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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 08-06-2019 09:40

Brexit Britain, Jair, Mauricio and the Trump effect

Maybe, instead of dismissing the Trump era as a phase that will surely pass, we have to acknowledge that we have seen the Trump effect down our way, in Latin America, too.

Quizzed abroad about the state of Argentina, my adopted home, I invariably meet the line of enquiry with a simple one-liner that covers a multitudes of sins, or in Argentina’s case, issues: “Our country is never boring!”

Well, let’s just say this week the country of my birth has rarely looked likewise with such intensity.

Britain, between Brexit and the implosion of its principal political parties. Britain, between Donald Trump and the mandarins of the European Union. Britain, between comedy and tragedy. It’s been a sight to behold in the past week.

Much of it stemmed from the Trump effect. Like him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him. And his controversial state visit, with the pomp and circumstance he craves, played out across a moment of such crisis, peril and unpredictability for his hosts.

Ponder the fact that as the D-Day ceremonies finished, and Trump was heading home, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May was returning to Downing Street to resign her office, and let loose a chaotic campaign that has a dozen members of her Conservative party running to replace her.

Trump, of course, heralded his arrival with the kind of verbal volleys that make the fellow such bizarre theatre. He called the mayor of London, a longtime critic, a “stone-cold loser” not worthy of his time. Prince Harry’s wife, the US actress Meghan Markle, another who does not admire him, was branded “nasty.” As for Britain, well the Donald offered simplicity itself: “Just get out of Europe, deal or no-deal.”

But the stunner came with Trump’s unabashed support for Boris Johnson, a chap whose hair, bombast and buffoonery make him look like a Trump clone, to be the next Prime Minister.

Not by chance do democratic leaders normally stay out of the domestic political landscape of friends and foes, with good reason – you have to deal with whoever wins. Not the Donald. Before he landed, he told British newspapers Johnson would make a “great Prime Minister.”

You might have imagined that protocol would have him leave it there. But no. Standing alongside the Prime Minister of the hour, Theresa May, after talks at Downing Street, Trump declared: “I know Boris. I’ve known him for a long time. He’d do a very good job.” He then made time for a 20-minute phone conversation with his anointed candidate.

Meanwhile, outside on the streets, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, took to the barricades and addressed the thousands who did gather to protest Trump’s presence at Buckingham Palace, accusing the president of sowing hate and division wherever he goes.

In the ballet, and high theatre of this week, however, Corbyn’s righteous anger about the visitor looked somewhat shallow when it emerged he had asked for a meeting with Trump – and the US president, true to form, had said no. Picking sides in an ally’s high-stakes drama. Well, it’s what this president does.

And maybe, instead of dismissing the Trump era as a phase that will surely pass, we have to acknowledge that maybe we have just seen the Trump effect down our way, in Latin America. Because as all this was playing out in Whitehall, we witnessed Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro visiting Argentina – and unashamedly, Trumplike, backing Mauricio Macri in this year’s election.

Indeed, using the Trump tactic, he gave an interview with Argentine media before he left Brasilia. No doubting either Mr Bolsonaro’s wish for a centreright alliance with Macri, or the denunciation of the Kirchners. The headline in La Nación said it all: “Brazil and Argentina cannot go back to the corruption of the past.” For Trump and Boris, now read Jair and Mauricio, it seems.

In the circumstances, two snapshots lingered in the memory bank this week. One lay in Queen Elizabeth, quite pointedly, reminding her dinner-guests (the Trumps) that on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it was essential to remember how Britain and the United States built “an assembly of international institutions, to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated.”

She warned, with a sideways glance at the president: “Never let us forget the original intention of those institutions, nations working together to safeguard a hard-won peace.”

As she spoke, some of us were down the road from the Palace at a Chatham House conference celebrating the legacy of my late boss, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a man whose mission was precisely that: to bring nations together to keep the peace.

By common consent in that conference, these are “challenging, indeed dark days for those who seek to bring people, let along countries together, on the multilateral path,” to quote one of my former colleagues still at the UN. Trump’s “America first’ mantra is now copied by so many others in their own respective homelands.

In short, perhaps we should stop underestimating the Donald. As one liberal columnist in the UK, a virulent opponent of the President, concluded wearily this week: ‘Watching the Trump visit has been a weird cross between Dynasty and House of Cards. But he got what he wanted. Images that money can’t buy, which his base will love and which will boost his re-election campaign.”

And oh, by the way, the week ended with Trump’s pick, Boris Johnson, the hot favourite to be the next prime minister. As the presidents of Argentina and Brazil have shown in recent times, with visits and phone calls to the man, Trump’s embrace is sometimes very welcome indeed.

In this news

David Smith

David Smith

Former foreign correspondent for Britain’s ITN network, who later represented the United Nations secretary-general in Argentina.

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