ConservativeHome wanted Hillary Clinton to win America’s last presidential election. Donald Trump’s flirtation with Russia, and his ambiguity about NATO, provided reason enough at the time. In suggesting that he is not really a Republican at all (the President gave more money to the Democrats until 2011), we were in sympathy with a significant slice of his own party in Congress, which distrusts his position on Putin, state spending and protection. Trump is essentially a classic American populist outsider – doing more successfully what other recent ones, such as Pat Buchanan, also attempted to do.
Then there is character. Bully, braggart, narcissist, liar, Islamophobe, smear merchant, serial tax avoider, supporter of torture, a failure as a businessman who inherited his wealth: we haven’t been shy of reproducing the litany of accusations against him. It is an unnerving experience to have a President who retweets neo-nazis, and then rebukes a British Prime Minister when she complains. Or who threatens North Korea with war by Twitter. The Trump experience may end in tears. At home, he is stoking an unsustainable boom (since he couldn’t seem to care less about public spending). Abroad, he is erratic and unpredictable: his North Korean gambit, the toast of gawping broadcasters this morning, may end simply in giving a totalitarian dictator prestige while leaving him armed. Then there are those serio-comic appointments and sackings: Comey, Flynn, Priebus, Tillerson, McMaster…Bannon. Mueller could yet topple Trump. British voters give him the thumbs-down.
Theresa May will have thought her way through all that. Hence the quick-in-and-out programme being drawn up for the President’s working visit on the happy date of Friday 13th July. She doesn’t want to risk unpopularity by association. Trump himself will be more than aware of her take and that of the punters. There will be no bunting, no parade, no cheering crowds, no American soliders marching – as there were when he visited France last year, and Emmanuel Macron, that other limelighter, laid on a Bastille Day parade.
To which we can only add that – despite all the above – this minimalism does Britain no credit, and will do it no good.
For there is another way altogether of thinking about the President. As our columnist Ben Roback wrote recently, he has quietly patched up his relations with his party in Congress. His tax bill got through it – a big win for him. Unemployment is low. Workers are gaining from a strong economy. Business confidence has risen. To be sure, the business and political cycles are out of kilter but, with the Democrats lurching to the left, Trump may well be re-elected in 2020.
As for foreign affairs, the President is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If he doesn’t intervene in Syria, he is allowing Putin to expand his reach; if he does, he is risking confrontation with Russia. There is a case for saying that he has found a middle way between these extremes – punishing the Assad regime for crossing the chemical weapons red line without risking its replacement by fanatical jihadis. His North Korean adventure may end in failure, but when did his predecessors ever succeed? Bill Clinton, George W Bush, St Barack Obama, all praise be upon him – none of them found a way through. The Kim dynasty flourished and North Korea armed. At least Trump is striving to find a way of halting an Asian arms race. In the wake of that Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in handshake, we must cross our fingers and wish the President luck. His Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, is first-rate. Trump seems to take the good advice he gets: after some initial hesitancy, he was solid enough over the Salisbury outrage.
The unavoidable truth is that we need America. We need it for security, with its massive scope, as a fellow member of the “five eyes”. We need it for trade. (Brexit, anyone?) We need it as a big part of Global Britain’s outreach. And since we need America, we also need Trump. May will be as wary as Macron of confrontation with Iran. The difference is that the French President has been agile enough to try to warn his American counterpart off it. His recent speech in Congress was part of the payback for that Trump visit to France.
Leaving the EU makes our security offer to Europe all the more important – in keeping us outward-facing; in underpinning Europe’s security. We must at least match France as a military power. Stopping Macron from stealing the show is yet another reason for May not to back off a warm welcome for Trump. This site hankers after a state visit. But if that isn’t possible, May can at least roll out the red carpet in June. The only Cabinet member who seems to get the point is Boris Johnson.