On Saturday, July 13th, 2018, you could not move in central London for the throngs of people protesting Donald Trump’s arrival to the UK. Nor could you escape the deluge of headlines. Sky declared it “one of the biggest rallies in years,” the front pages of every major news site were dominated with photos of placards and protesters. Beforehand, the Guardian even ran an opinion piece headlined: “Here’s why you should join us on the Trump protest in London on 13th July.”
Much to Trump’s chagrin, the weekend received international attention too - and not just for his stilted meeting with the queen, nor his controversial statement that his host Theresa May had “wrecked Brexit”.
Instead, the likes of Time Magazine, NBC, and the New York Times covered the mass scale of London’s anti-Trump demonstration.
Fast forward to just a year and a half later, when the president arrived in the capital on Monday evening for the Nato summit, the size and scale of the reaction paled in comparison. The Independent estimated the number of protesters in central London on Tuesday evening to be somewhere in the hundreds.
In only a short 17 months. the world that Trump operated in doesn't seem so distant from the UK at all any more. The style and character the Trumpist presidency has been successfully transplanted to Britain
Trump’s 2018 visit – his first as president of the US – came in the summer when his so-called “Muslim ban” was dominating headlines. He had a year before announced the US withdrawal from the Paris climate deal. And, his incessant parroting of the “build the wall” mantra had sparked indignation and outrage across the world.
But why has he not been met with a similar censure this time? Trump is currently embroiled in an impeachment scandal that might very well mark a watershed moment in the mogul’s presidency.
The collusion narrative – whether it is Russia or Ukraine – is as prominent in the media as ever. His national security adviser, director of national intelligence, deputy attorney general and chief of staff have all resigned since the start of the year.
Trump’s reckless behaviour in Syria – and his dismissal of his administration’s advice on the matter – has also generated serious and damning criticism, amidst broader panic from the Washington establishment that his foreign policy is erratic and self-destructive.
It does not seem like the dampened reaction to the president’s visit, then, is a product of improved behaviour. He is, at least in the eyes of his critics, as bad as he ever was. But Trump seemed distant from the sensibilities of UK politics in 2018.
The climate then was no paradise – May had squandered her majority in an ill-conceived election. Days before Trump’s arrival, her Brexit secretary David Davis, and foreign secretary Boris Johnson had resigned in protest over her Chequers’ Brexit proposal; her cabinet was hopelessly divided and the Brexit quagmire was only beginning to rear its head and reveal its full scale.
But July 2018 looked like the promised “sunlit uplands” Brexit would deliver compared to the way things are now. In those halcyon days, prime minister Boris Johnson was still an outlandish joke; unlawful parliamentary prorogation was an obscure event from the English Civil War; and mass purges from the ruling party were a feature of banana republics, not somewhere like the United Kingdom.
Transplanted to Britain
In only a short 17 months. the world that Trump operated in doesn’t seem so distant from the UK at all any more. The style and character the Trumpist presidency has been successfully transplanted to Britain – and what once caused tens of thousands of people to take to the streets in protest to his arrival now feels commonplace.
Trump’s first visit likely garnered such a backlash simply by virtue of being his first. But as Trump continues to trot out racist and sexist attack lines, decry fake news at whatever he disagrees with, and upend the traditional base on which the office of the president stood, we are becoming inured.
So too, as the UK’s political climate has transformed into something nearly unrecognisable from just a few years ago, the once-unthinkable becomes the new normal. The UK is going through an election remarkable mostly for its squalor and lack of vision. The Labour leader seems temperamentally incapable of apologising for the anti-Semitism that has wracked his party; and as Britain is once again is hit by a terrorist atrocity, Johnson shamelessly exploited the tragedy – against the express wishes of the bereaved families – to support his party’s law and order credentials.
There is eventually only so much outrage at politics an electorate can endure before becoming immune. Trump hasn’t gotten any better; and the political climate continues to spiral in an unprecedented direction. But as Trump departs the UK, and Johnson’s Conservatives grind inexorably towards a majority, people have reached the end of their tether. And it ends not with a bang, but a long drawn-out sigh.