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Opinion

Op-Ed: Trump’s state visit would outrage us Britons, if we didn’t have bigger worries

U.S. President Trump’s State Visit To UK - Day Two
Philip May, left, British Prime Minister Theresa May, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at 10 Downing St. on June 4.
(Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

The “special relationship” is confusing, isn’t it: You say “ee-ther” and we say “eye-ther”; you say ‘‘toe-may-toe’’ and we say “tom-ah-toe”; you send us a superannuated reality TV star in lieu of a head of state, and we’re inclined to call the whole thing off.

At any rate, that’s a conclusion a reasonable-minded reader of the Los Angeles Times might reach, contemplating the coverage of President Trump’s state visit to London this week. The orange-haired Donald started winding us up — as we Cockneys say — at the very moment the wheels of Air Force One hit the tarmac, with a series of petty-minded and malicious tweets about Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor and the first Muslim head of any major Western city. Trump called Khan a “stone cold loser”’ and suggested he’d be better off paying more attention to crime in London than leveling accusations of right-wing demagoguery in the direction of the right-wing, demagogic White House.

The mayor’s office hit back, calling Trump’s tweets ‘‘childish insults.’’ Meanwhile, the leaders of all the principal British opposition parties — Labor (to which Khan belongs), the Liberal Democrats and the Scots Nationalists — refused to attend the state banquet held in the president’s honor at Buckingham Palace. And Tuesday, protesters zeroed in on the queen’s London residence, intent on hounding and ridiculing our American visitor.

Liberal Angelenos might be tempted to commiserate with liberal Londoners right about now, but I say to you: Save your sympathy for yourselves. You need it.
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As to the warmth of Trump’s welcome from the royals, the press here are making much of the fact that Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, winked behind his back and Prince Harry looked “grumpy,” a coded formulation to express the view that, as the husband of an African American woman, the prince too strongly protested the according of English pomp and circumstance to a racist misogynist.

As I say: Liberal Angelenos might be tempted to commiserate with liberal Londoners right about now, but I say to you: Save your sympathy for yourselves. You need it, with two years and a possible second term to go. As for us Britons, perhaps for the first time since the Suez Crisis in the 1950s, we have more important things to worry about than whether the White House incumbent smiles favorably on us. No, really.

It’s surpassingly unlikely, but had Trump’s jab at the mayor been making a subtle point about the lack of accountable local democracy in London, he would’ve scored a bull’s-eye. Khan can have very little impact on overall crime figures in London; the mayor’s job here is principally a combination of PR booster and glorified bus manager. Khan, in an article for the Observer, compared the language Trump uses to rally his supporters to that of “the fascists of the 20th century.”

So there you have it, our transport manager called your president a Nazi, and we should perhaps feel ashamed that this is best we can manage — given the Brexit debacle and a prime minister, Theresa May, who is already one foot out the door — when it comes to foreign policy. So politically insignificant is the actual government of the benighted United Kingdom that it could be argued that your president was really paying a state visit to a headless state.

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There’s some talk that there will be a major announcement concerning our two great nations’ much-fraught trade relations, following bilateral talks today. But those talks are not the sort of pally confab the Gipper had with the Iron Lady, or that Tony Blair had with Dubya, rather it’s a bunch of unhappy officials struggling together to wrest something anodyne from the jaws of diplomatic failure and even scandal.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute »

For while the president scorned the liberal Khan, he praised a fellow populist, Boris Johnson, who’s poised to take May’s role — a gesture toward direct intervention in the politics of our troubled nation that even by Trump’s standards would be a terrible gaffe, were it not that in our divided state, we can’t muster the requisite outrage. (Johnson says he was invited to a private meeting with the president, but he unfortunately had a prior. I can’t be alone in thinking that if the two preening populists and their implausibly vibrant hair had actually connected, the results would have been thermonuclear, a critical mass of bogosity having been achieved.)

I said above that Britain was a headless state — but what about the queen? I hear you cry. You may imagine it pains us to see this venerable lady, a tireless public servant well into her 10th decade, compelled to hobnob — and, by implication, kowtow — to a hulking vulgarian. Maybe so, at a personal level, but at the political one, the queen is a hand-shaking automaton with long-life batteries who’s grinned toothily at more demagogues than — as we Cockneys also say — you’ve had hot dinners (or possibly state banquets). For anyone to be relying on this nonagenarian figurehead to in any sense pilot the ship of state is a sure sign that the United Kingdom has lost its way quite as much as the United States.

Happily for you, I’d argue we’re the farthest adrift.

Will Self is a novelist and professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University in London.

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