin with your own worthless corner of it.’ George W. Bush duly won Ohio, and a second term in office. That really is funny.
Fast forward to 2016, and we quickly established ourselves as world leaders in anti-Trumpism. On 18 January of that year, six months before Trump had even won his party’s nomination, 40 of our elected representatives had already taken part in a spectacularly fatuous three-hour parliamentary debate over whether or not Britain should ban him for having said he would ban Muslims. The story was picked up in the American media and, sure enough, did nothing to stop Trump surging in the polls.
For all the anti-Trump grandstanding, his visit had to happen. America and Britain are great allies, however you look at it; we can’t just not invite the President of the United States for four or eight years because a lot of people don’t like him. But our government remains cowed in the face of the noisy Stop Trump coalition. No. 10 has labelled next week a ‘working visit’ rather than a state one, and has been more eager than usual to keep the itinerary under wraps for fear that the protests will get out of control.
That’s not good enough for the Stop Trumpers. In January, immediately after it was announced that the Trump visit was back on, the campaign group 38 Degrees sent out an email asking for more signatures to urge the government to cancel the visit: ‘If 150,000 more of us sign the petition today — before Trump’s team even has the chance to book his plane tickets — we’ll take it straight to No. 10 tomorrow.’
It’s hard to say what is more asinine, the idea that yet another stupid online petition should prevent Trump coming to these shores, or the thought that the President of the United States needs plane tickets to come to Britain.
Anyway, it’s no use pointing out the silliness of Britain’s ‘resistance’. It’s futile arguing that Britain has honoured far more unsavoury leaders on state visits — Robert Mugabe, for instance, or Turkey’s President Erdogan just a few weeks ago.
Because Trump protesting isn’t really about Trump: it’s about telling the world that you aren’t a racist, sexist transgenderphobe like that man in the White House. In America, protesting against the President has become ‘the new brunch’ — a pastime for privileged people, in other words. In the UK, something similar has happened. Bourgeois values triumph everywhere. Next year, the Glasto Festival will be back on and there’ll be plenty of Brexit-related issues to be glib about. In 2018, though, demonstrating how much you hate Trump will show how much you love humanity, and sod the national interest.