Why does Donald Trump inspire such rancor in so many Brits? It’s complicated.
Partly it’s his sheer rudeness. I mean, we tolerate his closest British counterpart, Boris Johnson (the wild-haired pro-Brexit, former foreign secretary who is now the front-runner to replace Theresa May as prime minister) out of a sort of internalized class instinct, a muscle-memory hangover of Victorian times.
Trump has all of Johnson’s blundering hubris and none of his Eton-groomed artifice. But beyond that, Trump's spectacular, spectacular pomposity triggers something deep and latent in the British national psyche.
Comedy offers a clue about why. Whether it’s Del Boy falling through the bar in "Only Fools and Horses," Monty Python’s lisping Biggus Dickus failing to get the joke, Manuel finally getting one over on Basil in "Fawlty Towers" or Alan Partridge failing to style out being ignored in a parking lot, the foundational sensibility of British humor is all about pricking the bubble of people's unearned self-regard.
There’s a cruelty in that, too, of course. The desire for someone to get what’s coming to them is reflected at its ugliest in British tabloid culture, and in grotesque television shows like “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here,” in which the desperately minor-league famous eat live worms or spiders or raw bull penis for our amusement.
But unlike America (or at least Trump’s America), Britain does not worship fame for fame’s sake. We distrust it, so our instinct is to bring it down with mockery. The recent phenomenon of milkshaking politicians like the far-right Nigel Farage — itself an evolution of throwing eggs, a storied British tradition — springs from this instinct to ridicule.
Much more than in the United States, British politicians rarely survive their careers intact. The sheer gall of someone seeking to run the country in the first place is usually enough to convince most Brits that that person deserves ridicule, not respect. So when faced with a man of Trump’s preposterous swagger and self-regard, we can’t help ourselves. We’re like a teenager with a zit: we are compelled to squeeze.
That is why more than quarter of a million people were expected to march in protest against the American president in London on Tuesday. The rally saw the return of the now-famous blimp in the shape of Trump as a screaming baby —– which has become so iconic that, when Sky News featured it in a (tongue-in-cheek) trailer for their presidential visit coverage, it went viral, racking up millions of views.
Of course, Trump has his British fans, especially on the far right. But his approval-rating in the United Kingdom is a historically dismal 21 percent, compared with 72 percent for his predecessor. A protest group rammed that point home this week by projecting the two presidents’ comparative polling in huge letters onto the Tower of London.
This kind of trolling-protest hybrid has flowered nationwide: Capturing the zeitgeist, a teenager in the Hertfordshire town of Bishop’s Stortford — under the flight path for planes landing at Stansted Airport, Trump’s first port of call — mowed a giant penis and the words “Oi Trump … climate change is real” into his lawn.
For many on the left, Trump’s visit represents a bonanza of political opportunity. As London Mayor Sadiq Khan has realized, having the president pick a fight with you is a fast-lane to political stardom (which also explains why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is attending the anti-Trump rally). It’s also why even the vaguest hints that Queen Elizabeth might be throwing shade at Trump have extraordinary viral potential: Many believe, for example, that during Trump’s last visit there were complex and deeply insulting subtexts to Her Majesty’s brooch choices.
Even the Duchess of Cornwall — Camilla! People hated Camilla! She broke up Charles and Diana! —finally earned Britain’s national respect: All it took was a knowing wink as she passed by the cameras with the Trumps on Monday. A representative sample of Twitter replies to a video of the moment includes “Camilla’s popularity has just gone through the roof,” “This could almost make me a Royalist!” and “after nearly 3 decades, I’m ready to accept her!”
Conversely, politicians praised by Trump are lying low. Despite having just won big in the European election, Farage, who Trump once demanded be made ambassador to Washington, is avoiding the British limelight — or rather, the milkshake — and instead spending his time during the visit spreading conspiracy theories on Fox News.
For the aforementioned Johnson — whose bid for leadership of the Conservative Party has been endorsed by Trump — the imperative to stay below the parapet is even more pressing. The likely reason he turned down the offer of a meeting with the president is that association with Trump risks inviting the inevitable comparison between them and increasing his already-at-danger-level unfavorables.
Trump's visit couldn't come at a trickier political moment. Since the so-called "Brexit" referendum to leave the European Union in 2016, Britain has been tearing itself apart. Labour and the Conservatives — the two parties which dominated British politics largely unchallenged for almost a century — were humiliated in last month’s European elections, hemorrhaging voters on the pro-Brexit right to Farage’s newly-formed Brexit Party, and on the anti-Brexit left to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The prime minister, unable to find a parliamentary majority for her Brexit deal, announced last month that she would resign June 7, sparking a bitter leadership race.
Meanwhile the Labour party — nominally the opposition — has been unable to take advantage of the chaos in the governing party under the leadership of Corbyn. In fact, dogged by accusations of institutional anti-Semitism, and having been unable or unwilling to give any clear indication of his own Brexit position, Corbyn is presiding over just as much of a shambles in his party as the one May leaves behind in hers.
All of which is why it’s refreshing that the U.K. has finally found something that (almost) unites it again: Hating, and mocking, Donald Trump.