by Sasha Abramsky edited by O Society July 1, 2019
When the president of the United States doesn’t hesitate to wade into the domestic politics of allied nations, and goes into attack-dog mode against political figures in those countries, it sends a strong signal both that traditional alliances are breaking down, and also that in this new entertainment-as-politics era, anything goes and etiquette be damned. The U.K., the U.S’s closest ally over the past century, has borne much of this stunning breach of protocol.
In his verbal dealings with the U.K., Trump repeatedly treated the country as a suzerainty, a fiefdom for which he assumes the right to “suggest” fundamental decisions, rather than as a sovereign state. Many of the president’s most scathing (and oftentimes bizarre) comments have been aimed at London’s progressive (and secular Muslim) Mayor Sadiq Khan.
In May 2016, then-candidate Trump challenged Khan to see who had a higher IQ. He has, in the years since, tweeted that the mayor is a “stone cold loser,” a “national disgrace who is destroying the City of London!” and misquoted Khan in a tweet to make it appear that the mayor wasn’t concerned about a terrorist attack that had taken the lives of several Londoners.
This isn’t the stuff of politics, but of the school playground — or of an absurdist novel by someone such as the Cold War-era Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal.
Most recently, the U.S. president attacked Khan for his handling of a spate of violent crime that has resulted in 116 murders in London in 2017, 136 murders in 2018, and roughly another 60 since the start of this year.
There is, as usual, more than a healthy dose of opportunism (and more than a passing disconnect with reality) to Trump’s words. The recent increase in violence in London, while awful, still hasn’t generated anywhere near the body count that most major U.S. cities (from St. Louis to Baltimore to Chicago to New York to Los Angeles) experience on a regular basis, despite a steadily decreasing rate of violent crime in the U.S. (New York’s murder numbers in 2018 were barely a tenth of what they were back in 1990.)
Even by the utterly debased truth-standards of the Trumpets, there is a peculiar absurdity to Donald Trump lecturing anybody on how to counter violent crime outbreaks. After all, this is a man who does not even consider gun control legislation in the wake of one mass shooting after another. Moreover, Trump frequently aligns himself with the most violent elements of society — from calling the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville “very fine people” to flirting with paramilitary violence.
This should lead us to question Trump’s bashing of international leaders all the more. When Trump says banal, cruel, inflammatory things about a U.S. political figure, as he so frequently does, one can, I suppose, just about make the argument that it’s all part of the rough-and-tumble of a fiercely partisan domestic politics. It’s still jaw-dropping how much venom one man can inject into the system, but at least it’s about chasing votes within the country of which Trump is leader.
However, when he does the same thing regarding other countries, we witness an extraordinary exercise in hubris: Assuming his role as a bull in a china shop, Trump butts heads with anyone and anything that he so chooses. He seems to think he has the right to do so because he is American, which means he is powerful — very powerful; and in Trump’s worldview, the powerful do not have to respect lesser mortals. Indeed, in his zero-sum understanding of human life and interactions, to respect others is to show a sign of unforgivable political and personal weakness: more respect going to others means less respect coming back to you.
Time and again, Trump has picked puerile fights with local and national leaders in allied countries. On the one hand, this is just bloviating; the tweets are the ugly rantings of a crotchety old man who uses the internet and his smartphone as extensions of his id. On the other hand, words matter — particularly when those words emanate from the most powerful human being on Earth.
He has said that “Paris is no longer Paris” in the shadow of terrorist attacks. He has critiqued German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her handling of the influx of refugees, mainly Syrian, in the 2015-16 period. He has called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dishonest and a liar; and, after the vituperative G7 summit in Canada last June, Trump’s then-economics adviser Larry Kudlow, presumably with the president’s blessing, accused Trudeau of stabbing the U.S. administration in the back. Trump has mocked the accent of the Indian prime minister, and accused the Japanese and the South Koreans of freeloading in their decades-long embrace of U.S. security guarantees.
Back in the U.K., Trump, a U.S. president with no sovereign authority over British politics, openly embraced the idea of a Boris Johnson premiership even before the hapless Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intention to step down. Johnson, a one-time mayor of London and then a foreign secretary, played a crucial role in the Brexit vote outcome by coming out strongly against EU membership during the referendum campaign. He has also achieved domestic notoriety over the years, as he has ratcheted up his nationalist rhetoric through talking about “piccaninnies” and making a slew of other racist comments. Many commentators compare Johnson’s rise in the U.K. to the real estate mogul’s in the U.S.
Trump has also argued that Nigel Farage, the extremist who helped set the conditions for the Brexit referendum victory, ought to be made the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.S. — an argument that was ridiculed when he made it, but which I’m sure will be resurrected if Johnson becomes prime minster in late July.
Like so many innately incurious and self-absorbed people, the 45th U.S. president thinks that he knows everything about everything, and that his most unfiltered of thoughts are thus worthy of broadcasting in their entirety. Read a few poorly written pieces of conservative commentary, and Trump is suddenly an expert on British crime rates. Read a few tweets on Brexit, and he knows the secret of how to untie the Gordian knot that the British political system has twisted itself into in attempting to implement an essentially impossible disengagement from Europe.
The real danger here is not that these comments betray Trump’s essential lack of wisdom and grace. There have, after all, been all-too-many boorish leaders dotted throughout human history. No, the deeper danger is that, seeking to sidestep the avalanche of inanity that now emanates from D.C. and heads in their direction, the U.S.’s global networks of allies simply start to tune the country out, essentially leaving a post-Trump United States as a heavily armed pariah — a nuclear behemoth with an otherwise shrunken global footprint. Last year, in response to Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior, German Chancellor Merkel said that Europe could no longer rely on the U.S. for protection and succor.
That parting of ways with erstwhile friends and allies is what happened to Russia as the USSR, within which it was the dominant political force, collapsed. And, as we now know all too well, the results haven’t exactly been pretty; nor, as Putin’s Russia has sought to reassert itself globally, has the impact on the rest of the world been benign.
Trump’s re-election campaign slogan is Keep America Great, KAG — which, a cursory glance at the Urban Dictionary will show, probably isn’t exactly the best acronym to run for high office on. But dodgy definitions aside, there’s a vertigo-inducing historical short-sightedness to the idea. One doesn’t keep anything or anyone great by gratuitously throwing insults and threats left and right at any and all in your line of vision.