The British don’t as a rule pay very much attention to U.S. politics, except in election years. I doubt that most Brits could name the vice president or the secretary of state, much less the chief justice of the Supreme Court or the speaker of the House. But 2016 was different. Until June, we were transfixed by our own revolution, as we voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union. Then came the Republican convention in July, and suddenly something that had once seemed impossible was happening: Donald Trump was the GOP nominee for president.
Still, the received wisdom, of which our own experience with Brexit should have made us wary, remained clear: Hillary Clinton would win the election. There was talk of Clinton carrying 40 states, dealing Republicans and their unelectable candidate a crushing defeat. How could it be otherwise? Trump had never held elected office, had never served in the military, and had built his fame on a famously vulgar reality-TV show and business empire. The idea of President Trump was so ludicrous it had even been parodied on The Simpsons. Then it happened.
Even now, months on from the election, I suspect a lot of people in the U.K. haven’t really taken it in: President Donald Trump. It’s not a joke, nor a hoax, nor a figment of the imagination. It’s reality, and politicians on this side of the pond would be well advised to come to terms with it quickly, because denial isn’t an option. Theresa May, after getting relations with the new administration off to a slightly embarrassing start, has announced she will meet Trump in the spring, having gently rebuffed the suggestion that she should appoint the effervescent Nigel Farage, former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, as her ambassador to Washington. No doubt the incumbent envoy, Sir Kim Darroch, has been given the same instruction as was given to his predecessor Christopher Meyer in the Bush years: “We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there.”
How should the British body politic react to the reality of a Trump presidency? It is not a simple party-line issue. Certainly, Labour was hoping for and expecting a Clinton victory, but not all Tories backed the GOP. One senior Conservative MP, Sir Simon Burns, is a passionate Clintonista with Democratic links going back as far as his work on George McGovern’s doomed presidential campaign in 1972. Commentators have identified a common current of discontent with the status quo underlying Brexit and the Trump victory, but that discontent leads in opposite directions: Trump is a protectionist through and through, whereas the U.K.’s departure from the European Union is posited by its proponents as an embrace of the wider world of free trade.
There is some coincidence of belief on immigration. Trump, of course, wants to build his wall on the border with Mexico, and those campaigning for Leave in the U.K. played heavily on dissatisfaction with immigration levels. David Cameron had promised to bring the net inflow of people down to the tens of thousands and failed spectacularly. (It is conveniently forgotten by the new regime that one Prime Minister May was in charge of the U.K.’s immigration policy under Cameron.)
Of course, any discussion of Anglo-American relations hinges on the much-vaunted “special relationship.” By now, I think, the British attach more importance to it than do the Americans, and it can, from time to time, make us look like rather embarrassing supplicants. But the current U.K. government is — very significantly — evoking the era of Margaret Thatcher, whose relationships with first Reagan and then George H. W. Bush seemed much more balanced.
One difficulty I think British politicians have in understanding and coming to terms with the Trump presidency is that such a thing couldn’t happen here. Our leaders are chosen from the members of the House of Commons, and there is no way for someone whose celebrity is built on non-political foundations to short-circuit that system. As it happens, the figurehead of the U.K.’s version of The Apprentice, Alan Sugar, is a member of the House of Lords, but he won’t be forming an administration any time soon. It would be very easy for us Brits to adopt the rather patronizing view of Trump as the triumphant product of the West’s vacuous celebrity culture, an unqualified man with a public persona and considerable wealth taking to politics as if it was just another game show. But that would be a mistake, particularly for those British politicians who will now have to deal with him.
How should the British body politic react to the reality of a Trump presidency? It is not a simple party-line issue.
How, then, to react? Our foreign secretary, Boris Johnson — like Trump, a native of New York — has been to D.C. to meet the incoming Congress, though he has not yet had a face-to-face meeting with the newly inaugurated president. The initial signs coming from the higher echelons of the Republican party are positive for the U.K. Trump has said that he supports Brexit, and that — quite unlike it was under President Obama — Britain will be at the front of the queue when it comes to striking a trade deal. Trump seems to favor bilateral agreements over multi-party arrangements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so his instincts might well fit in with British policy.
NATO is a different matter. The U.K. has long been a passionate advocate of the Atlantic alliance, and we are one of the five member states that spend more than the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP on defense. British politicians have always resisted European efforts toward military integration because they would weaken NATO. Trump, by contrast, is at best a NATO skeptic, and has even called into question Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all. It is no small irony, given Trump’s reservations about America’s Article 5 commitments, that the provision was first invoked after the U.S. was attacked on 9/11. The British government will have to play two different games if NATO is to continue to be a success: persuading the Trump administration, on the one hand, that the alliance is a vital part of the West’s collective security, especially in the face of Russian expansionism, while convincing European members states, on the other hand, that they must shoulder a greater proportion of the financial burden than they have until now. The idea that European countries are getting a free ride on defense is a persuasive one in Washington, all the more so for having a considerable grain of truth to it.
Trump and May are unlikely to be a Reagan and Thatcher for the 2010s, whatever parallels we on this side of the Atlantic choose to draw. But it is not impossible to see the bare bones of a revitalized special relationship between two conservative, nativist leaders: bilateral trade, support for domestic industries, tighter controls on immigration. Much will depend on what sort of conservative President Trump turns out to be. If politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, Trump surely campaigned in rather crude limericks. Will his administration be more measured, more sedate, more considered? Critically, how will he cooperate with the congressional arm of the Republican party, many of whom never wanted him as their candidate in the first place?
All of this matters a great deal for the U.K. As we begin to disengage from the European Union, we need friends more than ever. It may be that, after Brexit, the English Channel starts to seem rather wider than the Atlantic. So Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and their colleagues must make a success of the U.K.’s relationship with Trump. Otherwise, they may find themselves fired like so many Apprentice contestants of yore.