For many of us here in Great Britain, the supreme moment of President Donald Trump’s visit came when he attempted to inspect a parade alongside our Queen. Somehow it went mildly but definitely wrong, with Mr. Trump first surging ahead of Her Majesty, then halting unexpectedly to gaze at the assembled Coldstream Guards, as they sweated frightfully in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats. The tiny 92-year-old monarch, who spends large parts of such visits concealing a keen sense of the ridiculous behind a mild frown, could be seen peering around her towering, bulky, and clumsy guest, trying to work out which way he might veer next. There was, it seemed to me, a slight but real danger that, if she miscalculated, he could knock her down, even trip over her. She looked as if she was assessing a large and rare marsupial, not exactly dangerous but skittish and unpredictable, with which she had just been presented by a loyal tribe of subjects. You could almost see her thinking, “What does one do with this? What does it eat? Will it be noisy?” We were all very proud of her.
She was, as it happens, untroubled by this sort of thing and will already have put it to one side. Mr. Trump’s disruptive, loud presence had no power to upset or dismay her. She is the last surviving representative of an England which was once so rich, so powerful, and so unshakably stable that it regarded all foreigners as funny and temporary.
No doubt the president’s Scottish mother will have brought him up to be respectful of the Queen, if of nobody else, so his bungled protocol cannot have been deliberate. He is just like that.
But that was the limit of his respect. For our pitiable prime minister, Theresa May, he demonstrated an extraordinary contempt, cruel and hard to watch. I am not an ally or a supporter of Mrs. May and have for many years found her tiresome and overrated. But she is the Queen’s chief minister, and so is entitled to some basic good manners from foreign visitors who are enjoying the British government’s hospitality. Good manners, in diplomacy, consist of not saying what you actually think. But Mr. Trump, in an interview with Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, said that he thought Mrs. May’s policies towards the European Union were terrible. Then he spooned thick, treacly praise all over Mrs. May’s enemy and rival, Al Johnson, who goes by the misleadingly cuddly stage name “Boris.” Mr. Johnson has just this minute resigned from Mrs. May’s cabinet in an obvious attempt to do her down.
The president may call “Boris” his friend now, but he has a perfectly good reason to resent him. Mr. Johnson said three years ago, in a riposte to some ill-informed remarks by Mr. Trump about no-go areas in London, “The only reason I wouldn’t visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.” As he attacked Mr. Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the USA, Mr. Johnson called him “out of his mind,” accused him of displaying “stupefying ignorance,” declared him “unfit” to be president, and suggested that his behavior was “playing the game of the terrorists.” If Mr. Trump maintains an enemies list, then it is amazing if Mr. Johnson’s name is not high on it.
But for some reason this does not count just now. The Sun newspaper, a raucous daily owned by the former Australian (now US citizen) Rupert Murdoch, has been through many phases. I can recall it endorsing the governments of both Margaret Thatcher and Anthony Blair, with equal vigor and with equal contempt for those who didn’t agree with it at the time. It has in the past two years become a fierce supporter of a total all-bridges-burned British breach with the European Union, such as Mr. Johnson favors and Mrs. May does not. This is a policy and a subject which I suspect most Americans (including Donald Trump) regard with frenzied indifference. But Mr. Murdoch, for some reason never entirely clear to me, is dead set on a radical British exit from the EU, and so hostile to Mrs. May’s attempts at a half-in, half-out compromise. Also, Mr. Murdoch’s US empire, especially Fox News, is keenly in favor of Mr. Trump. It seems to me that one should ask carefully who is doing whom a favor in this relationship. We have all heard of collateral damage. Mr. Johnson may have been on the receiving end of a rare case of collateral advantage, not really aimed at him. Whereas Mrs. May got the direct, intentional damage, hot and strong.
On the day Mr. Trump’s attack on her was published, the president and the prime minister were already committed to meet at Chequers, her stately and ancient official country residence, beloved by British premiers as a refuge from the cares of the world. It was not a refuge on Friday the thirteenth of July. Its wooded park was invaded from the air by squadrons of American helicopters. Secret Service men and women tried to blend in with the shrubs and ornamental urns. And Mr. Trump sought to brazen out his discourteous behavior, claiming as they stood close to each other at a joint press conference that he admired Mrs. May, and insinuating (without actually saying) that the Sun interview was inaccurate (it wasn’t).
Watching this grotesque performance, I was filled (as I so often am these days) with sorrow that so few British children read or study Shakespeare anymore. Was anyone ever better at portraying the nauseating nature of false praise offered by the powerful to those they intend to destroy? When Goneril says to her father Lear, “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter; Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty,” we know exactly what is coming next.
Likewise, when I watched Mr. Trump declare, “This incredible woman here is doing a great job,” and “She’s a terrific woman doing a terrific job,” my very pancreas shriveled in sympathy with Mrs. May; and when the president proclaimed, “I would give our relationship with the UK the highest level of special. Am I allowed to go higher than that? I am not sure. It’s the highest level of special. They are very special people, it’s a very special country and as I said, I have a relationship because my mother was born in Scotland,” then I trembled for my country.
I doubt very much whether Mr. Trump knows anything at all about Britain’s travails with the EU. He may not even know where Britain is. For heaven’s sake, he thinks Britain should sue the EU. In what legal system does he think we could do this? His attitude towards NATO has swung, like a corpse on a rope, from noticing (quite reasonably) that it now has no real reason to exist to calling wildly for all its members to spend much more money on annoying Russia. His defenders, many of them surprising, can’t really pretend that he is not ignorant, vain, ill-educated, and coarse. Exactly how much are they prepared to pay, and in what coin, for a more conservative Supreme Court?
But the more I see of Mr. Trump, the more he reminds me of another person, similarly lacking in the knowledge and education department, who ran rings round every politician she ever met, and even managed to fox the poor old Queen. I am thinking of Diana, Princess of Wales. Of course, we all knew what she wanted, namely revenge. But I have yet to work out what President Trump wants. I am not sure he has worked it out himself.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.