It’s been a miserable two weeks for our Foreign Secretary. Not only did Boris Johnson trip up over the British woman held in Iran; not only did he find himself accused of puppeteering Theresa May to further his and Michael Gove’s Brexit ambitions; he also committed the most grievous PR sin any politician can commit: he praised Donald Trump in public. ‘What you’ve got to realise is that the American President is just one of the huge, great global brands,’ Boris told Fox & Friends. ‘He is penetrating corners of the global consciousness that I think few other presidents have ever done.’
That made people very cross. The Labour MP David Lammy called Johnson an ‘odious arse-kisser’ and countless others echoed that sentiment. Boris was a brown-nose, a buffoon, a national disgrace, and so on.
What nobody admitted was that Boris had, as he so often does, said something true. Donald Trump is a phenomenon the like of which the world has never seen, and while most political analysts are still struggling to accept his presidency, the rest of humanity is fast coming to terms with it. His approval rating at home hit 46 per cent this week, according to a Rasmussen survey, up from 38 per cent in August.
Abroad, too, after a very poor start, his stock is on the rise. His tour of Asia, which ended this week, is the first major foreign policy success of his presidency. Trump visited Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines without a major hitch. If 80 per cent of diplomacy is just showing up, Trump did that and more. He has improved his reputation in the region enormously.
Trump seems to connect with Asians in a way that Barack Obama never could. His suggestion that he broker talks to settle the disputes in the South China Seas — ‘I’m a very good mediator and arbitrator,’ he said — may have been brushed aside. Yet he was given the full regal treatment everywhere he went and his speeches were well-received. It’s partly thanks to language barriers: Asians are tone deaf to his mind-bendingly silly oratory. But it’s more than that. Trump is getting better at the global-statesman schtick. Aside from one tweet about Kim Jong-un being ‘short and fat’, he just about managed to behave like a dignified world leader throughout.
The western media, desperate for him to fail, made a fuss over two supposed gaffes in Japan. Both turned out to be what Trump calls fake news. One was the video of him dumping a whole box of koi food in a Tokyo pond while standing next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This was widely circulated as evidence of Trump’s impatience, his short attention span and lack of manners. But the fuller and much less watched clip showed that, only seconds earlier, Abe had also dumped his fish feed in the water. Trump had merely imitated his host.
The other supposed blunder came during Trump’s speech to Japanese business leaders, in which he said: ‘Try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over.’ OMG! Japan already builds millions of cars in America, screamed the media know-alls. It turned out, however, that the know-alls were being stupid. Anybody who bothered to read the full quote could tell Trump was well aware that the Japanese make cars in the US. He even praised some of the automobile industry delegates in the crowd for doing so. The reason Trump loathers were quick to translate these non-events into howling gaffes was that they had little else to go on.
Western left-liberals are so quick to map their assumptions on to everything that they forget the world doesn’t think the way they do. In fact, Trump has a natural affinity with Asian leaders, especially the newly re-elected Abe, another wannabe strongman, and the Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, another loudmouth crazy. Abe gave Trump a white baseball cap that said ‘Donald & Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater’. Duterte sang him a weird love song. It’s true, in Manila, protestors burned effigies of Trump. But protesters don’t represent the main body of opinion. Japanese citizens told reporters they were impressed that Trump took the time to meet the parents of Megumi Yokota, a woman kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s. And the Vietnamese were thrilled that he spent as much time in their country as he had with the dreaded Chinese.
The Chinese responded warmly, too. Trump is no longer quite so in thrall to Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, who wanted to wage ‘economic war’ against the Red Dragon. He still banged the ‘America First’ drum in Asia — it remains the central point of his presidency — but he mixed that message with plenty of deference to Beijing. Chinese voices told western reporters last week that they admired Trump’s ability to make tough decisions.
Trump’s common touch has global reach. He really does have an ability to communicate with the masses across different cultures. Take, for instance, the way he presented China’s premier Xi Jinping with a video of his six-year-old granddaughter, Arabella Kushner, wearing a mini geisha dress and reciting songs and poems in Mandarin. The stunt went largely unnoticed on western social media accounts; those who did spot it tended to cringe. Yet on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, little Arabella is a hit — she has been since she first sang for Xi in Florida earlier this year. The latest Arabella clip got millions of Weibo views. Users said it was ‘extremely cute’ and ‘the best gift’ Trump could have given his hosts. They admired Ivanka Trump (Donald’s daughter and Arabella’s mother) for her ridiculous tiger-mommy skills.
None of this is to say that the Donald is everywhere loved. Of course he’s not. The latest Pew ‘global attitudes’ survey shows that confidence in American leadership has drained since he took office. In Russia and Israel, respondents were more enthusiastic about Trump than Barack Obama, but nowhere else.
Then again, the pre-election polls in America last year never quite picked up the extent of the Trump phenomenon. A recent John Mason International survey of 1,000 British school children found that, to them, President Trump represented America more than any other US icon, including the Statue of Liberty and Disney World. Trump is not just a rabble-rouser. He is, as Boris suggested, too big for that now.