US & Canada

Six 'unpresidented' months - 42 to go

Donald Trump Image copyright Getty Images

US citizens have now had six months to get used to their new president and still not all are finding it easy. For Americans in the UK there is a double dose of change, with Brexit now firmly under way. London-based writer and broadcaster Michael Goldfarb has been finding that the combination means all conversations turn inexorably to politics.

Donald Trump has been president for half a year. It is a year since Britons voted to leave the European Union. Yes, the two events are linked.

Like an enormous piece of Antarctic sea ice calving off from the continent and drifting away, the Anglo-American world has detached itself from its partners and headed off into the unknown.

For those of us who are citizens of both countries it has been a strange time.

Twenty years ago, when I was National Public Radio's London correspondent, I used to get invited to the annual American ambassador's 4 July shindig at the residence in Regent's Park. It was a perk of the job.

I didn't hear of an Independence Day bash this year, and anyway there is no ambassador in place yet. In an example of the chaos that swirls around his administration, President Trump's nominee, Woody Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson baby powder fortune and owner of the New York Jets NFL team, has only just been confirmed by the Senate but has not yet presented his credentials to the Court of St James's.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Woody Johnson, pictured at Trump Tower in December, is due in London soon

I haven't been to a 4 July party for ages, but this year was an exception. My hosts were an Anglo-Swiss couple, holding a party in honour of a business colleague from New York - a barbecue on their terrace overlooking a square of renovated warehouses you would never find without GPS.

After six months of the Trump whirlwind everyone was exhausted and happy to lay off politics, but it was tough. Plus, the British half of the couple hosting the party works for a major international music publisher and has extensive business in the EU so it was impossible not to touch on Brexit, and once you're on Brexit you get to Trump and then on to this new historical epoch we've been led into - not by war or revolution but via the ballot box. Eventually, we extricated ourselves from the subject. It was time to bring out the sparklers and my 11-year-old happily waved them into the night.

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Image caption Ronald Reagan (left) and Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, in 1982

The "unpresidented" uniquely American nature of the Trump Administration makes it easy to overlook how much its existence owes to the particular political relationship the UK and the US have enjoyed since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power within a year of each other.

Image caption Trump's "unpresidented" tweet was deleted and re-posted with the correct spelling

Thatcher/Reagan tried to undo their respective nations' social democratic settlements by radically deregulating markets and gutting trade unions. The pair dominated the West's international security organisations. The Anglo-American axis continued to a greater or lesser extent right through Prime Minister Tony Blair's pledge to President George W Bush to back the US in its war to overthrow Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Ironically, Brexit and the election of Trump were made possible by the votes of those who were the losers in the deregulated, free-trading economic world led by Thatcher/Reagan, which laid the foundations for today's world of economic inequality and employment insecurity. The votes were also an expression of the anger of people at the Iraq War. That anger was not just a phenomenon of the left. One of the key moments in Donald Trump's successful campaign to the get the Republican nomination came in a debate when he said to Bush's brother Jeb: "The Iraq War was a big fat mistake."

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Image caption Jeb Bush (left) and Donald Trump (right) debating in February 2016

Last month Henry Kissinger passed through London briefly to give the keynote address at the Centre for Policy Studies' Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security. The CPS was a think-tank founded by Mrs Thatcher and a few close colleagues in the mid-1970s. I attended expecting to hear Kissinger say something about the security implications of the uncharted waters Anglo-America has entered.

It never happened. The secret of the 94-year-old Kissinger's rise to secretary of state, and his continued presence on the world stage, is a courtier's ability to flatter his audience. Answering a question about Brexit, Kissinger admitted to the Eurosceptic audience he initially thought it was a terrible idea but now realised Brexit wasn't so bad and could be made to work.

He never mentioned Trump once. It seemed odd. I would have thought Trump's disruptive approach to foreign relations, the opposite of Kissinger's ideas of rationally maintaining order among the great powers, would have been worth a comment. Especially since the president will be with us for a while yet.

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Image caption Henry Kissinger and Donald Trump in the Oval Office in May 2017

Six months into the Trump presidency, his popularity numbers are only slowly eroding.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll shows the president's approval rating down to 36%.

That's six points lower than it was in April. That month I was in America making a BBC radio programme to mark Trump's first 100 days in office and I was talking to some of his unswayable supporters that I had met covering the campaign.

Nothing had happened at that stage that would make them change their views, and I doubt even the Russia scandal has reached a point where they will stop supporting him.

Similarly, in Britain, Brexit voters have been unswayed by the rocky start to negotiations made by Prime Minister Theresa May's government. Despite the Conservatives' poor performance at the recent general election, more than two-thirds of Britons want to continue the Brexit process.

Recently, I found myself chatting with a member of the House of Lords, a former cabinet minister in both the Thatcher and Major governments, and an ardent pro-European.

We were in the Green Room at New Broadcasting House waiting to go on different BBC news programmes. We were marvelling at the way our world had been turned on its head in the last year.

An item about Donald Trump came up on the television. The former minister shook his head in bewilderment and asked me how long I thought Trump could last. I told him that so long as the President had 35% to 40% of the country solidly behind him he would be in office a while. I also said I didn't think he would be impeached and that the end of his presidency, whenever it comes, would be "unpresidented".

The Conservative grandee, shook his head. "This can't go on… it can't go on."

But it can.

Michael Goldfarb hosts the FRDH podcast

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