Donald Trump’s Royal Treatment
Veni, vidi, tweeti. Thus would Donald Trump, in all modesty and likelihood, sum up the tremendous events of the past two days. His presence in Britain, on a state visit, has been the usual low-key affair; according to some reports, his entourage numbers no more than a thousand. Having landed in Air Force One, he has lumbered around in Cadillac One, better known as the Beast. Joining the parade is an array of support vehicles, including a hazardous-materials mitigation unit. You may think that Cleopatra’s fabled arrival, on a barge with a golden poop, was on the wrong side of ostentatious, but, when set beside the paraphernalia of modern power, her magnificence dims. The barge is trumped by the Beast. She might as well have taken an Uber.
Trump’s plane landed at Stansted Airport, to the northeast of London, which, to hundreds of thousands of travellers, is a useful but deeply unglamorous portal to Europe. If you want to grab a flight to Bologna, at half past six in the morning, for thirty dollars, Stansted is the place, and it was pleasing to think of the President lining up patiently at passport control, along with all the bleary lads returning to England after a bout of bachelor partying in Tallinn or Ibiza. In the event, he lingered on the runway, just long enough to continue his Twitter mini-war with Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. The President entertains a particular animus against Khan and took the opportunity to accuse him of being a “stone cold loser.” The implication being that he, as Commander-in-Chief, is a red-hot winner. Khan, for his part, has objected not to the presence of Trump in the United Kingdom but to the splendor with which he is being received. The circumstance is fine; it’s the pomp that grates.
In one respect, the key is surprisingly low. Most world leaders, when invited by the Queen, get to mosey down the Mall, toward Buckingham Palace, in a golden coach. Could there be a more essentially Trumpian mode of transport? Or a more efficient way of reassuring his base that, come next year, they will be voting, for all intents and purposes, for King Midas? Or a fonder remembrance of the bathrooms in his suite at Trump Tower, where, one imagines, the only thing not lined with gold is the toilet paper? What a letdown it must have been, therefore, to learn from the Secret Service that the carriage ride was out of bounds. The coach, being open-topped, was deemed insufficiently secure. Either it would have presented an easy target for snipers, perched in the trees of St. James’s Park, or else, on the stroke of noon, it would have turned into a pumpkin, with the President shrinking into a mouse.
What is more, just to add insult to bling deprivation, Trump is not staying at Buckingham Palace. Apparently the place is having a makeover, and there is no room at the inn. Really? In a joint that size? Is there not even a royal bunk bed, where he and Melania could argue about who gets the top berth? Whether the Queen breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that she would not be having house-guests, after all, and that a SWAT team would not be rappelling down the rear of the palace, with a late-night supply of emergency fries, is far too tender a matter for public disclosure.
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Likewise, we have no firm evidence to support the theory that the Duchess of Sussex laughed out loud when she first got wind of the Presidential schedule and realized that staying at home to care for little Archie, who is only a month old, would give her a solid excuse for skipping the meet-and-greet. The President is on record—on tape, indeed, in the course of a pre-trip interview with the Sun newspaper—as having described Meghan Markle as “nasty.” Politeness, not to mention protocol, forbids her to volley that epithet back over the net, but the look on the face of her husband, Prince Harry, as he joined the Trumps on Monday afternoon, at the Palace, was, on close inspection, one notch down from a glare.
And what of Her Majesty? How has she coped? No sweat. This is a woman who has been hosting the great, the good, and the downright villainous for decades; her second visitor, in the fall of 1954, was the Emperor Haile Selassie, and a list of his more hard-boiled successors includes King Faisal, of Iraq, Charles de Gaulle, and Presidents Mobutu Sese Seko, of Zaire, and Suharto, of Indonesia. Some, like Faisal and President Nicolae Ceauşescu, of Romania, would later be overthrown and executed by their countrymen, but, while in London, all were smoothly disarmed with smiles, talk so small as to be subatomic, and—the Queen’s secret weapon—a banquet. One thing she knows for sure is that, faced with an arsenal of cutlery, even dictators get flummoxed. Given the choice between picking the right fish knife and facing a firing squad, Ceauşescu would have plumped for the guns.
As the banquet looms, gentlemen—among whom we may, on this occasion, number Donald Trump—are required to don a white tie and tails, and, take it from me, once you’ve climbed into the outfit, the question is no longer whether you can showboat, cut loose, or misbehave. The question is whether you can breathe. The only person not subject to these restrictions was Fred Astaire, who somehow danced in tails. So it was, on Monday night, that Trump stood up at the table, soldiered through his speech, proposed a toast to the monarch, and sat down again, without veering off-track into venom, wild accusations of fakery, or impersonations of the disabled. Whatever grievances smoldered in his breast were damped down, and kept in check, by a stiff white waistcoat. In an unbuttoned age, people tend to sneer at ceremony, but don’t knock it. Ceremony is a leveller. It tames the boastful, smartens the unruly, and beefs up the cowed. As Jeeves points out to Bertie Wooster, “It has often been found in times of despondency that the assumption of formal evening dress has a stimulating effect on the morale.” What ho!
Among those absent from the banquet, spurning the invitation to attend, was Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Some commentators found his attitude childish and rude, while others saw it as principled and morally steadfast. Whatever the case, Corbyn missed the feast and was therefore able to rise on Tuesday morning with a clear conscience, no champagne hangover, and an auspicious duty ahead. He addressed the massed ranks of tens of thousands of protesters who marched from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square. Spleen was loudly vented at all things Trump: his approach to immigration and refugees, his policy on (or in defiance of) climate change, his teeth-baring stance toward Iran, and his misogyny—in short, his very being. There were protests the day before, but they were more sedate; one news bulletin, on the BBC, showed a woman outside Buckingham Palace banging the bottom of a saucepan with a metal spoon.
Whether raucous disapproval is always the most effective tool, however, especially when your opponent is as loud as President Trump, is open to debate. For a subtler tactic, consider 1971, when the Mall was the stage for a devastating act of dissent. Emperor Hirohito, who had reigned in Japan during the Second World War, was paying a state visit to Britain, and feelings ran fervently high. It was little more than a quarter of a century since the end of the conflict, in which British prisoners had endured prolonged cruelty in Japanese camps. When Hirohito took a ride down the Mall in an open coach, seated next to the Queen, veterans made plain their indignation. Rather than shouting, or waving banners, they turned their backs, in silence. Their outcry bore no cry. Even now, when wartime memories have faded, and with Britain’s former foe long since established as a peaceful trading partner, people still recall the strength of that complaint. It remains to be seen if this week’s clamor will take root, with similar tenacity, in their hearts.
Nothing much, you could argue, is at stake in this Presidential tour. Nothing, that is, except the political future of Britain, plus the fate of the Anglo-American relationship. During the second day, the visitors’ focus shifted from the Queen to what is known, in ruling circles, as H.M.G.—Her Majesty’s Government. Just one tiny problem: Where is the government? Of whom does it consist? Theresa May is still the Prime Minister, but this is the week in which, having exhausted her energies in seeking and failing to crack the puzzle of Brexit, a task akin to solving a Rubik’s Cube with both hands tied behind one’s back, in space, she will cease to lead the Conservative Party. Who will summon the skill, the nerve, and, let’s be honest, the masochistic madness to take May’s place is far from decided. There are now twelve candidates, some of whom are barely recognized by their own extended families, let alone the wider electorate, so the President can be excused for not knowing whom to talk to, or whom to berate, with reference to the future. Diplomacy demands that he should hold constructive talks with the Prime Minister, but how much constructing is possible, or worthwhile, when May must shortly put down her bricks and leave?
So it was that the two leaders stood side by side, at a joint press conference, and pledged their eternal togetherness, on the implicit understanding that eternity may not last beyond Thursday morning. Declarations of love between the two nations were issued, as were tributes to those who fought and fell on D-Day, seventy-five years ago this week. The President hailed the Queen as “a fantastic woman” and said of May that “she’s probably a better negotiator than I am.” (A close call, I would say.) Reports of demonstrations against the state visit were dismissed by Trump as false, despite the fact that they were audibly taking place within a stone’s throw, or a bullhorn’s roar, of his current location. Keen, as ever, to stir up trouble, he also revealed that he had been offered the chance to chill with Jeremy Corbyn, but declined. Corbyn, we were told, was “somewhat of a negative force,” which made him sound like a nervous underling of Darth Vader. As for who the next Prime Minister might be, Donald Trump would not be drawn, though he did remark of Boris Johnson, the favorite in the race, that “I’ve liked him for a very long time.” He added, “I think he’ll do a very good job.” You have been warned.