Today
Sat 23 January 2021

Taking in Theresa May, Brexit, immigration, Boris Johnson, cronyism and more, Jonathan Lis considers how four years of the Donald Trump presidency also transformed politics in the UK

The American people have the opportunity to bring down the curtain on four years of outrages, obscenities and political crimes. These have become so routine that we have almost numbed ourselves to them. And yet, each day, Donald Trump has said or done something which was unthinkable under any presidency which preceded him.

But what has not been much discussed is how this has shaped and infected the rest of the world. Specifically, how a doctrine of permanent disruption and dishonesty provided a model and cover for copycat behaviour in the world’s most shameless populists – from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Boris Johnson.

What have the past four years meant, not for America, but for Britain?


Emboldened Leaders

The past four years have seen the wholesale Trumpification of Britain’s political and social discourse. The trigger for this was Brexit, but Brexit alone did not inject such ugliness into our body politic: Trump has provided the cover for its pervasion and helped enable it.

Johnson would almost certainly have become Prime Minister even if Trump had not won the US Presidential Election in 2016, but the President offered him something incalculable – a prototype and norm for governing.

From the moment Trump was elected, Johnson declared himself a fan. In contrast to the guarded, sombre remarks of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President François Hollande, Johnson – then the UK’s Foreign Secretary – praised Trump as a “deal maker” and decried the “whinge-o-rama” over his victory. Where others saw the dangers of a volatile, ignorant, demonstrably far-right leader of the free world, Johnson saw an opportunity.

There are, of course, differences between Johnson and Trump.

Johnson is genuinely intelligent and knowledgeable and, despite his history of racist comments, he has not, as Prime Minister, invoked racist tropes as nakedly or unashamedly. He has, when forced, accepted the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic in a way Trump never has. But there the differences end.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomes US President Donald Trump at the annual NATO Leaders Summit in December 2019

Both men are narcissistic showmen who will say or do anything to get what they want. Neither shows even the faintest compunction about compulsively lying or actively harming their citizens.

But it didn’t start with Johnson. The first Trumpian Prime Minister was in fact Theresa May, who refused to denounce Trump’s early outrages and set the tone for three years of craven subservience. She actively aped his style with the meaningless nationalism of the “red, white and blue Brexit”, the repudiation of “citizens of nowhere”, the attempted power grabs from Parliament, and her assumption that her interest and the country’s were always the same thing. She even reflected his paranoia in an extraordinary outburst on the steps of Downing Street shortly before the 2017 General Election, in which she accused the EU of trying to influence the result.

May made sure that she was the first global leader to visit Trump in the White House in 2017. Desperate for a trade deal, or anything to compensate for Britain’s collapsing reputation, she actively pursued him as an economic and political partner.

“Of course I trust him, we have a special relationship,” she declared in 2018, the year Trump humiliated her in a newspaper interview on the day she hosted him at Chequers. And in 2019 she forced the Queen to welcome him on a state visit, offered at unprecedented haste, in the desperate hope of a quid pro quo that never came.

There was no special relationship. Shortly after the state visit, Trump’s outburst at the British Ambassador, Kim Darroch, proved this beyond doubt. Johnson, then a candidate to lead the Conservatives, pointedly refused to support Darroch – effectively siding with Trump.

It is inconceivable that the Government would have launched its assault on the Civil Service, the media, the judiciary and Remainers if Hillary Clinton had been President. It is inconceivable that the Government would have issued Trump-like condemnations of MPs or boycotted major broadcasters. May would not, perhaps, have stood silently by while elected politicians described Remainers as traitors or, in the case of one councillor, called on them to be hanged.

What May started, Johnson finished.

On one infamous night in Parliament in September 2019, the Prime Minister repeatedly invoked the ‘Surrender Act’, described getting Brexit done as the best tribute to an MP murdered on its altar, and mocked and jeered her colleagues when they described their own death threats and pleaded with him to moderate his language.

It is not simply about discourse but tactics. The approach legitimised by Trump has emboldened his British admirers into action.

There was the Government’s industrial misinformation campaign about Brexit, both during and after negotiations, culminating in a breach of international law to conceal the project’s reality.

There was the alleged corruption. The UK Government has refused to investigate Russian interference, and now stands accused of handing hundreds of millions of pounds in private contracts to friends and Conservative donors in a direct parallel of Trump’s cronyism.

Above all, we have seen the same unending attack on our democratic principles and institutions. Johnson’s obsession with silencing opponents and stifling dissent culminated in the unlawful prorogation of Parliament. That outrage was stopped by the courts, but the instinct to seize power was not.

The Prime Minister has demonstrated that our unwritten constitution is only as good as the gentlemen agreeing to implement it. Both he and Trump have pushed their powers as far as they will go, and then further still, indulged by the belief – both political and personal – that they are untouchable and can therefore do whatever they like.


A Worthless Alliance

The EU Referendum took place before Trump’s election, but hinged on his world-view: a rejection of experts and the liberal consensus, the severing of global alliances, and the enthusiastic promotion of nativist exceptionalism.

Both Trump and the Conservatives have cloaked protectionism in the language of free trade. The only real difference is that Trump has valued and boasted about the economy.

The narrative of Brexit has closely mirrored the language of ‘America First’, but none of the political reality.

The United States is a superpower and the United Kingdom is not. For all their deference to the US, Brexiters imagined that they could imitate it – never appreciating that Britain was smaller and less powerful than the EU as well as the US, and that in the world of trade deals ‘America First’ would mean just that. While both May and Johnson’s governments have advertised their willingness to leave the table in Brussels, they have never dared threaten it in Washington – and fail to grasp how that could ever constitute ‘taking back control’.

Here, then, is Trump’s legacy. A Brexit he encouraged and lauded has made the US Britain’s only real world ally, and the alliance is worth almost nothing. No trade deal can compensate for a shattered democracy or reputation, and there is no guarantee of a trade deal even if Trump wins. If he loses, meanwhile, Britain will stand alone and exposed: the last redoubt of Trumpism, but without Trump.

The UK didn’t need to tie itself to Trump’s policies or politics. It was a choice. This week, in turn, presents a new choice: to rediscover the alliances and approaches which served Britain so successfully for more than 70 years.

The Trump coup was almost as much Britain’s as it was America’s. Now the American people can help extinguish, not one nationalist revolution, but two.


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