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Fintan O’Toole: Donald Trump is a hostile, malign presence in Europe

Diplomatic niceties should not blind us to the US president’s aggressive designs

Diplomacy is sometimes just a polite word for shaking hands with the devil. Its practitioners need strong stomachs and a poor sense of smell. Ireland, like every other democracy, maintains diplomatic relationships with repressive and even murderous regimes.

So when Donald Trump decided to recover at his Doonbeg pleasure dome from the strain of meeting "losers" such as Theresa May and the minor royals, the Irish Government had little choice but to play nice.

That does not mean that there is anything normal or routine about Trump’s visit. We must not become so used to Trump’s outrages that we lose sight of the obvious: he is here in Europe as an inimical and malign presence. To pretend otherwise is to push the necessary niceties too far.

Trump must sting because, as the scorpion says in the story, 'it is my nature'

In fairness to Trump, there is no secret about this. He does not dissemble. In a famous essay, Isaiah Berlin divided people according to a line from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."


Trump knows one big thing – in Berlin’s terms, he is one of those figures who pursue “one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision”. The one big thing he knows is disruption.

This knowledge is not intellectual. It is experiential. As a narcissist, Trump sees his own reflection in the world. What it tells him is that he thrives most in conditions of chaos. He has the necessary gifts – shamelessness, relentlessness, a complete indifference to the consequences for other people – to succeed amid anarchy. Order – laws, rules, morals – are bad for him. Disorder is his element.

Like buddleia, he flourishes on bomb sites. He has to keep disrupting or he will die.

This is why it has always been delusional to imagine a Trump presidency settling down into the familiar patterns of the international order. He can no more survive without disruption than he could without golf or cheeseburgers. He can’t be “normal” – normality for him is death.

To imagine Trump without his one big thing is like imagining the hedgehog without its spines – he would not last very long. To change the animal metaphors, Trump must sting because, as the scorpion says in the story, “it is my nature”.

Three goals

Trump is thus in Europe, not as a mere embodiment of the American presidency, but as a disrupter. He is here to cause trouble, and there is no mystery about the nature of that trouble. He wants to do three closely interrelated things: to stir up racial and religious tension, to create compliant mini-me regimes and to destroy the European Union.

While European governments, including our own, stick by the protocols of diplomacy, Trump is involved in an entirely different activity. Not to acknowledge that would be as daft as pretending that the bull is in the china shop because he is interested in fine porcelain.

Why did Trump begin his European trip by writing, just before he landed in England, two Twitter posts attacking the mayor of London Sadiq Khan as "a stone cold loser" and "very dumb"?

Britain is now in such desperate straits that it has to both suck up to Trump and suck up his insulting interference in its internal affairs

Why Khan among all the other critics of Trump’s visit? Because Khan is dark-skinned and a Muslim. Abusing him was a signal of Trump’s support for the narrative of the far right: that Muslims are invading and taking over white, Christian Europe.

Trump claimed that Khan has done “a terrible job” in office, but he knows nothing and cares less about the governance of London. Conflict with Khan is code for conflict with a multi-ethnic Europe.

Even before those tweets, Trump gave an interview to the Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News is essentially the propaganda arm of his administration. He used it to endorse Boris Johnson as Theresa May's replacement: "I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent. I like him. I have always liked him. I don't know that he is going to be chosen, but I think he is a very good guy, a very talented person."

This, too, has a wider European context. Last month, Trump lavished praise on the far-right Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán whom, he claimed, is "respected all over Europe". He has previously endorsed Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right in France.

By intervening in British domestic politics in support of Johnson (and of Nigel Farage, whom he suggested ought to be sent to Brussels to negotiate on behalf of the UK), Trump was making clear his vision for Europe: a patchwork of nationalist and authoritarian regimes headed by his own fans and compliant to his wishes.

And of course it follows that the EU must be destroyed. Trump’s open urging of a no-deal Brexit this week is entirely consistent with his view of the EU as an enemy. Last July, just before his unctuous encounter with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, he told CBS News that “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade”.

Instinctive hatred

His hatred of the EU is partly ideological (on climate change for example) but primarily instinctive – its combined strength makes it harder to bully individual European countries.

It would be extraordinarily naive not to see this for what it is – a destructive, hostile and aggressive agenda. Trump does not bother to conceal his desire to destroy the EU, to stir up ethnic and religious conflict in Europe and to replace liberal democracy with far-right authoritarianism.

Yet there is a tendency to discount all of this as just “Trump being Trump”. It is almost as if the very flagrancy of his agenda makes it harmless. It is just one of those things. The US president is agitating for the destruction of the European democratic order – so what else is new?

Britain is now in such desperate straits that it has to both suck up to Trump and suck up his insulting interference in its internal affairs.

Ireland, and the rest of western Europe, is not – or at least not yet. Contrary to his aims, Trump’s visit served to remind us that, unlike our British neighbours, we have other allies and are not entirely naked before his malignity.

Our leaders do have to smile and pretend that everything is normal. But we too still know one big thing – the EU thing.

If Trump were to get his way and the EU were to fall apart, we would have to grovel before him in a way that would make the pimping out of the British royals look dignified. That alone is a great argument for preserving it.