Last week, thousands of people took to the streets of London and other British cities in opposition to President Trump’s planned state visit to the UK. The weekend was rounded off with a predictable burst of celebrity sniping against Trump at the Oscars. No doubt this made everyone concerned feel better. But there are perhaps two things above all that reassure Trump voters that they made the right decision in November: squealing Hollywood liberals and noisy protesters – especially abroad.
This ought to be obvious to anyone who knows anything about voters of any kind, let alone American ones, but if not, my research last month confirmed it. “I’m tired of hearing what Hollywood has to say and what we should be thinking,” a Trump voter told us in Macomb County, Michigan – one of the places that switched from Obama in 2012. “I look at them as the carnival folk. They have their sheltered little lives in Hollywood where they live in gated communities, they really don’t live in the real world… And that’s another reason I liked Trump – he just tore Hollywood a new one.”
As for the placard-wavers, “they’re going to stomp their feet no matter what he does. He could hand them a thousand dollars and they’d still find something to bitch about.” This went double for London, Paris and other foreign capitals where people had demonstrated against the President’s Executive Order temporarily restricting travel from seven largely Muslim countries. It was not just that they supported his decision (though they did: “He said he was going to take control of the borders, and he’s doing it”) – they approved of his determination to stick to it in the face of international criticism, which they saw as a refreshing contrast with his predecessor: “I feel like Obama apologised, and now Trump’s saying ‘I’m not apologising for our country’… As far as what the other countries think of us – I think we shouldn’t care.” The former President’s readiness, as they saw it, to “kowtow” to foreign opinion was a recurring complaint among voters during the election campaign.
I can quite see that President Trump is not to everybody’s taste, whether in his policies or the way he goes about things. And of course people are free to make their feelings clear, even if they go about it in a way that will serve to entrench his positions and secure him in his job. But aside from the fact that their actions are counterproductive on their own terms, those demanding that our government rescind its invitation to America’s leader should reflect on two further points.
The first is that Donald Trump was democratically elected and represents the choice of the American people – a choice which, as my pre-election research showed beyond doubt, they made with their eyes open. His flaws did not go unnoticed. People could see that he possessed no filter, was not ideally suited to diplomacy and had an apparently ambivalent relationship with facts. They also regretted what they often saw as his less than commendable attitude towards women. But as in any other election, this was a choice between imperfect alternatives. Trump voters were not driven by misogyny, racism or ignorance (accusations which, again, only confirm that the left both misunderstands and looks down on them, fortifying their support for the President). They worried about jobs, healthcare, prospects for their children, stagnant living standards, the state of their infrastructure, the effects of immigration, and America’s standing in the world. In Donald Trump – a dealmaker who would do things differently and make things happen, and would not be beholden to donors and Washington special interests – they saw someone who would tackle these problems; in Hillary Clinton they saw a thirty-year politician with no prospect of bringing change and no better argument for putting her in the Oval Office than that it was her turn. Whether or not we in Britain like the choice they made, we should respect it.
The second is that a state visit does not represent the endorsement of an individual or his political platform, but is a valuable tool of diplomacy. This is something that some of our own politicians seem strangely unable to grasp. Bradford West MP Naz Shah claimed in last week’s Westminster Hall debate on the issue that “by rolling out the red carpet we are endorsing all his views” – but this isn’t the case, any more than the state visits from King Abdullah in 2007 or President Xi Jinping in 2015 meant we were backing all the policies and practices of Saudi Arabia or China. Tulip Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, said she opposed the trip on the grounds that “we value respect, we value tolerance, we have mutual respect for each other” – but not so much tolerance and respect, apparently, that it extends to the freely chosen leader of a friendly country with whom we might sometimes disagree.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is also against a state visit. This is unusual for someone who otherwise takes a pragmatic approach to politics. In particular, it seems to contradict his commendable London Is Open campaign, which aims “to show that London is open for business, and to the world.” Mr Khan was right the first time. The UK should be looking to build on its global relationships in preparation for life outside the EU. Even those in Britain who oppose President Trump, or indeed Brexit, should be able to see that our bond with the United States is vital to that future.
Fortunately, Theresa May has grasped this. Seeing someone with whom we can literally do business in the form of a new transatlantic trade deal, she took the opportunity to visit the White House a week after the President’s inauguration (a trip previewed in the Guardian with the headline: “May will be the first foreign leader to meet Trump. This is a national disgrace.”) The PM is winning the respect of Washington, and forging a powerful alliance for her country. Protesters threatening to disrupt the state visit will not be doing Britain any favours, nor Trump any harm. Meanwhile, the government is doing its job. Thank heavens the grown-ups are in charge.