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Why It's Worth Protesting Trump

Forget the cynics: giving this thin-skinned President two fingers will be a powerful, cathartic event.
Photo: White House Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Osprey helicopters buzz across London's skyline like something from a bad conspiracy thriller. Police promise "rings of steel" and summon officers from forces nationwide. Business leaders are invited to a banquet at Blenheim, far from protesting hoi polloi. Trump is coming to town. The US president’s visit has been on the cards since Theresa May zoomed across the Atlantic to fawn and grovel immediately following his installation in the White House, and ever since she was pictured with him – hand in diminutive hand – activists in the UK have vowed to meet him with huge street protests this Friday.


Capricious, thin-skinned and volatile, Trump's visit has already been delayed over fears that mass protest might rankle and agitate him. It is difficult to keep track of all the outrages: the banal grifting of Trump family members; the support of "alt-right" cranks and untroubled reaction to their murder of a counter-protester in Charlottesville; the roll-back of any commitment to ending climate change, and the appointment of oil lobbyists to environmental offices; the systematic separation of migrant children from their families; the unambiguous fawning over strongmen and dictators; the desire to invade Venezuela; the transformation of the judiciary according to a right wing think tank's wishlist – all backed up with the nihilist fealty of Republican legislators. The list could already be multiplied many times over.

With such a record, to protest at Trump’s red carpet treatment might be seen as an act of basic political hygiene: we do not want our government to associate with, nor give international support to, such a man and the politics he represents. It is not good enough to try, as some Tory MPs have, to attempt to separate the office from the man: the American Presidency is an intensely personal office, coloured and shaped by the person who fills it. Nor should there be a blank cheque for terrorising immigrants merely because we hope for some scraps from the transatlantic table. There is another reason to protest: writing about McCarthyism in the mid 20th century, Hannah Arendt voiced fears not only of the repression but of all opposition to the repression melting away "like butter in the sun". In a time in which basic political certainties seem to be dissolving, affirmation of resistance to xenophobic paranoia and isolationism plays a powerful role in defending a world not criss-crossed by border walls and secret police.


You might ask: what's the point in protesting? Domestic response to Trump has certainly been varied. The small number of conservatives who find him distasteful have largely been muted by their own lust for power; much of the liberal response has been embarrassing, consisting of etiolated horror at his uncouthness, sniggering at his spelling errors and an obstinate refusal to consider they might have done anything wrong in the campaign. (The elevation of Russian efforts at sowing electoral chaos to a political conspiracy of airport novel dimensions is a convenient alibi in this.)

But alongside beltway cluelessness, there are promising shoots of a left renaissance to give international America-watchers a gleam of hope. The rise of the Democratic Socialists and the people-powered primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is among them. Anything these protests can do to offer support to them ought to be counted a victory in itself.

The old dictum of protest is to "think global and act local", recognising that though we might be affected by international politics, our political power is limited, by and large, to our own nation state. So what might be our aims in this protest, what similarities might we draw out between Trump’s America and May’s Britain?

The moral horror that greeted Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the US border isn’t limited to the States: Britain practices it too, and with far less outcry. Britain is the only country in Europe to detain migrants in centres indefinitely, and ratcheting Tory rhetoric on migration leaves thousands of children without a parent ("use Skype", says the Home Office); in the past six months, three unaccompanied Eritrean teenagers who sought asylum in Britain have killed themselves. And while the Labour leadership has made humane statements on the closure of the worst of Britain's detention centres, and against the worst of May’s excesses, they too have remained too timid in the face of the storm of hate whipped up by the government and tabloids in grim partnership. "Build bridges, not walls," said the slogans after Trump took office: what better bridge than that to build?

There are other parallels we might evince, not least between May’s autocratic instincts and Trump’s, her impatience with parliamentary oversight linked with claims to monopoly on the popular will. But doubtless many protesters will also be asking themselves a more basic question: why? Why does May feel the need to crawl to Trump? Isn’t it shameful for us to have the begging-bowl out, rolling out the tawdry glitz of the British state for this man and what he represents?

Of course, May’s position is in part powered by the steam of Brexit delusions, that Britain will, after leaving Europe, become a sleek, buccaneering nation of global capitalists with a lucrative US-UK trade deal. Such inflated self-regard has been a common Tory trait in the post-imperial period – Churchill fantasised of a Britain exerting itself across three global axes – in Europe, across the Commonwealth, and across the Atlantic. With our standing in Europe hopelessly vitiated and the Commonwealth uninterested in its imperial parent, fantasies of Britain’s global importance rest precariously on this single leg. Will we really follow this decaying global hegemon like a mewling poodle through every twitch and throe of its decay just to sustain it?

I hope not. There will doubtless be those on the left who will sneer at the protests' heterogeneity, or declare them merely symbolic and powerless to change things. But symbols matter in politics, and the symbol of thousands of people in the streets, many from different political traditions, many from none at all, however different and diverse, united in contempt not only for Trump and what he represents but the government that grovels to him, is one of the most powerful of all. Such protests, at their best, can be moments of powerful catharsis for participants, and a lifeline for those who feel alone as the world slides out of shape. They are a necessary exercise, a flexing of long-dormant political muscles we will need to use more often in the years to come. It will be a moment of hope. I’ll be on the streets. I hope to see you there.