The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The backlash from Trump’s Britain visit will be felt for years to come

Demonstrators march during a protest against President Trump in central London on July 13. (Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg News)
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President Trump’s catastrophic visit to Britain began with a political scandal of his own creation. In an interview with the Sun, a British tabloid, the U.S. president slammed the British prime minister, Theresa May, and supported her rival. He criticized her conduct of Brexit, the most contentious issue in British politics, and used inflammatory language about immigration, the second-most-contentious issue in British politics. The story appeared just as May was hosting a black-tie dinner for him at Blenheim Palace. Trump then took it all back, dismissing the journalists who had accurately reported his words as “fake news” and offering some flabby support for May. In response, the Sun published the full audio recording of the interview online — and loudly supported its original story with the front-page headline “FAKE SCHMOOZE.”

The interview seemed like a diplomatic fumble. But it was not. All of the views Trump expressed were in fact consistent with the previous actions of his administration. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, has recently met with pro-Brexit members of Parliament — in effect, a party within the Conservative Party — to ask how he could help their cause. Behind the scenes, Trump’s team has lobbied Britain on behalf of Tommy Robinson, a violent white nationalist and co-founder of the fringe English Defense League, who is now in prison. This open, partisan, U.S. intervention in British politics is unprecedented, going well beyond President Ronald Reagan’s political flirtation with Margaret Thatcher or President Bill Clinton’s friendship with Tony Blair. Trump is supporting not the elected British leader but rather her internal party rivals as well as an extra-parliamentary racist fringe that has very little support in Britain but that matters to U.S. alt-right activists, the core of Trump’s base.

On July 13, a blimp depicting President Trump as a diapered baby was flown in London's Parliament Square, during his first visit to London since taking office. (Video: Karla Adam/The Washington Post)

The result: Tens of thousands protested. A vast balloon, caricaturing Trump as a giant orange baby in a diaper, flew over London on Friday and Edinburgh on Saturday. Smaller anti-Trump gatherings took place in Glasgow, Belfast, Birmingham and elsewhere. A paraglider sailed over his Scottish golf course, flying a banner that described him as “below par.”

The aftermath may well be even more important. According to polls taken before this visit, 77 percent of Britons have an unfavorable view of the American president, a figure very close to the disapproval numbers for Vladimir Putin, whose thugs have actually poisoned British citizens. Seventy-four percent of Britons described the U.S. president as “sexist”; only 16 percent described him as “honest.” Since then, millions watched as the 92-year-old Queen of England stood waiting for him, looking at her watch; they then saw him rudely walk in front of her. In the wake of these and other embarrassments, it’s perfectly possible that anti-Trump sentiments will grow. Along with national regret for the English football team’s semifinal World Cup loss, dislike of him seems to unify Britain more than anything else.

Eventually, this dislike may coalesce into a more generalized anti-Americanism. If so, Trump’s team will not only compromise the hard-line Brexiteers whom they back, it will also compromise May, who has gone out of her way to welcome the president. Photographs of her holding Trump’s hand, first at the White House and now at Chequers, the prime ministerial residence, have been widely mocked. She is caricatured, unpleasantly, as his concubine.

The real beneficiary of the White House’s British meddling could prove to be someone else altogether. Jeremy Corbyn, the farthest-left Labour Party leader in recent memory, has been consistently anti-American, indeed anti-Western, for more than three decades. This is a man who described the killing of Osama bin Laden as a “tragedy,” and who has blamed NATO for the Russian annexation of Crimea. At least until now, these views have been important marks against him. But in an anti-Trump, anti-American Britain, maybe now they won’t be.

Actions create reactions. Angry language creates an angry response. And already, there’s a precedent. The president’s racist rhetoric has already helped elect a left-wing, anti-Trump leader of Mexico. Could Trump achieve the same in Britain?