Theresa May is not the first UK prime minister to travel to the Whitehouse more in hope than expectation, but she is a trailblazer when it comes to endorsing unadulterated hatred and unexpurgated lies.
Even as she was boarding her flight home, Donald Trump was signing off the moratorium preventing people from a group of Muslim majority countries from travelling to the US. The ban included people from those countries already carrying green cards, leaving many in limbo.
Tony Blair earned himself the poodle moniker by believing he could blunt the worst excesses of the post-9/11 George W Bush through extending the hand of friendship. If what he achieved was a better outcome, then several many thousands of Afghans and Iraqis could be forgiven for withholding their thanks to the former PM.
But by meeting Donald Trump on Friday and by willingly wrapping the meeting in red, white and blue (a red, white and blue special relationship), May surpassed Blair.
The non-stop drizzle of hatred and denial that is dripping daily from the Oval Office gave Mrs May every reason — a new one virtually every minute — to call the whole thing off. And a growing domestic clamour opened up more political space for her to eschew Trump. But she wanted to project a Britain open for business and Trump wanted to thrust his America first policy into the global arena, so there was no stopping this romance. ‘His Maggie’ travelled to DC, though wan’t up for hand-holding.
Godwin’s Law must always be invoked with great caution. Writers are rightly castigated for casual comparisons with Nazi Germany. And of course, by the time Neville Chamberlain travelled to Hitler’s retreat in September 1938, Dachau had been open for five years and hundreds of thousands of Jews, Communists and non German nationals were already in ‘protective custody’.
But there is something of the Chamberlain about May as she returns home empty handed and to news of Trump’s latest and most deplorable executive order.
Trump looks tinpot and mostly more akin to minor dictators and despots. But the alarm bells are ringing out for the central theme of racism, hatred and discrimination.
The response in the US — a court order that takes roughest edge of Trump’s Muslim ban and spontaneous protest — is a hopeful sign. But every sinew of American institutional muscle and molecule of decency in House and Congress Republicans is going to be needed to stop what after only one week is a totalitarian dictatorship in the making.
It really isn’t far-fetched to imagine Trump’s henchmen (yes, they are mostly men) and acolytes inflicting some sort of mass desecration of Islamic or immigrant or liberal homes and communities in a not-too-distant future, encouraged every bit of the way by the overt racism of the so-called President. His willingness to lie and his enthusiasm for closing down dissenting communication channels are familiar hallmarks.
Dismissing Trump as an egomaniac or narcissist, while of course accurate, neglects the probable end point of such qualities in leaders. After all, most of history’s dictators have been driven by ego as well as hatred, greed and other flaws that are not lacking in the man now in the Whitehouse. Complacency and a disbelief that modern democracy can ever crumble will be among the main routes by which Trump’s evil will grow.
So May should not have met Trump; Churchillian evocations and coded admonishments are not enough. What in her Brexit-filled mind and among her circle of advisers and ministers might have seemed a competent handling of a tricky situation now looks to the rest of the world like endorsement of a ‘President’, the extent of whose evil we do not yet fully know.
And if she has sewn the seeds of a UK-US trade deal, what will she be signing us up to? If Trump is true to his word — and there is nothing currently to suggest he is anything other — then America, not Britain, will be put first. And with overt racism on the rise and climate change and workers’ rights laws falling by the minute, what will we end up importing but pollution and exploitation laced with hatred and discrimination.
May carried with her an invitation from Buckingham Palace for a return leg – a state visit no less. The status of this invitation is as surreal as it is offensive. But if not at Her Majesty’s direct invitation, Trump should come not least because Britain must remain open to immigrants unless they break the law. And he will face huge opposition, including on the environment from Prince Charles.
It’s too early to make firm predictions about where this all ends or starts to end. Cambridge political scientist David Runciman argues that Americans voted for Trump because they have faith in the nation’s institutions to counterbalance his disruptiveness. And it’s now well established that in ageing democracies people want disruption. Some is needed.
It is to be hoped Runciman and US voters are right, though. America is sliding into dangerous authoritarianism and no foreign democrat should endorse that, regardless of how special the relationship might have been hitherto.