Donald Trump is the sun of the contemporary American political system. Its institutions, such as Congress, the parties, the media, the states, think tanks, popular culture all revolve around him as if planets. On a recent visit to the United Kingdom, I discovered his gravitational pull extends far beyond our shores. The president structures politics in Britain today in a way unmatched by any other force.
Let’s start on the left. As with our Democrats, members of Britain’s Labor Party and its core constituents in the unions, professions, media, and universities compete with one another to be the most anti-Trump. Since the American president is self-evidently awful — Trump loathers I spoke with didn’t feel any need to elaborate on their position — the response is simply to scream with indignation as loudly as possible when he acts or speaks or tweets. The outrage was particularly deafening on matters such as the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the administration’s immigration policy, and whether Prince Harry and his American fiancée Meghan Markle should “stick it to the man” and invite President Obama to their wedding.
The reaction is so visceral because Trump personifies everything European cosmopolitan and socialist elites believe about the American character. The president is unapologetically materialistic, bombastic, impetuous, anti-intellectual, and parochial. Despite their proclivities, it was hard for these leftists to dislike America when Obama was in the White House. Trump liberates their instincts, and they are once again free to hate.
Still, there’s a method here. Labor’s professorial and hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, came surprisingly close to toppling Prime Minister Theresa May in the 2017 election. The election was about many things but Corbyn — who has the same crumpled professorial appearance and socialist views as Bernie Sanders — deliberately deployed Trump as a foil and believes he profited from the strategy.
Britain’s Right is using Trump as a kind of model. Reading conservative newspapers there is to listen in on conversations among Americans supportive of many of the president’s policy goals. The tabloid “Tory press” — particularly the Daily Mail and Sun — are replete with stories about the assault on British values by uncontrolled immigration and pernicious identity politics. The topic du jour when I visited were the “snowflake” students, Stalinist professors, and administrative “fat cats” on university campuses.
There are subtle differences between America’s conservative media and papers like the Mail, however. A larger proportion of Britain’s immigrants come from societies hostile to liberal values — Muslim countries, rural areas in other parts of the developing world. Our concerns about immigration tend to revolve around terrorism and crime. Britons who worry about the issue also talk of women’s rights, religious tolerance, and free speech, none of which exist in enclaves of cities like Birmingham, Bradford, and Luton, which effectively are under Sharia law. There’s an obvious focus on security, but not to the neglect of other issues. This difference in emphasis has led to a couple of the Twitter spats between Trump and May. Indeed, the friction has been so great — and Trump’s unpopularity so high — the president has decided to do the prime minister a favor and cancel a scheduled visit to open the new U.S. embassy.
Undergirding much of Trump’s influence on the British Right is Brexit. Many observers believe they are related. The campaign to leave the European Union adopted many of the broad philosophical positions Trump did in his 2016 campaign — especially the idea that globalization should be stanched and the nation-state reassert its sovereignty. The coalition that voted to leave also resembled Trump’s — its members were older, tended to not have a college degree, and lived in smaller towns and rural areas. Interestingly, a significant proportion of “Brexiters,” such as Trump’s working-class voters, held left-of-center views on economics.
There’s also a small but influential group warning the U.K. about both Trump and the leftist counter-forces he has emboldened. Not quite libertarian in the American sense, it’s still rooted in the ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith. Publications like the Times and Economist, think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and Centre for Policy Studies; politicians like David Davis (the Brexit minister) and Liam Fox (the trade minister) and their junior colleagues in Parliament Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, and Liz Truss all warn us of the authoritarian impulses of the reborn left and populist right.
They see the threat posed by protectionism, large distant bureaucracies, social engineering, and huge influxes of immigrants unwilling to accept the central tenets of classical liberalism. They are deeply concerned about increased xenophobia and an overbearing state. They emphasize “bourgeois” values such as individual responsibility and personal freedom and champion cohering institutions such as the family and the Church of England, even the local pub. Unfortunately, like their cousins in America, they don’t seem to be getting much attention lately.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.