x

Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Has Trump made Uncle Sam the embarrassing relative at a wedding?

The US president's UK tour sparked a tidal wave of anti-Trump sentiment, which is in danger of breeding a generation of America haters, writes Gavin Esler

The Trump Baby balloon over Parliament Square, London, last Friday. Andy Rain / EPA
The Trump Baby balloon over Parliament Square, London, last Friday. Andy Rain / EPA

In the unlikeliest of places, the Amazon jungle, I once met two intrepid young British tourists. I was filming television reports on the burning of the rainforest. They were eco-tourists exploring an extraordinary and exotic part of the world. I happened to mention that I had also been filming in another remarkable natural setting – the deserts of the western United States. I suggested they might like to visit the US.

“Oh, we couldn’t go there,” one of the British adventurers said. “We hate the United States.”

“And Americans,” the other chipped in.

I remember being stunned by this bizarre conversation because it was so unusual. All over the world I have met people who dislike some American government policies but most still broadly admire, as I do, the American people, their successes and much of their culture. Could you imagine a world without Apple, Google, Boeing, rock and roll, Ford, Hollywood, jazz, blues, hip-hop and hamburgers? Or without Madonna, Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, Mark Spitz, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King?

In Britain, where there have often been demonstrations against the actions of the US government, whether in Vietnam, the Middle East or elsewhere, the British have always distinguished between what American governments may do and the warmth and hospitality of the American people. My first encounter with Americans, when I was aged about 10, was with the sons of US Air Force personnel stationed near where I grew up in Scotland.

The American military was part of Nato forces dedicated – or so I grew up to believe – to help keep me safe. But there was something even more important to me aged 10 — American sandwiches. When I visited the homes of American friends, instead of a thin Scottish sandwich, the American mothers would add meat, cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and pickles. America, I decided, must be a very fine place indeed, if they made such thick and juicy sandwiches.

In the past few days the US president’s visit to Britain led to enormous and unprecedented anti-Trump –but not anti-American – demonstrations. The real motivation goes far beyond his policies to a profound dislike of Donald Trump personally.

To the British demonstrators, he is every American stereotype – a brash, ill-mannered, arrogant, sexist, overweight, uncultured and untalented bully – a President Gump but without Forrest Gump’s charm.

While in Britain, he intervened clumsily in our most toxic and divisive political issue, Brexit. He undermined Prime Minister Theresa May and then about turned and heaped lavish praise on her.

And, characteristically, he told some obvious lies, claiming he predicted the result of the Brexit vote in 2016 when visiting his golf course in Scotland, even though that visit took place after the Brexit result.

It would be sad if the anti-Trump sentiment creates another generation of the kind of America-haters I met in the Amazon. The British generally love to hear American leaders speak of “the special relationship” with the United States.

But as one presidential adviser put it to me, that phrase is used to “tickle the Brits’ belly”. Yet Mr Trump has not tickled the belly. He has punched it. He claimed Britain is the “highest level of special”, whatever that might mean, then concluded his visit by acting oafishly in front of Britain’s 92-year-old head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. Such conduct smacks less of special and more of offensive.

British ambassadors in the US frequently lecture journalists not to talk about “the special relationship”. One told me we should see it merely as one relationship among others. As a superpower, the US has a “special relationship” with Japan, South Korea, Ireland, France, Germany, Mexico, Israel, Canada, Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries and this week the British special relationship became much less special.

Mr Trump upset the defence relationship through his attitude to Nato, undermined the shared free trade economic relationship in the G7 and has been publicly critical of shared allied intelligence systems which blame Russia for (among other things) interfering in the US elections and using nerve gas to kill on British soil.

A few months ago I argued that the British government should not invite Mr Trump to our country. But I accept his visit has had one remarkably positive effect.

The United Kingdom is a divided nation, even on football and the World Cup. Some Scots and some in Northern Ireland will never support any England team. But Mr Trump's visit broadly united the UK in relief when he had gone.

In the Second World War, the British used to joke that American soldiers were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”, while recognising that America was and remains our indispensable ally. But the Trump visit has been like sitting next to an embarrassing uncle at a family wedding. To keep the family happy, you smile and act politely but you cannot wait for him to leave and go home.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter