Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK was offered with exceptional speed, from a position of weakness. Delayed once, through presidential pique, Trump has now arrived in the UK. But greater than the usual preoccupation with the “special” relationship is the question of whether there is now even a settled relationship.
Given that the experiences of presidents and prime ministers derive from both structural alliance and individual contingency, can the relationship withstand a president whose very appeal has been eschewing conventions, legacy ties, and alliances? In an age of new normals, there may be need for new norms.
Some previous relationships worked because of a similarity of outlook. This was true for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and for Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Others worked through a chemistry, be it personal or generational or a combination, such as John F. Kennedy’s and Harold Macmillan’s, Jimmy Carter’s and James Callaghan’s, and Barack Obama’s and David Cameron’s. Some worked, forged as they were by war, notably Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and Winston Churchill’s, and George W Bush’s and Tony Blair’s. Some did not work—such as Harold Wilson’s and Lyndon Johnson’s, and Bill Clinton’s and John Major’s. But no president and prime minister have been as dissimilar and as incompatible as Donald Trump and Theresa May.
Even when there had, in the past, been disagreements there were always trammels: diplomatic language; due process. This president behaves with too little, this prime minister too much, restraint. Fitting neatly with her unmanageable Brexit inheritance, from the moment Trump won the election, May faced an unenviable choice.
She could either defy popular opinion to strategically embrace an international pariah or, opt for the more popular tactic of shunning him. As it turned out, he was literally to embrace her.
However implausible their pairing, Trump and May were bound by a similarity of circumstance. As with the “right turn” of the 1980s, and the “third way” of the millennium, they found themselves in office at the same time and as a consequence of respective national iterations of the same phenomenon.
The shock results of the EU referendum and the US presidential election occurred five months apart and shared many of the same characteristics and many of the same characters. But while the president has brilliantly channeled and exploited the public sentiment that propelled him to power, the prime minister has been far less convincing.
May had come to office by the very virtue of not having taken a stand on the great issue of the day; he had been elemental to it. Both countries were sharply divided. In the UK more than at any time without war all other matters were subsumed in one all-consuming and often traumatic national debate; in the US the president was the debate.
Insofar as each was a beneficiary of exceptional circumstances there was at least the possibility of mutual utility on which to base special relations. But this was a prime minister who, more than any other, had circumscribed herself, by having quite unnecessarily called, and effectively lost, a general election she had confidently expected to win convincingly. Her already subordinate position was weakened further.
Of the greatest political challenge to Britain in peacetime, the president, claimed paternity (“They will soon be calling me Mr Brexit!”) and was keen to demonstrate shared endeavor: “They took their country back, just like we will take America back.”
Brexit meant that trade would complement security and intelligence as the cement of the special relationship. But it also meant there was an opportunity for Trump to leverage the UK: he would be working with a prime minister with an even greater imperative than usual to establish a close connection with the US.
Some have still to adapt to the new norms. The BBC recently regarded Trump’s undermining of May as “a highly unusual intervention,” but it was no longer unusual. Before his first visit in 2018 he lauded her most likely and active usurper (as he has since). Then, once he had arrived, while standing next to her, he questioned her Brexit policy (as he has subsequently).
The publicly stated grounds for the president effectively endorsing one of the candidates to replace May, are suitably narcissistic: “I have a lot of respect for Boris [Johnson]. He obviously likes me, and says very good things about me.” There is more to it than that: the broader commonalities behind Brexit and Trump.
Brexit also connects Trump and Nigel Farage. In an early transgression, Trump advocated the latter as the next UK ambassador to the US. In the latest, he promoted Farage as Brexit negotiator and plans to meet with him during this visit, contrary to the wishes of the host government. Even a bilateral meeting with the prime minister appears to have been cancelled. It is less that protocols have been breached than it not being clear if there are any protocols left.
This is a state visit offered in haste and regretted at leisure. To cap it, no prime minister has had to ensure the humiliation of knowing in advance that a presidential visit is the end of their premiership. Misleading as it may be to overly personalize this moment, it’s hard not to. The unprecedented challenges of 2016 have been faced, by common accord, by the one being unsuited, and the other unfit, for the offices they hold.
In another age, interventions by a foreign head of even a friendly government in another country’s domestic affairs would widely be regarded as intolerable. It is a measure of our age and Britain’s predicament that tolerated they will be.