Even on a day like this, a wet Tuesday in June, you would expect the British left to find a few thousand protesters to issue screaming denunciations of Donald Trump. So it was, and here they were: Quaker socialists and union activists, avengers for Palestine and gay priders, euro-federalists, vegans, concerned mothers, NHS idolaters and 13 people dressed as chickens. They marched out of Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall.
Nobody rubs them up the wrong way quite like Trump does. When President Xi Jinping, the closest personage the 21st century has produced to an actual dictator, made an official state visit to the UK in 2015 the marble streets of Whitehall were largely deserted. When Donald Trump arrives, he is welcomed by the sight of an enormous phallus mowed into one of England’s green and pleasant fields.
In many respects this is a perverse testament to American influence. Britain is surely the most American country in Europe. The British walk like Americans, talk like Americans, eat American food, communicate with American devices (made in China anyway), order taxis and find partners and hotels with American apps, use slang learned from American musicians and sitcoms, and are spied on by American national security agencies. Though this decades-long process has become largely invisible to the British themselves, undoubtedly it has taken place.
If half of America fervently hates Donald Trump you can expect the same number of Britons to feel the same way. America sneezes; Britain duly catches a cold.
Demos and protests in London usually follow the same scheme: you note with surprise that lesbians and hardline Muslim clerics feel comfortable marching alongside each other; there is a stage where minor and major figures on the British left castigate the usual bogeymen; sometimes there are weak musical interludes between speakers, sometimes there are weak slam poetry interludes between speakers instead; the memory and example of Nelson Mandela is evoked, at least once. The wrongs of the world apparently righted, the activists return home for a slice of nut roast and a nice cup of tea.
Steve Bannon has a habit of telling audiences that Donald Trump will be in their personal lives for the next 30 years. Quite what this enigmatic remark means in practice has to be guessed at, for Bannon has never fully elaborated it. Only when watching a mass protest against Trump does Bannon’s meaning becomes clear.
Whether the speaker was a ‘champion of the global south’ or a ‘proud child of immigrants’, the oratory used at today’s demonstration was sub-Trumpian. Trump’s opponents have been infected with Trump’s aggressive, demagogic style. Bannon believes this style will stick to politics in the decades to come. ‘Fuck Trump’ was the main soundbite at this rally; the phrase a speaker could bank on to produce a loud, physical cheer from the crowd.
No doubt it’s easy, and very satisfying, to state one’s desire to ‘fuck’ the sitting president of the United States, especially when it will be gratefully received by thousands of people who probably think that the best way to fight climate change is to form a drum circle or recycle their old shoes. It is much harder to explain why traditional supporters of the left, whether they are in France or Hungary, India or Brazil, continue to desert in droves, often switching their allegiance to Trump-like parties and politicians.
The British polemicist and author Owen Jones appeared to acknowledge this problem when he spoke to The Spectator earlier. Asked about Trump’s prospects in 2020, he said: ‘The less inspiring the alternative offered by the Democrats, the more likely it is Trump will win again.’
As the speeches in Whitehall ended, the protest was encouraged to gather in Parliament Square (for more speeches). A small knot of pro-Trump demonstrators with the usual contentious headgear had formed on a street corner there, surrounded by a ring of irritated-looking coppers.
When the anti-Trumpists saw this tiny counter-demonstration, a strange thing happened. Both sides greeted each other warmly, with handshakes and hugs, smiles and welcomes. Earnest conversation broke out. People listened to each other. Common humanity looked as if it was being established, at last. Astonished journalists looked on in amazement: this was, perhaps, the most civilized scene they’d ever witnessed.
I’m joking, of course. One side started screaming the word ‘Nazi’, the other directed cries of ‘Commie’ back at their enemies.
A group of Chinese tourists watched on, looking prosperous and well-lunched. They took out their phones, took pictures of the ugliness, and laughed.