Donald Trump undermined Theresa May last week, showing again his narcissism and unpredictability threatens us all, says
Theresa May must have been tempted to counterpunch, after receiving US president, Donald Trump’s advice to concentrate her mind on the Islamist threat to Britain rather than react to his retweeting of British far-right anti-Islam videos.
“@theresamay, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom,” the US president tweeted to his 40m-plus followers. “We are doing just fine.”
“Two of America’s worst mass shootings (Las Vegas concert/ Texas church) have happened on your watch,” the UK prime minister might have tweeted back. Shouldn’t POTUS focus on gun laws?”
She didn’t do that, of course. Her actual response was brusque: “It is wrong for the president to have done this,” she concluded, a comment within the bounds of diplomatic protocol. What one frank friend might say to another.
So, is the UK-US friendship, the ‘special relationship,’ special any longer? Probably. British education secretary, Justine Greening, told the BBC that while she didn’t agree with Trump’s tweets, she “did not believe it should detract from the close relationship the UK has had for many, many years, and will go on to have, with America and the American people.”
In the short term, however, the relationship will tremble. As will Theresa May, for she, more than any other Western leader, sought a demonstrative friendship with Trump, who held her hand in the White House rose garden.
For May, a trade deal with the United States is a necessity, after/if Brexit takes the UK out of the European Union’s single market.
There is a greater dependence than usual on the UK side of the relationship, and Trump — with his self-vaunted expertise in deal-making — will be well aware of this.
And May will be aware that he is aware. Nonetheless, she still issued a public rebuke — a sign of her disgust, of her realisation that the British establishment, and most of its population, would share her disgust, and that some things are too important to remain silent.
Yet if Britain is dependent — as all European states are on the US military umbrella, among much else — so is America dependent on Britain.
The ‘special relationship’ is more treasured by British politicians than American ones, but it still matters, especially when Washington seeks allies in controversial projects, like the Iraq invasion.
Trump prioritised hitting back at a British prime minister over potential damage to the special relationship. That reveals the terrible shallowness of the president’s grasp of international relationships, and rouses yet again fears that his unpredictability and narcissism threaten us all.
If any good came of the latest fine mess the president has got the presidency into, it is that it has, for at least a day, brought the fractured and fractious British politics together, behind May.
Sadiq Khan, the Labour (and Muslim) mayor of London, himself a target of Trump’s earlier tweets, said that the president’s comments were “a betrayal of the special relationship.”
The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, showed a tender care for Queen Elizabeth not usual for one on the left of the Labour Party, lamenting that Trump had put the monarch into a “difficult and invidious position”, since the invitation for a state visit, which still stands, is officially issued under the Queen’s name.
Is it possible that Trump’s straight-from-the-shoulder style is simply unbearable to the British, who are perceived by many Americans (and others) as being snobbish and repressed?
Certainly, some of Trump’s right-wing supporters appreciate his bluntness about Islamic extremists.
“That’s not news,” Mark Krikorian, a supporter of the president and executive director of the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies, told The New York Times of Trump’s Twitter sharing. Trump “just expresses that stuff in the most unfiltered, guy-ranting-in-the-bar” way.
It isn’t that. Trump’s “style,” in this context, is directly and repeatedly anti-Muslim. He wants to stop Muslims coming to the United States. He said, falsely, that thousands of people in New Jersey — “a heavy Arab population” — had been shown on TV cheering after the planes destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
The unverified videos he re-tweeted this week came from the Britain First group, not just far-right, but dedicated to stirring up violent action against Muslims; its deputy leader, Jayda Fransen, herself faces several charges of harassment of Muslims.
Compare Trump’s response with that of his recent predecessors. George W Bush had to bear the shock of the 2001 attacks as a newish president, but took some care in his reaction to the horror to tell Muslims that he respected the “good and peaceful” teachings of Islam and that America’s enemy was “a radical network of terrorists,” not “our many Muslim friends.” Barack Obama continued that tradition.
In the UK, as in other Western democracies, that distinction — between the large majority of peaceful citizens of Muslim faith and the few deadly, militant Islamists — is maintained.
How else could a civil society be retained, if thousands, in some countries millions, of citizens and would-be citizens were demonised and made the butt of violent prejudice?
Trump’s behaviour shows how little he understands this. Washington and Westminster may continue their close alliance, but the president should not see his decision to give publicity to a semi-fascist group’s efforts to sow violent hatred — then capping that with the need to humiliate a close ally — as a good day’s work.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.