View of the Swamp from Across the Pond
As the U.K. barrels toward Brexit, Trump provides Britain with another bizarre spectacle.
Almost every BBC television news bulletin starts these days with a picture of your president signing his name on an executive order. One gets the impression of a man continually — and with a flourish — signing “Donald J. Trump,” over and over again, and perhaps never having time to write or read or do anything else. He casts a long shadow, but, of course, we have other things on our minds here, too.
Here in England, we have just had two by-elections. Labour managed to pull off a win in Stoke but lost decisively to the Tories in Copeland. Neither constituency has a large immigrant population, yet immigration was seen as a vital issue in both races. We have a Prime Minister, Theresa May, who literally held hands with Trump and invited him to Buckingham Palace much earlier in his reign than she needed to. Her version of Brexit prioritises control of immigration over the health of the economy and dispenses with possibilities of cooperation with other European countries.
Worst of all, we have no concerted opposition to this madness in Parliament. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence on Labour MPs voting with the government on triggering Article 50 and committing us irrevocably to Brexit has lost him my support and the support of a good many others. His behaviour is as hard to explain as it is to excuse, but the result of the Brexit referendum is seen by Corbyn and some other MPs as sacrosanct, even when they and their own constituents voted to stay in Europe.
However, 47 Labour MPs defied Corbyn, including members whose votes obliged them to resign from his demonstrations, particularly the main these days with a picture of shadow cabinet. They joined the 50 Scottish Nationalists, seven Liberal Democrats and the single (and now effortlessly heroic) Conservative, Ken Clarke. There is talk of coalitions and of pacts between candidates of different parties, at least in by-elections.
But the general air of bitterness and distrust is so strong that not much has come of it. Nor are we cheered by the possibility that nationalist candidates will carry the day in France and Germany.
Extraordinarily for some of us, Donald Trump appeals to people in many parts of Europe because he isn’t a politician, because he is a nationalist and because he is taking draconian actions against immigrants. Some of the same people, I presume, may sympathise with his misogyny and his contempt for feminism.
Is there, can there be, a silver lining? Small glimmerings, perhaps. Some kind of backlash is bound to happen, though I may not live to see it. The demonstrations, particularly the main one that coincided with the women’s march on Washington, and those asking that Theresa May’s invitation to Trump be withdrawn, have been hugely successful. Nearly two million people signed a petition to withdraw the Trump invitation, and though May has stuck to her guns, the issue will have to be debated in Parliament. A great many young people have discovered the pleasures of solidarity. They’ve also discovered, if they hadn’t already, that politics, and even foreign politics, can be intensely interesting as well as important and relevant to them. And we’re all learning how the balances between the legislative and the judicial arms of government, whether in the U.S. or the U.K., work in reality. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, a Conservative, has said that Trump should not be “honoured” with an invitation to speak to Parliament if he comes here. Given that the Speaker’s role is specifically neutral, it will be interesting to see whether he is sacked for this or allowed to have his way, as he is on most such questions.
But it’s Trump and his extraordinary executive orders we wait for. We relish his verbless tweets casting aspersions on the legitimacy of judges and the honesty of journalists, his strange vocabulary, his pouting little mouth and, of course, his hair. Cartoonist Steve Bell of The Guardian mimics the Georgian satirist James Gillray, and has brilliantly turned Trump’s coiffure into a toilet seat. If he has become a figure of fun, he is a terrifying one, a masked figure out of the commedia dell’arte.