Prime Minister Theresa May and US President Donald Trump holding hands as they walk along the White House Colonnade during her visit to Washington. (Photo: Stefan Rousseau PA Wire/PA Images)
They'll all do it eventually. All those sensible and pragmatic liberal European leaders will, sooner or later, start greasing up to Donald Trump: nibbling at those big-boy presidential fingers like peeled baby carrots, smiling politely as the most powerful man in the world goes potty, cooing over his finger-painted policy prescriptions – because what else can they do? Donald Trump has America now; he has it in the same sense that the evil wizard in some knockoff fantasy novel has the Stone of Power, and for all the countries that have flung themselves into America's vast orbit there's no other option.
You, the heir to a thousand years of violent and terrible history, must grit your teeth and play nice with a game show host, WWE Hall of Fame inductee and returning guest on The Howard Stern Show. You pretend to like him, because he has the power to kill you and every single one of our citizens, if he wants to. Angela Merkel will do it, Erna Solberg will do it, Lars Løkke Rasmussen will do it; every president and princeling will travel across the world to pay homage to the child on his throne. So when Theresa May jostles to the front of the line, her puckered mouth glistening as she leans in to kiss the ring, it's embarrassing, but not really surprising.
Her response to Trump's ban on people from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia entering the United States – and on all refugees – is different. It's not as if there was nothing she could do. French and German ministers have condemned the executive order; so has the Mayor of London and the leader of the opposition; and thousands of ordinary Americans – people with far less power in their hands than the British Prime Minister, and in far more immediate danger from state reprisals – immediately headed to their nearest airports in their masses to demand the release of those being detained.
And with good reason. As a report from the right-wing Cato Institute showed, if the ban had been instituted in 1975 it would have prevented precisely zero American deaths. The title of the executive order describes it as a measure "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States", but it's not about protecting anyone. It's about appearing to protect, giving a warm hug to all those reactionary dullards who complain endlessly about special snowflakes in the universities, with their trigger warnings and their safe spaces, bawling at a reality they're too sensitive to deal with – and then turn around to cry out for a strong leader to keep them safe from all the vaguely defined terrors of a big scary world. It's about setting up a hierarchy: there are those who will be protected, and a plastic, expanding category of those who must be subjected to arbitrary violence to ensure that safety. But more than that, it's a kind of foundational transgression. This is what's normal now, it says. Don't be shocked by what comes next.
The ban is undiluted sadism; its only purpose is to give a sense of comfort to some by enacting cruelty on others. It's the kind of thing we all have an urgent duty to oppose, but Theresa May didn't oppose it. All she did was declare that she does "not agree" with the ban, in the same way that you might disagree with someone's inflammatory food opinions on Twitter (stop saying risotto is bad, it's good actually). When pressed to take a position at a press conference, she repeatedly refused to make any condemnation. "The United States is responsible for the United States' policy," she said. In the end, Boris Johnson came thundering through with grand news: he'd spoken to his American counterparts, and the 205,000 British subjects with dual citizenship would be exempt. Great news for Mo Farah, knight of the realm; great news for Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi. But securing this exception meant an act of incredible moral cowardice. As a mad and arbitrary evil starts snatching people out of the air, holding them without legal recourse in a civil aviation system that's been turned, at the stroke of a pen, into a vast network of black sites, Britain cringes, and says: great stuff, but please don't do it to me.
Trump didn't climb down from his travel ban through British prodding. Instead, our quisling government has integrated itself even further into the machinery. If our citizens are exempt, it's because America can trust us to do all the necessary work of repression for them. Boris Johnson's pale sagging face presses itself against Donald Trump's pale sagging arse, until all those dimpled sheets of flesh melt into each other and become one.
Not just cowardice; complicity. Theresa May wasn't scared to speak up. When she said in Washington that she and Trump shared the same values, she wasn't lying. Theresa May is our very own homegrown Trump – her face vacuum-packed from sprawling flab into tight and bony malice, but a Trump all the same. Like the US President, she has a deep and possibly pathological obsession with migration and with cultural heterogeneity; she wants to stamp it out.
In 2015, at the conference of a triumphant Tory party briefly keen to present itself as the party of sensible liberal moderation, she ruined the party by grimly announcing a new assault on some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, promising to close borders to refugees and ramp up deportations. As Home Secretary, she deported up to 50,000 students simply for having taken a test in conversational English, and her pet project was a fleet of vans painted with slogans borrowing the language of the National Front, to be sent to ethnically diverse areas of London. As PM, she's governed with all the same senselessness and caprice as her colleague across the pond, driven by the same ideological fanaticism. It's not just her handling of Brexit: take, for instance, her insistence that international students be included in migration figures, potentially bankrupting British universities out of nothing more than the petty hatred of a vicar's daughter for all those foreigners swarming outside her frilly curtains.
Theresa May is an ideologue, and a dangerous one. Nobody should be looking to her for condemnation of whatever monstrosity Trump conjures up next.
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