Britain is in the grip of an unprecedented political meltdown, a crisis on a scale that was unthinkable even six months ago. The prime minister has resigned and is leaving office within days. Support for the two historic political parties, Labour and Conservative, is at an all-time low. In hastily planned European Parliament elections last week, the brand new Brexit Party came in first, while two anti-Brexit parties, the tiny Liberal Democrats and the even tinier Greens, came in second and fourth. The ruling Tory party finished a distant fifth.
In total, votes for anti-Brexit parties outstripped votes for the Brexit Party, though the country remains committed to withdrawal from the European Union. Some polls show that if parliamentary elections were held tomorrow, the Liberal Democrats would be the overall winners. More than a dozen people are running open campaigns for the Conservative Party leadership, members of the Labour Party are openly fighting with one another, and the government has ceased to make decisions of any kind.
And, next week, President Trump is arriving. Why?
Clearly, he’s not coming to town to conduct any important business, to do any deals or negotiate any treaties: There isn’t anybody to negotiate with. He might issue some threats — he reportedly plans to say he will cut off intelligence cooperation with Britain if it continues to do business with the Chinese company Huawei — but the British cabinet isn’t in a position to coordinate a response, so it hardly matters. Nor will his presence enhance the fabled, albeit somewhat shopworn, Anglo-American relationship. His last visit to Britain was a PR catastrophe. He insulted the prime minister, he embarrassed Queen Elizabeth II, and he even managed to annoy the Sun newspaper, a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid that attacked him as “Fake Schmooze.” At the time of his last visit, 77 percent of Britons disapproved of the U.S. president, and there is no reason to think those numbers have improved.
From London’s point of view, the visit makes no sense, either. British attempts to humor Trump, to engage him, have all failed. The soon-to-be-ex-prime minister Theresa May’s efforts to forge a relationship with Trump backfired, adding to her widespread unpopularity. Aware of his toxicity, the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have said they will not attend a state banquet in his honor. The duchess of Sussex — the British royal family member formerly known as the American actress Meghan Markle — has also indicated that she will not meet the president of the United States.
But other members of the royal family have, it seems, no choice. A state visit, as opposed to a working visit, implies extensive time spent with the queen, who is head of state, up to and including that Buckingham Palace banquet. And this, it seems, is the point.
Trump will not accomplish anything, either for the United States or for Britain. But he will achieve something that is, for him, actually more important. He will be photographed with some uniquely recognizable, world-class celebrities: the queen, Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry. They will all be there, doing their duty, because they have to. And Trump’s compulsive, narcissistic need to be the center of attention will be serviced.
Of course, this is not the first time that American diplomacy and foreign policy have been bent and twisted to serve the obsessions of Trump. Remember: The bank of television cameras and the flash of lightbulbs were what most impressed him about his Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un. “Are you getting a nice photo. . . ,” he said to the cameramen at the summit. “So we look nice and handsome and beautiful and perfect?” Just recently, he used an equally pointless trip to Japan for the same purpose: He got to be the first foreign leader photographed standing next to Japan’s recently crowned emperor and empress. Other than that, he spent the entire trip tweeting about his political enemies back home.
Everywhere he goes, Trump is bored by working meetings and rude to those who attend them. He can’t make deals or negotiate because he doesn’t know enough about the issues. But where there is empty pomp and circumstance — a French Bastille Day parade, or the Queens’ Guard standing at attention outside Windsor Castle — he is impressed and pleased. The logistics of this visit, like any presidential visit, are immense. The British state will spend 18 million pounds (about $22 million) on his security; the U.S. taxpayer will spend many multiples of that sum; hundreds of hours will have been wasted on planning. And all so that one man’s fragile ego can be boosted for another day.