When it comes to Donald Trump, normal standards of diplomatic conduct and political expression are ancient history. Three years on from the presidential campaign that smashed those idols, everyone seems happy to make do with life in the ruins.
Despite the fact that this week’s state visit by the US president turned into a beauty pageant for Tory leadership contenders seeking his endorsement, Downing Street was on the whole pleased with how it went.
It’s a strange assessment, given that Nigel Farage, the leader of a party threatening to destroy the Conservatives, got more access than the Prime Minister. But around Trump, normal judgement no longer seems to apply.
The dominant impression from being up close to a Trump presidential visit is how much we suspend our disbelief. Everything Trump says is taken at face value, even when he says two completely contradictory things in the space of an hour – as he did when asked if NHS contracts would form part of a US-UK trade deal.
We should know by now: Trump’s words are often meaningless and his promises usually empty. His threats towards those who can’t or won’t hit back, however – those he follows through on.
What was the point of the state visit? It was supposed to be a post-Brexit victory lap, when a newly-unshackled UK could recast the transatlantic bond as its most important relationship. In exchange, the president got his state dinner with the Queen – highly personal for Trump, who inherited his love of the royals from a Scottish mother who was glued to the TV on the day of the coronation.
But the UK hasn’t left the EU, so there were no meaningful trade talks. The UK instead has an IOU – and if you want to learn about Trump’s record with IOUs, read reporting by my colleague Martyn McLaughlin and the US media on the president’s financial affairs.
With all the pomp and pageantry exchanged for a promise, people would be forgiven for thinking an agreement will come gift-wrapped.
Brexiteers who believe that are in for the rudest shock of all. If you want to see what negotiating with the Trump administration looks like, see how the US has treated other close allies.
Trump entered the Oval Office pledging to tear up the 25 year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico. He was talked out of that, with Canada launching a lobbying operation that fanned out into all 50 states, and enlisted every scrap of influence close to Trump’s circle.
But even after convincing Trump to reform NAFTA rather than abandon it – and allowing him to rename it and claim it’s a new deal – his America First ideology demands that the US is seen to be at war with its closest partners. So last year, Canada and Mexico were hit with steel and aluminum tariffs originally aimed at the west’s real trade adversary, China, and they were also extended to the EU, including the UK.
No sooner have these been lifted from the US’s North American neighbours, but Trump is threatening new tariffs on all Mexican products, ratcheting up month by month, until all illegal immigration is stopped.
Whether it’s followed through on or not, the warning makes plain that Trump sees international trade as domestic political leverage. There are no swing states for the UK to win. So when Trump talks about a “phenomenal” trade deal, he means phenomenal for him.