• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Mob Meets Trump-Trump Meets May

August 2018

Facing a growing crowd of surly protestors in the city streets of London, Voltaire was made to use his wit as though his life—and not just his livelihood—depended on it. “Englishmen!”, cried that inveterate exile (he’d already been by that point imprisoned in the Bastille twice, from whose confines he sprang forth expectedly unrepentant. He was then sent to the Netherlands, and then to England, and then finally, should all else have failed, he was to be sent off to the New World and Quebec) “You want to kill me because I am a Frenchman?” Quite right. Need there be a more grievous offense? One shouldn’t think so; after all, anything Gallic runs anathema to the doughty Angle’s soul. Those hostile Brits were all too eager to move from prosecution to guillotine right then and there, when Voltaire turned to his cause their Francophobic hearts. “Am I not punished enough”, said he in a flourish of desperation and genius, “in not having been born an Englishman?”

With the hypnotic charm of a sorcerer, and the necessary flattery of a foreigner caught in a bind, Voltaire thus won to his side that day’s English rabble. The once angry, sanguinary mob began to cheer his words as it escorted the now laughing philosopher off to safety and thence to history. Voltaire, a stripling in his twenties at the time, would go on to illuminate the continent, to humiliate lesser minds, and to aggravate nearly every ecclesiastical stripe for the next six decades of his life.

No such genially capricious hosts were to be found in England three centuries nearer our own day, when President Trump stopped on that same island and in that same city for his first official diplomatic visit with Prime Minister Theresa May. In fact, equally chipper would these present-day Londoners have been to have seen Trump’s head on a platter, as their ancestors would’ve been to have seen that of Voltaire’s. Filling the streets by the thousands, the anti-Trump Britons held signs, chanted mantras, and navigated through Trafalgar Square a “baby Trump balloon”, a ponderous and Pamper-wearing blimp measuring some six meters in height. This, aside from the sheer number of protestors (which approximated a staggering 250,000) was the most memorable of the afternoon’s spectacles. The multitude gathered there was vast and there’s no doubt that it sent a message, but it was the verisimilitude of the blimp that won’t soon be forgotten.

Except, perhaps, for the fact that the balloon’s head might not have been sufficiently inflated. The “real” Donald Trump’s head—that repository for his prodigious self-esteem—is significantly bigger, his insides airier. With an unpopularity in England almost as boundless as said ego, it’s no surprise then that he bruised onlookers and caused a stir even before sitting down with Prime Minister May for tea.

Having just recently concluded a rather tense conference with the members of NATO (the post-war organization of Western powers that he’s repeatedly disparaged as “obsolete” and “weak”), President Trump travelled to London to hopefully ease animosities and strengthen America’s “special relationship” with her majesty. Before doing so, he sat down with The Sun newspaper (a daily British tabloid) for a wide-ranging and candid interview. In so many words, President Trump inveighed against London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, for the latter’s milquetoast response to the recent surge in terrorist activity that his city has witnessed. He flaunted that “millions” of Brits support his policies, of whom the 250,000 were clearly not representative. Also on that vein, he expressed his sadness at having been so uncongenially received by those same boisterous Brits clamoring in the streets.

More germane to the imminent meeting with May, however, were his comments about Brexit and the government overseeing its implementation. While he didn’t explicitly attack the beleaguered Prime Minister May (who’s seen in the disastrous span of just one week the joint resignations of her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and her Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis. Their leaving puts an already shaky administration on ever more tremulous ground), he did hint at the fact that she was handling her business poorly. As a consolation, he did deny having once called the oft-seemingly punctilious May a “bossy schoolteacher”, but he said that she had essentially wrecked Brexit. What’s worse, Trump then went on to imply that the since-departed Boris Johnson—a “hard” Brexit stalwart and Eurosceptic—would make a “great” Prime Minister. The intimation here being, of course, that Johnson would be a Prime Minister superior to May. It was at once a jarring credit to him and a demerit to her—an apparent vote of no confidence from an American cousin.

At least, this was the going thought. Liberals the world-over lamented the fact that Trump could’ve been so rude as to have said something so unsupportive of May. With her station in British politics being as it is (and growing ever-more precarious by the day) many pundits thought that Trump’s ill-timed comment would be the final nail in her political coffin—a heap of dirt on her grave. As Trump uttered his first breath in London, May would breathe her last.

All that said, I don’t see that at all as being the case. On the contrary, I think that Trump inadvertently provided May with a public resuscitation. Like the Lazarus of 10 Downing Street, she might yet be raised, and it’ll be upon Trump’s face she looks when first she re-opens her eyes. It’ll be his hand (regardless of its disputed size) by which she’s brought back to life. By saying what he did about May, President Trump served rather to help than hurt Theresa May.

Simply in light of their general disdain for President Trump, Brits may come to the side of their own leader, of Prime Minister May, in a kind of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation. Granted, it’s not the best way to rally support for a person nor cause, but anything is preferable to the slow drowning death that May is experiencing at the moment. They’ll probably look upon her with greater sympathy, or at the very least, with a bit less hostility, knowing that in a leader, they as British citizens could have worse. In her reception of Trump and his untoward remarks, May looked to be the paragon of stolidity and poise. She was dignified and disinterested, receiving him as any sober businesswoman would. In the eyes of many otherwise uninspired Brits, sitting opposite the analphabetic American president was May—the lettered and polished Oxonian who for once looked and felt as if one of their own. Trump looked as if a bull in a china shop, she as if a statuary model unperturbed. Simply put, the British people’s loathing for President Trump might bring them to liking their own head of state slightly more.

And although patience on all sides has worn thin as Brexit negotiations have become increasingly fraught, this might be all that May needs to salvage what’s left of her government—that is, to be liked just slightly more and to be given just a bit more time.

But will the British people grant her either of these things? With an ingratiating wink and a clever word, Voltaire’s life was saved. He was to become not only a beloved denizen of England, but the chief exporter of the island’s best ideas. He was to return to Paris to make Newton’s physics intelligible and Bolingbroke’s deism ecumenical (and himself tolerable, so long as from Paris, he stayed away). But today’s English mob seems not so ready to forgive. It certainly didn’t change its opinion of Trump as it did of Voltaire. The former garnered no plaudits nor found at Whitehall many friends. So much the worse for him. But with Trump’s unintended help, that same English mob might just change its opinion of May. Far from a Voltaire, she, like he, might be given life anew and a chance at another day.

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