Knockabout stunts to humiliate Donald Trump during his UK visit are great as long as we remember the serious issues at stake, writes Dani Garavelli
Last week, on US Independence Day, Therese Okoumo staged the perfect protest against Donald Trump’s policy on separating immigrant children from their parents. The Congolese woman, who has lived in New York for at least a decade, scaled the base of the Statue of Liberty and proceeded to nestle in its green copper robes.
It was a gesture replete with symbolism, riffing on both the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal” and Emma Lazarus’s poem: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” As if her protest wasn’t already overloaded with meaning, Okoumo also quoted a more contemporary source of inspiration: Michelle Obama. “Our beloved First Lady said: ‘When they go low, we go high,’ and I went as high as I could,” she told a press conference shortly after being forced down from her perch.
The protest worked on two levels. It served as a reminder of the US’s founding values, but also of how far the current administration and its white supremacist cheerleaders have strayed from them.
For people who affect not to care what others think, those cheerleaders sure whipped themselves up into an ahistorical frenzy. Fox political commentator Tucker Carlson tried to claim America’s most famous landmark for the alt-right by referring to it as “Our Statue of Liberty”. And even Jerry Willis, the spokesman for the National Park Service, which evacuated Liberty Island as police tried to talk Okoumo down – seemed have forgotten what it originally stood for.
“People have the right to speak out, but I don’t think they have the right to co-opt the Statue of Liberty to do it,” said Willis, as if the torch-bearer had been placed there to provide a backdrop for people’s Facebook pages and not as a beacon of hope for all those sailing into the harbour to Ellis Island.
Here at home, some of the president’s detractors are planning their own stunt for his UK visit later this week: a 20ft Trump baby blimp with a nappy and tiny hands which will fly over London as he arrives on Friday. This is also an effective – though less profound – comment on Trump’s tenure: a balloon for a balloon, a giant inflatable to deflate his huge ego. A pedant might question whether it is possible to lampoon a man who last week embarked on an hour’s worth of incoherent ramblings – sample quote: “I have broken more records than Elton John, he seems to have a lot of records. And I, by the way, I don’t have a musical instrument. I don’t have a guitar or an organ” – at a Montana rally. But a protest is a protest is a protest and – as the US lurches further and further towards fascism – the more of them Trump is forced to face the better.
There are elements within the UK who believe such flagrant displays of hostility are misplaced. Nigel Farage wants to cosy up to the US president even if he refuses to return his calls. He thinks it is the crowd-funded blimp that makes London look ridiculous and not the Westminster government’s decision to roll out the red carpet for a unpalatable leader.
There are other people who think the mass demonstrations – in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow – will merely satisfy the president’s craving for attention. They say the best way to express our contempt would be by ignoring his visit completely. But Trump is not some sad internet troll who – if we opt not to feed him – will disappear back under his bridge. He is a dangerous, powerful man, with dangerous powerful men around him; and our silence would imply both approval and complicity.
For Trump, the UK visit is an opportunity to demonstrate his statesmanship: a gala dinner with the great and the good at Blenheim Palace, talks with Theresa May at Chequers; a tête-à-tête with the Queen at Windsor – and, of course, some golf in the old country – are all designed to communicate the idea of great respect.
This is a man, incidentally, whose administration can’t reunite all the children it separated at the Mexican Border because it didn’t keep track of where it was taking them; a man who last week mocked the #MeToo movement while launching an attack on Senator Elizabeth Warren, disputing her claim to be part Native American. He is a racist, a misogynist and a bully, and if our government doesn’t see fit to challenge him, then it behoves all those who abhor his policies to make their voices heard.
Sheffield’s colourful mayor, Magid Magid, has already made a splash, by donning a sombrero in solidarity with Mexico, branding Trump a “wasteman” and banning him from the city. And large numbers are expected to turn out to boo the president on every day of his visit. Over 150,000 people have already expressed an interest in attending a Carnival of Resistance in London on Friday, and there are at least 29 other protests around the country.
Scots too will no doubt rise to the occasion, gathering in the cities, but also at whichever golf course, Turnberry or Menie, he decides to grace with his presence. Never lost for invective, the very thought of Trump seems to get the creative juices flowing. Last time round our insulting tweets were so impressive, US comedian Samantha Bee enlisted David Tennant to read some of them out on her Full Frontal show; they included “wiggy slice”, “weapons-grade plum” and “toupéd F***trumpet”. Comedian Janey Godley – she of the infamous “Trump is a C***” sign – has been gearing herself up for action.
In the end, of course, however humiliated Trump feels, he will put on a brave face. Having avoided the London hecklers by steering clear of the capital, he will bluster and bray about Fake News. He will tell anyone who will listen how the British people came out in their droves to cheer him on. But the images of his visit will make their own way into the world. And, hopefully, what others will see is dissent, contained fury and, yes, a giant orange baby floating above the Houses of Parliament.
It is worth remembering, however, that when Trump last visited on the day after the EU referendum, he was still a joke candidate. Though the Leave campaign had just won its surprise victory, we little imagined the former Apprentice host, with the amusing cockcomb, would tap into the same anti-establishment vibe and claim the title of POTUS.
This time round he is the US president and the chief instigator of something sinister: a hate-filled movement which is spreading out like a Rorschach ink blot across Europe. So while it’s fine to mock the man and his infantile temperament we should avoid getting sidetracked; it’s his policies which need to be seriously attacked.
Nor should we be too sanctimonious. While thinking up clever slogans for our placards, we should continue to harangue the Westminster government which has its own iniquitous immigration policies. As the Trump circus rolls into town, it would be all to easy to embark on an Evangelical mission to clean up the US; and to ignore the dirt gathering in our back yard.