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The UK and US’ Turbulent Times: A Race to the Bottom

Former British diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall, who now lives in the US, explores which country has been on the bigger self-destruct mission

Former President Donald Trump at the 56th annual Silver Elephant Gala in Columbia, America, in August 2023. Photo: Artie Walker Jr/AP/Alamy

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And the prize for most insane nation goes to?

One of the perennial topics of debate between my American and British friends is which of our countries is in more trouble. 

In 2016, we were all too complacent. Most of my British friends and colleagues thought the UK could not be daft enough to vote to leave the EU. Most of my American friends were horrified by Donald Trump and repeatedly assured me that American voters were smart enough to see through him. 

I started worrying in spring 2016. A British Minister visiting Tbilisi told me that the Brexit referendum was going to be a very close call.  In May, Trump secured enough delegates to secure his nomination as the Republican candidate, though this did not become official until the party convention in July. 

Still, my American friends assured me it was inconceivable that Trump could win the presidency, especially when up against such a qualified candidate as Hillary Clinton.

So, it was we British who first seemed to be heading into serious trouble, when the Leave Campaign won the Brexit referendum. However, the US quickly overtook us in the madness stakes, a few months later, when the inconceivable happened, and Donald Trump won the election. 

We still hoped things would not get too bad. 

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, seemed a conscientious sort, who might try to deliver Brexit in sensible fashion. Donald Trump appointed some decent officials to his Administration, such as General Mattis as his Secretary of Defense. We hoped both leaders would rise to the responsibilities of their office.

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But then, in her first major speech on Brexit, May declared she would end freedom of movement, automatically limiting options for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. She then prematurely invoked Article 50 in early 2017, setting the clock running on negotiations before her government had an agreed strategy. She compounded her difficulties by unwisely calling an early election, which wiped out her parliamentary majority, and left her dependent on DUP votes. 

In the US, Trump gave an inflammatory inauguration speech, made the first of his many lies as President by exaggerating the size of his inauguration crowd, and immediately signed a controversial measure to restrict immigration from Muslim-majority countries. In August 2017, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides. 

The title for country on the most self-destructive path has gone back and forth several times since then. May’s disastrous premiership was followed by the dishonest, disruptive, disorderly administration of Boris Johnson, and his conclusion of a Brexit deal on disastrous terms for the UK. Incredibly, things became even worse under the ruinous premiership of Liz Truss, which tanked our economy.  

Things initially seemed to settle down when Rishi Sunak took over, especially after he concluded the Windsor Framework deal. But now he too appears to have drunk the Kool Aid, and, like his predecessors, started pandering to the extremists in his party – rowing back on climate change commitments, readying to fight the next election on cultural hot topics such as gender identity, immigration, and the environment, and even suggesting a willingness to defy international law in dealing with migrants arriving on small boats in the UK.

I have absolutely no doubt that in the run-up to the next general election the Conservatives will also irresponsibly threaten to withdraw the UK from the European Court of Human Rights, to try to rally the same sentiment about “taking back control” which won them Brexit, never mind the consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, or the UK’s international reputation. 

Nevertheless, through the Trump years, the US fought hard to retain the title of “most insane” nation.  Trump cosied up to dictators like Putin and Kim Jong Il, disparaged allies, withdrew from the Paris Accords and the Iran nuclear deal, hired and fired officials at whim, and raged on twitter. The nadir came with his extraordinary efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and incitement of the mob which assaulted Capitol Hill on January 6th 2021. 

Unfortunately, in the same brand of cowardice which has pervaded the UK, the Republicans wimped on their chance to remove Trump from the political arena altogether, by failing to vote in sufficient numbers to impeach him after the January 6th insurrection. Nevertheless, their decision to certify Biden’s victory seemed to suggest that they had not lost all sense of constitutional propriety. 

So by 2021, while the Brits were still stuck with Brexit, the Americans, so it seemed, had course corrected. 

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With the latest media circus around Trump, the jury is out again.

In the UK, polls suggest British voters have had enough of the Tories and their populist gimmickry. Assuming they win the next election, though still denying the full costs of Brexit, Labour is at least expected to try to put relations with the EU back on a more constructive footing, rebuild cooperation, and restore more propriety to public office.  

But in the US, astonishingly, despite the mounting number of legal cases against him, Trump is once again the frontrunner to win the Republican nomination. Indeed, the more legal jeopardy he faces, the more successfully he seems able to spin this as proof of an establishment “witchhunt” and drive up his support.

While Trump’s extreme record will put off centrist voters in the general election, the likely Democrat candidate, Joe Biden, cannot take victory for granted, given increasing public concern about his mental and physical health, and doubts about his Vice President, Kamala Harris. The election campaign is likely to be very ugly, and possibly even violent. 

The one clear difference between the UK and the US is that, whereas in the UK, our political mess primarily only harms ourselves, political dysfunction in the US will harm the whole world. 

The barrage of legal cases against Trump may ultimately prove his downfall. Or, Trump may decide to quit the Presidential race of his own volition. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that if Trump somehow manages to come back into office, not only will American democracy be in peril, but the whole international order which British and American leaders put in place to secure the peace after World War II.  

As President, Trump will stack his administration with yes men, and wreak untold harm on the US constitution, including by exacting vengeance on his perceived enemies, especially within the US justice system. Internationally, he will argue with partners in NATO, ignore the UN, slow efforts to address climate change, and probably sell out Ukraine to Putin, emboldening dictators everywhere. 

The best we can hope for is that if Trump wins the Presidency, the Democrats somehow cling on to at least one of the Chambers of Congress, to provide some restraint on his behaviour. But that will almost certainly guarantee more political gridlock and dysfunction. The same is true if the Democrats retain the Presidency, but the Republicans hold on to at least part of Congress.

The stakes could not be higher. 

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