It’s an odd move, diplomatically, to compare an unspecified hospital in the capital city of a country you are shortly to visit to a war zone. But we long ago learned that Donald Trump is to international relations what Hurricane Harvey was to Texas, which is, coincidentally, where the US president was when he chose to use London’s current knife crime crisis as a weapon with which to attack our gun control laws (and thereby endorse the US’s lack of them).
Just a few months ago, in the wake of the mass shooting at Parkland, Florida, and the outcry that followed, the US president pledged to ban bump stocks, the mechanisms that allow a semi-automatic weapon to shoot almost as fast as a fully automatic machine-gun, and to enforce existing laws on background checks. But for Trump, a new day signals a new audience and a new policy (albeit delivered with the same old cynicism).
In front of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Trump was a typical blend of bluster and braggadocio. Back in Washington, the scandals were stacking up. Earlier in the week, Rudy Giuliani confirmed that during the presidential campaign Trump had reimbursed his lawyer Michael Cohen for $130,000 hush money paid to stop porn actor Stormy Daniels going public over their alleged affair. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt faced calls for his resignation in relation to allegations over first-class luxury travel, a “sweetheart” housing deal and the use of a loophole to secure jobs for two aides. In Dallas, mobile billboards showing the faces of NRA president Wayne LaPierre and Russian leader Vladimir Putin with the question: “Why have you [the NRA] cozied up to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin?” were driven round the convention centre like wild animals circling their prey. Inside, however, Trump was among friends. Their special relationship may have been tested when he briefly flirted with raising the minimum age for purchasing a gun, but all that was in the past. On Friday, he made all the right “hands off the Second Amendment” and “you can have my gun when you pry it out of my cold dead fingers” noises, insulting several of the US’s European allies for extra points. As well as portraying London as chibbing central, he suggested the co-ordinated terror attacks which claimed 130 lives in Paris in 2015 could have been stopped if civilians were allowed to carry guns (just as arming teachers would, of course, have stopped the Parkland killings).
Trump didn’t make his points coherently; his speech was so full of verbal tics and inconsistencies – “Your second amendment rights are under siege, but they will never be under siege as long as I am president” – CNN compiled a listicle of its 40 most “breathtaking” lines. Luckily LaPierre was on hand to communicate the underlying message. Though hundreds of thousands took part in the anti-gun “march for our lives” staged by the pupils of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the only march that mattered was “the march to the poll on election day”. That’s what Trump’s gun-toting rhetoric was all about: shoring up Republican support in the hopes the party will retain control of congress in November’s mid-terms.
Such is the NRA’s love for hearing its own soundbites parroted by others, Trump’s parody of a speech received ovation after ovation. I hope he made the most of it because – let’s face it – he is unlikely to receive such an enthusiastic response on his first visit to the UK as president in July. Indeed, it is possible Trump’s perception of London as a no-go area is born of the number of times he has been warned to keep his distance. He doesn’t understand the hostility is deeply personal.
Still, even a man with so little self-awareness must have some sense of how awkward the “working trip” is likely to prove. Already downgraded from the state visit promised after his inauguration, there will be no official banquet or carriage procession up the Mall. And though the president is expected to meet the Queen and hold bilateral talks with Theresa May, they will no doubt be keeping their hands well out of clasping reach.
What there will almost inevitably be is protesters and lots of them. According to some newspapers, 170,000 people have already registered an interest in taking part in a London demonstration organised by Owen Jones and the Stop Trump Coalition, with more expected to attend coordinated demos across the country.
If Trump thinks he can escape all this vitriol with a trip to Scotland – that rural idyll to the north of England where the people are deferential and not at all angry – then he has been badly briefed. Whether his journey takes him to Balmoral or just to Turnberry (the latter being a safe bet given his love of golf and his business interests), he is likely to be met with the kind of backlash that makes comedian Janey Godley’s one-woman “Trump is a C***” protest look like a peace delegation and insults such as “shitgibbon” and “cockwomble” sound like sweet nothings.
None of it will make any difference; just like on his last visit, shortly after the EU referendum, when he erroneously praised the Scots for voting for Brexit, Trump will view his reception through the prism of his own derangement. Photographs of the demonstrations will be met with tweets reading #fakenews #recordcrowds and #sad.
If the scandals at home can’t claim Trump, then what happens here will barely register. As others have pointed out, US voters already perceive the US president as unethical and dishonest so finding out he lied about paying his lawyer hush money merely reinforces what they already know. They don’t care that instead of draining the swamp, he has been wallowing in it; so long as he keeps on cutting taxes of the rich, they’ll turn a blind eye to his misdemeanours.
Some opponents keep on hoping, of course. They look to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Russian scandal and the possible obstruction of justice by the president; they look to the Stormy Daniels revelations for any evidence of law-breaking any that might make impeachment unavoidable.
Yet with the applause from the NRA convention still ringing in our ears, it is hard to throw off the impression that Trump is bulletproof; impregnable. Whatever idiocy he utters is greeted with cheers; whatever shots are fired just ricochet off his shiny surface.