BONNIE GREER: Have we become Orwell’s ‘Airstrip One’?

PUBLISHED: 13:00 21 July 2018

Protesters against Donald Trump in London on Friday 13 July. Photograph: PA/Yui Mok

Protesters against Donald Trump in London on Friday 13 July. Photograph: PA/Yui Mok

Donald Trump’s visit to the UK showed Brexit is an existential question, as well as a political one, writes Bonnie Greer.

The problem for the press now is in covering empty gestures. Donald Trump has reduced the presidency of the United States to a series of campaign slogans, ‘promises kept’ to his base, and grandeur.

More than any other president since Nixon, more even than Ronald Reagan – a former professional actor – Trump has laid out all of the toys of Imperial America. With relish.

The vulgarity is only trumped – if I can use that expression – by the real possibility of a slip-up: a misstep, a mistake.

Robert Mueller tried to be the Wiley Coyote, tripping up Trump’s Road Runner by releasing an indictment naming 12 Russians suspected of hacking the Democratic Party. But the Road Runner beeped his horn and kept going.

Is it enough to be told, as Matthew Parris wrote in the Times over the weekend, that we are now entering vulgar times; that we have always been in them in relation to America? That the UK has always been Orwell’s ‘Airstrip One’? The comedy gold of Piers Morgan’s exclusive interview on board Air Force One certainly underlined the point.

As I read it, I broke into unexpected – and unprofessional – fits of laughter, live on the BBC, where I was reviewing the papers. But the unfunny part is that we are becoming used to this, maybe even accepting it as the nation gazes at Brexit and the Deep Blue sea.

My Trump Weekend began last Thursday by Westminster Bridge. I was trying to explain to the viewers of CNN International just what exactly was going on. The US president was in town for a working visit with the PM, a gala supper and tea with the Queen. Looking out over the Thames at the Palace of Westminster, it looked like nothing more than the faux-medieval structure that its architect, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin created. Within its structure, two political parties hold sway, neither with a leader who has an answer for our times, one who has the ability to rise up and see, and articulate, the bigger picture.

My day ended in the dark of a basement at the Soho Theatre, explaining to yet another American audience what Trump means to the UK. Listening to myself, I sounded as if I was describing Lex Luthor made flesh.

What I have to be grateful for in Trump is his sheer joy in the presidency: How he was ‘blown away’ by the military display on Salisbury Plain; how what he had always wanted was a picture with the Queen; his delight in sitting in Winston Churchill’s chair at Blenheim Palace; his joyful vulgarity in the imperial presidency itself.

Trump has ordered a Bastille Day-type parade for Veterans Day in November. This man, who managed to avoid serving in Vietnam five times, revels in the full-on display of American military might. Some veterans’ groups are livid about this costly venture, but there is nothing they can do.

The president can pardon at the federal level. So Trump is revelling in issuing pardons, an activity that most presidents use for their last days in office. He has upgraded all of his properties at public expense. His family are raking in the cash.

Early Friday morning, I stood with other broadcasters just outside the wire gates at the bottom of the drive leading to the American ambassador’s residence in Regents Park. During the course of the morning, I came to recognise when someone important was driving in because the Metropolitan police waiting outside would change their stance in a very subtle way.

Being American born and bred, I instinctively tried to see where they packed their guns. That became obvious when, as a car pulled up, certain of them would stand a little straighter and touch their chests with a particular gesture.

This was obviously where the gun was holstered.

I felt safe. I always tell Americans that if a London police officer – any British police officer – aims a gun at you, you’ll go down. No ‘spray-and-pray’ technique of many urban American police. The UK has marksmen and women.

One of the technicians on the news set, a former soldier who had served in Afghanistan, explained to me that police officers trained to carry guns “put two in the back and one in the head. Neutralize”.

At one point mid morning, the birds suddenly flew from the trees as a large helicopter rose from somewhere behind the gate. It was Trump and his entourage, on their way to wherever he had to be. This was Marine One, which has been flown by presidents before him. Trump has reduced it to a mogul’s toy; something to show off to the suckers watching in awe on the ground.

The Trump protest began near where we live in London, and I could see the crowds gathering. I stood with them, their signs and chants, individual, clear and noble in themselves. Later, I saw pictures of Fox News’ ‘opinion host’ and Trump shil, Sean Hannity, roaming about in dark glasses. He looked like a Mafia ‘button man’ and maybe that was apt. He was trying to give his viewers and listeners an idea of what was going on, how these ‘Brits’ had come out in their thousands and why.

Whether to stay in the EU now becomes not only a political question, but an existential one. Are we with Europe? Or are we Orwell’s ‘Airstrip One’.

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