Donald Trump is by far the most unpopular US president amongst British people in living memory, and that’s a huge low considering how unfavourable George Bush was with Brits. Admittedly, part of that is post-colonial snobbery; Trump epitomises an American brashness and distinct lack of intelligence and sophistication, serving a British narrative of cultural superiority. But it’s also because of Trump’s policies. The wall, the attempted Muslim travel ban, his support for torture, and the pretence of being one of the people while passing enormous tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans- are all met with strong disapproval. Britain is hardly alone in disliking Trump, though perhaps the British have been more vocal in our criticism than people elsewhere.
Despite an anti-Trump consensus in Britain, the country is divided as to how to treat him. For the left, we should distance ourselves from him as possible. Trump should not be given a state visit, nor should Britain sing his praises in exchange for the possibility of a trade deal. The left regards Trump as too toxic and prejudice to work with. It’s also worth noting that due to his historic unpopularity, Trump will probably be gone by 2021 if not sooner if he is impeached. So the economic consequences of not working with him are minimal. It is more important to build good relationships with Democrats, who will soon retake the US Federal Government. The Democrats will not work as well with people who they believe strongly supported Trump.
Much of the right disagrees. In occasional instances, such as Nigel Farage, the right likes Trump. What is more common is the belief that the structural forces that made Trump president also benefit the right in Britain- concerns about immigration, opposition to social liberalism, scepticism of globalisation, the desire for a business-friendly politics. The demographics of Trump support and Conservative support in 2017 are roughly the same: older, rural, white voters without university degrees. Therefore Britain should work closely with Trump for our benefit, even if we may disagree with some of Trump’s more erratic outbursts. Vocal Brexiteer and Tory backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg recently met with Steve Bannon for precisely this reason. The right favours significant divergence from the EU’s economic orbit. To compensate for the losses this would create, they regard it as essential Britain signs a free trade deal with America, and quickly, even if it means dealing with Trump and downgrading Britain’s regulatory standards and welfare state in the process.
To a limited extent, the right has a point. There has been a far greater public outcry over the possibility of a Trump state visit than there ever was over dictators visiting Britain. The UK frequently plays host to leaders of authoritarian regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kenya. Working with people we don’t like is often necessary, such as working with Stalin to defeat Hitler. Britain should have a cordial relationship with the US, not seeking to antagonise Trump or comment on America’s domestic affairs unless it has a direct impact on its own wellbeing. I’m not opposed to a state visit for Trump; we may not like him, but he is still President of the US, a crucial ally and trade partner.
Where I strongly disagree with the right is that I don’t believe Trump is a reliable ally, so we can’t depend on him. Cutting ties with the EU for the possibility of a trade deal with the US is an exercise in futility. Partly because Trump is an instinctive protectionist, as clearly seen in the Department of Commerce’s 300% tariff on Bombardier aeroplane imports from Northern Ireland. Trump sees the world as a zero-sum game, where a good deal for other countries must come at America’s expense and vice versa. He believes the increasing amount of trade China and Mexico are doing is to America’s detriment. A US-UK trade deal, even one negotiated with a Democrat, would almost certainly be impossible to pass the British Parliament. There would be concerns about British agriculture being unable to compete with cheap US imports, the opening of the NHS to American procurement companies, and a general fear of being dominated by American multinational corporations. It’s also worth noting that Britain’s current trading relationship with the EU is far more sophisticated and comprehensive than anything possible with a conventional free trade agreement.
Britain should treat Trump like it treats everyone else. It should show Trump the respect that his office is due. But Britain must never sacrifice its standards or values to curry favour with an unstable, unpredictable, and increasingly disliked man.