You might have thought (hoped) Theresa May’s last joint press conference with Donald Trump in Washington, in January 2017, when the US President dished out put-down after put-down, would have marked the nadir in British-American relations; that things, as they say, could only get better.
But contemporary western politics is a bottomless hole; every time you convince yourself our representatives can go no lower, they slip further into the mire. And so, on Friday, just hours after Trump and May had broken bread together at a gala dinner, we were treated to a two-hander even more humiliating than the last.
Having rolled out the red carpet for a visit most British people appear to oppose, the embattled Prime Minister must have anticipated a crumb of support from the leader to whom she has hitched our post-Brexit wagon. Trump understood what was required of him; he knew a little bit of validation might help May win over Leavers who are threatening a vote of no confidence over her white paper. But the president’s attitude towards hospitality has much in common with the Campbell clan’s; as he dined on Scottish salmon at that dinner in Blenheim Palace, he was already raising the knife above his host’s back.
By the time the event was over, the Sun had splashed on an interview in which he claimed May’s compromise plan had made a US trade deal untenable. In a premiership characterised by a succession of excruciatingly awkward moments, the sight of her standing compliantly by the man who had just trashed her, as he ducked and dissembled in front of the press, set new standards in public shame.
You might think, too, that having once being photographed holding Trump’s tiny hand, May would have spent this visit with her own clamped firmly to her side. But no, there she was on Thursday in a long red frock being physically led up the steps of Blenheim Palace like a reluctant toddler. Predictably, someone photo-shopped the image so May was also wearing a white winged hat like those in The Handmaid’s Tale. Though Gilead metaphors are wearing a bit thin, this one seemed apt as May embraced the role of submissive victim.
We know that Trump has no respect for anyone, other than tyrants, but he harbours a particular contempt for women in positions of power; Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, May, Nicola Sturgeon, even the Queen who, at 92, had to suffer the ignominy of her guest arriving 15 minutes late, then standing directly in front of her as they inspected the Queen’s Guard.
Having spent the last couple of years gaslighting America, it was little surprise Trump should use the same coercive tactics on May. He mansplained Brexit ( “if only she’d listened to me”), swung from flirting with Boris Johnson to referring to his relationship with May as “the highest level of special”, and messed around with her perceptions of reality by sticking steadfastly to his flawed versions of events even when they were demonstrably untrue.
Just like last time, May suffered it all, visibly flinching only when Trump suggested she had responded to the Sun interview with the words “Don’t worry – it’s only the press.” It’s tough, I guess, to challenge the kind of man who lies without compunction; who will keep on saying he was in the UK the day before Brexit (and predicted the result) though everyone knows he didn’t arrive until the day after; who, when challenged, not only refuses to back down, but can rely on a White House communications director to repeat the lie on his behalf.
May, who has managed to alienate herself from other potential allies, including many within her own party, is particularly susceptible to this kind of manipulation. Trump knew that if he continued to wrong-foot her – abusing her one minute and reassuring her the next – her confidence would be undermined in the run-up to their talks on Friday. If he continues on this course, the logic goes, she will be vulnerable enough to accept a trade deal on whatever terms are offered: the privatisation of the NHS and chlorinated chicken in exchange for a tiny boost to our economy.
There were fleeting moments in the Chequers press conference when, for the first time, I felt something akin to sympathy for the Prime Minister. Imagine having the world’s most powerful leader messing with your mind in a public arena. But May cynically aligned herself with an unscrupulous man because it suited her political agenda; and if, 18 months down the line, she finds herself so needy and dependent she cannot raise her voice in defence of London mayor Sadiq Khan or migrants fleeing violence, she only has herself to blame. However much you have been weakened, it is craven to collude in racism and Islamophobia.
Other politicians have been more circumspect and so are free not to kowtow. It’s easier for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to be stand-offish, of course, because they do not have to engage in international diplomacy; but even so, it was refreshing to hear Corbyn address the London protest and to discover Trump had spurned Sturgeon, presumably to prevent her spurning him. Better still, Sturgeon chose to mark Trump’s arrival in Scotland, where, against the spirit of his office, he is promoting his business interests, by leading the Pride march in Glasgow: a gesture perfect in its inclusivity and clear renunciation of everything he stands for.
Across the country, ordinary people were also doing a good job of expressing the things May couldn’t or wouldn’t say. In London, Glasgow and Edinburgh they channelled their creativity into clever new slogans like “Rage Against the Tangerine” and “All In All I’m Just Another Prick With No Wall”. And, yes, perhaps some of those involved did have their eye more on their social media profiles than on the substantive issues. Perhaps some of the entertainment was a bit flippant and silly. Perhaps too much fun was being had off the back of Trump’s dehumanising policies. But as the US president continues to sap the joy out of life and leave us facing an uncertain future, humour may be all we have left.
There is no obvious way to get Trump impeached or to force the Conservative Party to abandon Brexit. The best we can do is to refuse to be gaslit; to keep our values intact, our wits sharp and our souls inviolable.