After Trump, who knows what it will take to put the US and the UK back together again?

Younger readers might find this hard to believe, but there was a time, not so long ago, when both Britain and America were admired for the governing principles they espoused

April 17, 2019
Photo: Jack Taylor/PA Archive/PA Images
Photo: Jack Taylor/PA Archive/PA Images

The world watches the United (for the time being) Kingdom and the (not really) United States and asks in horror: what is wrong with you?

Both nations have stumbled through the looking-glass and found ourselves mired in a pair of 1990s movies. Britain is re-enacting “Groundhog Day,” waking up every morning, not to Sonny and Cher crooning “I Got You, Babe,” but to news of another failed Brexit vote. America is stuck in the “Madness of King George,” except now the deranged potentate’s name is Donald.

Younger readers might find this hard to believe, but there was a time, not so long ago, when both Britain and America were admired for the governing principles they espoused—if not always for their governments’ behavior. Britain gave the world the mother of parliaments and the common law; America took many of its most important ideals from the former colonial master and created a much-envied constitution promising equal protection under the law and free expression.

It was admittedly a messy process, what with various peasants’ revolts, civil wars, and not a few riots. But things in the early 21stcentury looked good, at least for a while. Both nations embraced the rights of women, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, people of colour, and people of various faiths. We knew that the planet was in peril from greenhouse gases. We realised that economies had to be global or fail. We assumed that the era of constant war had finally ended.

Boy, were we wrong. With the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, two of the world’s most influential nations pivoted sharply and marched resolutely backwards. The only thing Theresa May gets out of those constant trips to Brussels is frequent flyer miles. She may tell the British people that this time it will be different, this time the European Union will see the obvious advantages of giving the UK all the benefits of EU membership without having to be subject to EU rules, but it never works out that way. She just demands another vote in which parliament demonstrates it can’t even decide what it dislikes the most, much less what it likes.

In the US, Donald Trump lurches from gaudy lie to gaudy lie, dialing the crazy up to 11 and breaking off the knob. He pretends to have made some kind of  peace with North Korea, when all that he’s done is give Kim Jong-Un a few nice meals in posh hotels in Singapore and Hanoi; he hastens (another) war in the Middle East by blithely recognising Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights; he says he’ll cut off aid to central America, destroying the one chance the US might have of stemming the tide of unfortunate souls who are often fleeing the violence and horror of gang-controlled streets; he refuses to accept the reality of climate change and is assembling his own “scientists” to refute the expertise of NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and every other reputable researcher, as if simply shouting louder than everyone else makes what he says true. His followers love him not because they actually believe him, but because he is the perfect expression of the white American id: at once belligerent and terrified.

Donald Trump’s reaction to seeing Notre Dame in flames reveals (not for the first time) his ignorance of physics, ignorance of architecture and general bad manners: “Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!”

Smart money says all Trump knows about Notre Dame is that there’s a hunchback in there somewhere. He just likes to puff out his chest and give orders like the junk metal dictator he is.

As for Prime Minister May, her tweet about the great cathedral was much more polite—nobody’s ever called her rude, just deluded—but she, too, is a disaster. Plans for a Brexit crash-out are still on-going, despite her insistence that a deal will be passed in the Commons. Somehow magically there will never again be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic? And it won’t matter that billions of pounds-worth of business have already left Great Britain, probably never to return? I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

It’s hard to look at the smoldering stones of Our Lady of Paris and not see a metaphor for western democracies. The French president says the cathedral will be rebuilt. Maybe so. But for now it’s a sad sight, a great edifice in ruins. God knows what it will take to put the US and the UK back together again.