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Trumpland in Brexitannia: hands across the ocean?

10 November 2016

America’s rage revolution echoes Britain’s referendum uprising. But does it bring the old allies closer?


Rewriting the contract: London’s Evening Standard reports Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election, with the UK Houses of Parliament in the background. Matt Dunham/AP Photo

Rewriting the contract: London’s Evening Standard reports Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election, with the UK Houses of Parliament in the background. Matt Dunham/AP Photo

When it was confirmed, early on Wednesday morning local time, that Donald Trump was to be the forty-fifth president of the United States, the response from the government in London was one of practised formality. Theresa May, just back from India and her first venture in post-Brexit trade diplomacy, made the obligatory reference to the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States based on the values of “freedom, democracy and enterprise.” Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, having days before received a frosty welcome in Berlin from his counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said that he was “much looking forward to working with [the Trump] administration on global stability and prosperity.”

Such pleasantries aside, rolling overnight results from Michigan, Florida and Ohio were ingredients of a shock as great – including for Boris the Brexiteer – as had been the referendum on leaving the European Union. In both countries, citizens have now rewritten the political contract while keeping the new terms in their hands. Even the emotional rhythms of the voting count were similar, with early uplift for the Remain/Hillary Clinton camps soon downcast by unmistakable signals of an insurgent wave. Months of tight polls, the evidence of Clinton’s own unpopularity, and that Brexit precedent might have taught the political class and Hillary-by-default media to be less complacent. But well before winter’s late dawn broke, it was clear that Make America Great Again was the new Take Back Control: each slogan a deadly encapsulation of the hunger for change gripping millions of voters.

The Brexit parallel is compelling, not least because that “we-the-people” moment had a visible impact on the presidential race, cited by the media as evidence that the popular reclamation of democracy from elites was now a global trend, and by Trump’s supporters as an example to follow. The great differences between American and British systems of government can often make comparisons look strained; now, shaking hands across the Atlantic in a rare special relationship from below, the enraged and marginalised of both countries have collapsed them.

Alan Johnson, a centre-left British intellectual, analyses the darker aspects of the “collapse in deference” in a prescient New York Times article published on voting day: “Many people – enough to transform politics as we have known it – feel this system to be simply intolerable. Despairing that the sunlit promises made to them will ever come true, they now seek to turn the whole thing upside down, however they may.”

Among the London proprietors of that system, minds and machinery are whirring. Britain’s governing class has just begun to realise how all-consuming will be the challenge of withdrawing from the European Union, in constitutional as well as policy terms. The process itself, still in its infancy, is already facing legal tests at home and political ones from its European soon-to-be-ex-partners. Brexitannia now needs dependable and consistent allies, and in London that still means Washington above all. Instead, along with the rest of the world, it has got gnawing uncertainty.

It’s true that the vaunted “special relationship” has long been as much rhetorical crutch as strategic reality, notwithstanding the close security cooperation embodied in the Five Eyes intelligence network (of which Australia, Canada and New Zealand are also members) and the NATO military alliance. This very month is the sixtieth anniversary of the Suez crisis, when Britain’s duplicity in Egypt led Dwight Eisenhower to expose its residual imperial pretensions. Periodic tensions have erupted in the decades since. More recently, Barack Obama’s approach to the crises in Libya, Russia and Syria has proved unsettling. To many in London, a potential Hillary administration promised, if not a return to some imaginary gold standard of transatlantic solidarity, then much-needed focus and momentum in a geopolitical environment suddenly overflowing with risks. Instead they got Donald Trump, and all bets are off.

Under a Hillary presidency, the shape of America’s foreign, security and defence policies could at least be calibrated, if a little less so its decisions on trade and currency. Her international experience and outlook made a “pivot to the world” near certain. In a disintegrating global order, the symbolism of that message would itself have been powerful, even if a more active stance carried unavoidable counter-risks. But all that is now a future that never was. As Lesley Russell says, “the world has become a darker place.”

By contrast, Trump’s persona as revealed in the election race – demagogic, coarse, bullying, incurious, relentlessly self-regarding – has carried him into the Oval Office without revealing much about how he will perform the role, manage his schedule, handle diplomacy, relate to his team, or handle crises. How, if at all, his alarming declarations on foreign affairs will translate into policy is also unclear. “Everything is negotiable,” he has said, in the context of immigration.

In this sense, it is the disruptive uncertainty he creates around him, rather than the extravagant certitude of his views at every given moment, which is the more worrying. He could in principle switch on big issues in an instant, Rodrigo Duterte–like, just as his first post-election comments were conciliatory to his opponents. But that only means anything if, beyond the day’s me-me-me showmanship, there is a there to be found there.

All this makes the implications of a Trump presidency for the US’s global imprint hard to assess. Evan Osnos, who gathers expert insight in a fine New Yorker article, writes that Trump “doesn’t depart from three core principles: in his view, America is doing too much to try to solve the world’s problems; trade agreements are damaging the country; and immigrants are detrimental to it.”

Osnos also says that Trump “has always been most comfortable on the home front, with domestic policy.” Immigration and trade, however, are but two of many areas where the domestic and foreign are intertwined. Even if the election, like Brexit, was a cry against globalisation, an “America first” outlook can’t be pursued inside the US alone. Brexitannia is already finding that its choice entails more engagement with the world, not less.

Some who operate on both sides see opportunity in these linked experiences. Before the referendum, Barack Obama gave David Cameron’s pro-EU cause a plug by saying Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for trade deals if it chose to leave. Now, “Anglosphere” voices in the government, most prominently the international trade secretary Liam Fox, are pushing hard towards early bilateral trade talks all round, with the US and Australia prime targets. In turn, Australian trade minister Steven Ciobo recently made sympathetic noises in London. A Trump presidency that made Britain an exception to its trade-deal stance would find the door open. But would that suit its more militant supporters?

Britain’s broader position, in political rather than security terms, will be more provisional. May’s government is under close invigilation by the press for any weakening of its commitment to a full (or “hard”) Brexit, and the prime minister herself has been tonally careless over immigration. But any kinship with Trump is confined to UKIP’s Nigel Farage and the populist right, along with a left-contrarian coterie. At present, Trump is as unpopular here as anywhere.

There is one place (still) in the UK where he did find a welcome. When known only for his wealth, hair, flamboyance and TV persona, Trump became a frequent visitor to Scotland on account of his plans to build golf courses in the country. That led to yet another special accord, with Scotland’s then first minister, the pro-independence Alex Salmond. The amicable collision of two bombastic figures ended in inevitable acrimony. Trump’s Scottish connections are personal: his mother, a Gaelic-speaker from the island of Lewis, emigrated to New York in 1930. He has made one very brief visit to her former home, where local people (including distant cousins) are as reticent about the link as they are appreciative of support from his older sister Maryanne, a federal judge.

Trump’s victory, however, does twitch a conceit lurking in the psyche of Britain’s mandarin class: the notion that in strained times the older country’s diplomatic wisdom can leaven its powerful ally, and play Greece to Washington’s Rome. It worked as balm when Harold Macmillan became prime minister after the Suez disaster and worked with Eisenhower and then JFK. Now that former secretary of state Dean Acheson’s acid judgement of 1962, “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role,” is again relevant, a show of good relations with Trump’s America will be encouraging.

Every other government, of course, will be making similar calculations and seeking leverage, while trying to work out how deep is the crisis of politics, of democracy, of media, of trust and of “this system.” That Trump’s election, the most spectacular upset in the modern history of democracy, closes the historical cycle that began in 1989 is plausible. Ivan Krastev, recalling Eric Hobsbawm’s periodisation of modern history, once provocatively suggested that 9/11 marked the end of “the short twenty-first century” begun by the fall of communism. It might in retrospect have been the near-halfway point.

In this wider context, British government trade hopes and even Donald Trump’s domestic agenda could prove to be lesser concerns. “All the world is changing at once,” said Winston Churchill in 1911. Even with the best leadership money can buy, the next years would have been supremely perilous. But she lost. The air in Europe has turned chilly, and it’s not just the weather. •

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