Donald Trump is like a man trying to reach a destination while using a faulty satnav. He wants growth, but won’t get it sustainably if taxes are cut but borrowing is not. He wants jobs, but these can only be guaranteed by competitive businesses, not tariff barriers. He wants to combat Islamist terror, but won’t do so effectively if he conflates ideology with religion, as he did yesterday when he referred to “Islamic terrorism”. He wants to “reinforce old alliances”, hopefully including NATO, but will weaken and potentially collapse them if his “new alliances” include Putin’s Russia. The destination that he wants to reach is a shining city on a hill – a “beautiful destination”, as he would put it – but some of his means are ugly, others useless, others both.
So much for his inauguration address yesterday. In flavour, was a UKIP speech, not a Conservative one – which is not surprising, because Trump is not really a Republican at all: that’s to say, a member of the cousin party to our own. Before he sought the party’s nomination for last year’s election, he had a history of donating more to Democrats than to members of the party he now represents. He sought the Reform Party’s candidacy for the presidency in 2000. He is essentially an independent, who has seized the presidency in a smash-and-grab-electoral raid, and a populist in the tradition of William Jennings Bryan and, more recently, Pat Buchanan.
None the less, he can work with mainstream Republicans – indeed, he has to, since he is member of the party, won its nomination, and is reliant on the support of a Republican-dominated Congress to achieve his aims. Where might Trump look abroad for an equivalent of those Republicans? Not to Germany, since Angela Merkel’s Christian Democracy is very different from modern Republicanism, let alone from his own views: his words about her in his Times and Der Bild interview last week – “Well, I start off trusting [Merkel and Putin] – but let’s see how long that lasts. It may not last long at all” – will have set alarm bells clanging in Berlin, and not just because he bracketed the leader of democratic Germany with that of autocratic Russia.
No, close cousins to those Republicans can be found instead in our own Party – like them, a staunch source of support for NATO. That Trump has been studiously positive about Theresa May suggests that he thinks so, too. And when it comes to analysis, their thinking overlaps. Her “just about managings” are Trump’s “you, the people”. “We…need to recognise the way in which a more global and individualistic world can sometimes loosen the ties that bind our society together, leaving some people feeling locked out and left behind,” she said in Davos earlier this week. It was a well-timed warning: take my advice – or be toppled by the would-be Trumps of European populism.
But if their diagnoses are similar, their prescriptions are different. The leifmotif of his inaugural address was “America First” – the slogan of the movement that wanted to keep America out of the war against Hitler. May’s slogan, by contrast, is “Global Britain”. She has reservations about the free market, as indicated by the original thinking about her Industrial Strategy, which will be launched next week. But Britain’s coming departure from the EU seems to have tilted her away from a flirtation with protectionism (when push came to shove, she approved the takeoever of ARM holdings by SoftBank). The Prime Minister has come round to what this site calls an Open Brexit, rather than a Closed One. She understands that she needs business to make Brexit work.
An economy that trades with the world. Lower taxes plus spending control. Support for NATO. All these are not merely Conservative tenets; they are classic Thatcherite ones. May’s great task is to work with America’s mainstream Republicans in weaning Trump off protectionism and isolationism, and keeping the western alliance together – crafting a foreign policy for it that steers between teaming up with Iran (since it is Russia’s ally, and he is Putin-friendly, at least to date) and going to war with it (since he has denounced the nuclear deal with it which Barack Obama approved).
She may not succed – and not simply because they are so unalike; one sweeping where the other is studious; one brash where the other is proper; Howard Stern’s interviewee meets the vicar’s daughter. Trump’s worldview is remote from hers. He seems to see politics as a kind of contact sport. “America will start winning again, winning like never before,” he said yesterday. The nearest British equivalent in recent years was another blonde lion, now greying: Michael Heseltine, whose rhetoric had a similar obsession with winning: indeed, he wrote a book called (ahem): The Challenge of Europe: can Britain win? But politics is not so much a sport as an art, whose ends are achieved by working with other people, not by a triumph of the individual will.
It will thus take a lot more than Trump to eradicate Islamist terror “from the face of the earth”, as he put it yesterday – as though he could put right the problems of Pakistan or Nigeria. But perhaps we should take the stone out of our own eye. Maybe the idea of May taming Trump overstates our own place in the world. Perhaps we take ourselves too seriously – as Macmillan did when he mused that Britain could be Greece to America’s Rome; as the media does when it puffs up Nigel Farage’s jamboree in Washington (which Trump himself, please note, didn’t actually attend). Either way, forget the May/Trump and Thatcher/Reagan analogy. These are different people in different times.
None the less, May must strive to get the best out of Trump. That means deploying every device in her personal armoury: she must flatter, cajole, wheedle, charm, intrigue and (whenever necessary) change the subject in order to get what she wants: in particular, she must steer the new President away from Putin; avoid differences over second-order issues, such as his stance on Israel/Palestine; begin to craft a free trade deal with America that will suits our needs as well as its own and, above all, seek to use him as a force for good in the coming Europe negotiation. Here is Trump’s one big plus for Britain: he is a Brexit enthuasiast. In this sense, his White House arrival is May’s lucky break. Since she’s got it, she must grab it.