07/11/18 06:00 AM EDT
President Trump faces a hostile reception in the United Kingdom when he arrives there on Thursday — as well as a mocking blimp that the mayor of London has permitted to fly over the British capital.
The 20-foot blimp, which depicts Trump as an angry baby, has been given the go-ahead to fly on Friday by Mayor Sadiq Khan, with whom the president has had previous run-ins on Twitter.
Surreal though the sight may be, it is emblematic of broader British distaste for Trump.
“I thought I had seen the biggest outpouring of British opposition to an American president back in 2003, with George W. Bush, but that is as nothing compared to the build-up here, and the desire to show Donald Trump a howling chorus of British opposition,” said Jonathan Freedland, a prominent columnist with The Guardian, a liberal newspaper.
Some of the enmity toward Trump springs from specific British controversies.
Trump set off a media firestorm in Britain when he retweeted anti-Muslim messages from a far-right political activist late last year.
He clashed with Khan after mischaracterizing remarks the mayor had made after a June 2017 terrorist attack.
Prime Minister Theresa May has been warm to Trump at times; she was the first world leader to visit him at the White House after his inauguration. But she has also criticized his policies, from the travel ban announced in the early days of his presidency to the tariffs enacted more recently.
Polling on Trump’s popularity in the U.K. is both scant and sporadic, but none of it makes encouraging reading from the American president’s perspective.
A new poll this week from BMG found that a plurality of Britons, 42 percent, believe he should not have been invited at all, against 37 percent who believe he should have been.
The same poll found that 39 percent believe May should be “tougher” with Trump than she is, compared to only 10 percent who feel she should be more friendly.
Other polls have been even worse. Polling from March to December last year from BST saw his approval rating in the U.K. never get above 30 percent.
Just as clear a metric of opposition to Trump, however, is the protests that are expected to greet his visit — and the lengths to which he is going to avoid them.
Trump will spend very little time in London, instead visiting Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and the prime minister’s country retreat at Chequers, also outside the city.
He will meet the queen at Windsor Castle, about 20 miles from the capital, rather than at Buckingham Palace. And Trump is expected to spend just one night in London before heading for Scotland.
“I think the fact that the administration has gone to great lengths to keep the president out of the capital speaks volumes about the kind of reception they were expecting,” said James Boys, a London-based political historian who specializes in U.S. politics.
“The usual optics of a presidential visit to London — the photo op at Downing Street and the visit to Buckingham Palace — have been completely bypassed,” Boys added, “and you’ve got to assume it’s because of the vitriol he would face.”
The effort to keep Trump away from protests could also dull the force of his visit, according to some observers.
He “is spending little time in the public eye whilst he is here, so it’s hard to know what impact he will make,” said Emily Maitlis, a London-based BBC anchor who often reports from the U.S.
The administration has pushed back at the idea that Trump is unwelcome. During a conference call with reporters last week, U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Woody Johnson asserted that “President Trump knows this country probably better than any president in recent history.”
He cited the fact that the president’s late mother was born in Scotland as one measurement of that familiarity.
Asked whether the president was seeking to evade protestors by spending so little time in London, Johnson insisted Trump “is not avoiding anything.”
Trump’s arrival comes at a particularly febrile moment in British politics.
May’s leadership has been imperiled by the tensions within her party over Brexit. An attempt to stitch together a compromise last week fell apart and led to a spate of resignations. Two Cabinet members, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis, have departed.
Trump has been an enthusiast for Brexit since the days of his presidential campaign. He famously — and rightly — predicted his own shock win by saying it would be akin to “Brexit plus plus plus.”
Nigel Farage, who was then the leader of the pro-Brexit United Kingdom Independence Party, became a fervent Trump backer and remains so.
Despite that, Trump has displayed little appetite for getting into the nitty-gritty of Britain’s negotiations about the terms under which it should leave the European Union.
Before boarding Marine One at the White House on Tuesday morning, Trump acknowledged that the U.K. has “a lot of things going on.” He praised both May and her nemesis, Johnson.
British observers acknowledge there is still some support for him among the most adamant pro-Brexit forces, but they insist it does not extend beyond a narrow segment of the population.
“The absolute hard core of Brexiteers will double down [in support of Trump] but that certainly is not going to win over any undecided voters,” Freedland insisted. “Donald Trump is a millstone around the neck of the Brexit cause. … He is just seen as a toxic figure.”
The experts who spoke to The Hill pointed to two silver linings for Trump, however.
One is the enormity of the crisis rocking May’s conservative government. It has become the biggest political story of the week and is to some extent sidelining Trump.
The nation’s focus is also on another, more optimistic story. England’s soccer team will play in the World Cup semifinal on Wednesday. If England beats Croatia, it will be in its first final since 1966, its sole World Cup triumph.
“We play Croatia tomorrow night,” Maitlis said in a Tuesday email from London. “By the time [Trump] arrives, we will either be deep in mourning for our loss and barely notice, or so freaked by our rare national success story that no one will be concentrating on anything other than the Sunday final.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
Source: The Hill