Donald Trump’s progress from noisy tycoon to a political insurgent who has shaken American politics to its core has been much assisted by the media.
His decision to visit Britain on June 24 as it declares the result of a referendum that may well determine its historical direction must have been taken with the Fourth Estate very much in mind. London is a top global communications hub. Trump knows the eyes of the world will be directed at Britain as it decides whether to stick with the cause of European integration or else opt for renewed self-government and a detached relationship with the European Union. There will be huge media attention and it won’t be hard for Trump to insert himself into the story.
He has already said that he personally thinks Britain ought to select the ‘Brexit’ option and get out of the EU.
Whatever the outcome of this exceedingly closely fought contest, expect pungent comments aimed at a home audience.
If it is Brexit, it is quite possible he will affirm that by choosing the path of self-reliance rather than absorption in a floundering bureaucratic project, Britain remains a strong historical reference point for Americans.
If a majority of British voters opt for the status quo it’s likely that its rejection of sovereignty will be seen as a warning by his allies of the fate that can befall the American Republic if a nation loses the appetite for determining its own affairs.
Trump has never shown himself to be a man unduly preoccupied with history. But he’s a quick learner and it would be astonishing if he did not dwell on some of the enduring connections between the Americans from north Britain whose potent culture of individualism and egalitarianism shaped American culture in profound ways.
If he has not done so already, he should read Jim Webb’s beautifully written book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. One review, that appeared in the San Antonio Express-News shortly after the future US senator and former Vietnam veteran wrote it in 2004, ought to make it clear why: ‘through Webb’s engrossing depiction of Scots-Irish history, the reader gains an understanding of how they, through their acute individualism, disdain for aristocracy, and strong warrior traditions have come to shape America’s military, working-class and even our peculiarly unique form of populist democracy’.
The re-opening of his refurbished golf resort at Turnberry in South-West Scotland might be a good opportunity for Trump to bone up on transatlantic migrations that helped to make his nation what it still recognisably is.
Turnberry is a picturesque spot on the coast of Ayrshire. In the 17th century the whole area was a hotbed of religious dissent. Numerous Covenanters were executed or transported to slavery because they resisted the British crown’s dilution of their Bible-based Protestantism.
These self-reliant Lowland Scots had already colonised parts of nearby Ulster, Ireland’s most northern province. Many of these Scots-Irish (known as Ulster-Scots in Britain itself) had moved on to what would become the United States. Here many fell foul of aristocratic power and their radical ways undoubtedly incubated the American revolution a century after the Covenanters movement.
Boneybefore, a village on the Irish coast just a short distance from Turnberry, had been the birthplace of Andrew Jackson, a hero of the American revolution. He rose to be a twice-elected US president by sheer force of personality as well as by overcoming daunting obstacles likely to crush others. He has gone down in history as a protector of the common man, someone whose style and values are once again absent from much of the ruling elite.
Invoking the legacy of Jackson could be awkward for Trump since this frontier President was no friend of minorities, as the fate of native Americans who collided with him indicated. But Jackson stood for asserting the rights of the common man over the arrogance and unaccountable power of untouchable elites. Jackson, US president from 1829 to 1837 may well have prevented the USA evolving into a country shaped and controlled by a European-style oligarchy.
Today, many Americans are looking for defenders who can take up the cudgels against a new elite, just as much alarmed by earthy populism as Jackson’s lofty foes were in the 1820s. Most of his supporters have turned out to be unfazed by Trump’s absence of military service, his wealth or the discovery that the moments are rare when he kneels before God on a church pew.
Any qualms about his campaigning style, political inexperience and bellicose outbursts are eclipsed by mounting contempt from mainstream America for an establishment which, these days, hardly bothers to mask its condescension for everyday folk. Observers ranging from Walter Russell Mead to David Brooks and Charles Murray have noticed a change in the attitude of the elites drawn from the media, finance, the software industry and academia towards ordinary folk.
Until recently, a lot of successful Americans were careful to conceal any arrogance towards economic inferiors. Business people involved in manufacturing often had more contact with workers than the new hi-tech coastal elites have with people outside their own gated communities. A sense of public service and moderation in conduct were hallmarks of many people who had prospered and realised ‘the American Dream’ without kicking away the ladder from beneath them.
But the dream of self-improvement in a system rewarding merit, hard work, and endeavour has been dying since the 1980s. Middle-class incomes have remained static or declined in line with the exporting of much industry overseas and depression conditions in many once-prosperous communities. Rather than reporting this trauma, the established media has displayed numbness and even condescension. Along with academia, it promotes ever bolder forms of group rights and social experimentation and denounces as backward any opposition to whatever is the prevailing political correctness of the day.
If a self-regarding and insular elite located in Washington and on the two coasts had any major policy successes to its credit, it would be hard to dislodge and insurrection would probably quickly fail. But exasperation with its haughty style has given way to cold anger over its accumulating failures in economic and foreign policy above all.
Trump has found himself a lightning conductor for much of this popular disaffection (so it has to be said has Hillary Clinton’s tenacious rival Bernie Sanders). In Europe, a media even more cocooned from popular sentiment drops strong hints that Trump is a disinterred Mussolini. It has mistaken American desire for a clear-out of a stale political establishment weighed down with failure with renascent fascism.
Critics of Trump are particularly thick on the ground in Scotland, which happens to be the birthplace of his mother Mary Anne McLeod (1912-2000).
Nicola Sturgeon, who heads the autonomous government based in Edinburgh, has refused to meet him without Trump even leaving his calling card. One of her close political allies Tasmina Sheikh-Ahmed MP has even demanded that he should be barred from Britain if elected President. Needless to say, the far-left, which allied with the ruling Scottish nationalists in their failed 2014 attempt to secede from Great Britain, has vowed to stage public protests.
If Trump had put his name to a statement crafted by a Scottish spin doctor saying he hoped the decision would ‘break the cycle of violence around the world’ and urging vocal critics (who included the then head of the FBI), not to ‘ever demean’ Scotland, it would have been something he would have found it very hard to explain away when he later became a major US political contender. This criticism is meat and drink for Trump. He can point out that he has brought jobs and tourist revenues to Scotland even though it seems to be under the thumb of ruling ideologues. The cussed side of him will find it hard to resist pointing out how he was courted by the separatist government which forced through a planning application for a golf resort north of the city of Aberdeen in the face of local opposition. But the relationship broke down in 2009 after Trump refused to publicly endorse the much criticised release of a Libyan national in the early stages of a life sentence for his role in the blowing up of an aeroplane mainly carrying US citizens in 1988.
Scotland is now a post-industrial country relying on a service economy vulnerable to any economic downturn. Often it is hard to spot the enterprising, frugal and practical Scots who summed up the nation in the eyes of many until fairly recently. If he cares to observe the condition of the country from his limousine, Trump may find plenty of raw material for barbed comments about a once sturdy country that has gone to seed.
Scotland is thoroughly managed by a sprawling bureaucratic elite and an army of advisers drawn from academia and the third sector. They are wedded to the doctrine of equality and suspicious of enterprise. But a deteriorating education system and widespread poor health among lower-income citizens shows a growing gulf between them and a middle class, which is perhaps the chief beneficiary of this ritualistic invocation of equality. Scotland is actually a hierarchical and tightly supervised society where a law has just been passed which requires the state to appoint an official guardian for every Scottish child up to the age of 18, who can bypass the rights of parents even in the happiest homes.
If briefed by any advisers knowledgeable about contemporary conditions in the land of his forbearers, Trump may find a lot of ammunition for his campaign back home. It would not be surprising if he warned that Scotland’s fate could easily be that of the USA if it falls under the sway of an elephantine state that rewards itself while society enters into a spiral of decay.
This spring, the Conservatives emerged from a long political coma to double their seats in the Scottish parliament and become the main opposition to ruling separatists whose arrogance and incompetence growing numbers of Scots are finally tiring of.
On 1 June John Scott, the member for Ayr, the nearest town to Turnberry, gave a speech in the Edinburgh parliament that perhaps even Trump might have liked to give. Part of it reads:
‘Instead of being afraid to take bold and practical steps to reduce our growing dependence on imported energy, we must grasp with both hands the opportunity that fracking presents….
“We must restore the can-do attitude that Scotland was once famous for, so today I urge the Scottish Government to take a big step to encourage investment and invention in our country by saying that Scotland is prepared to take part in the use of 21st century technology. I urge the Scottish Government to acknowledge and encourage our scientific and business communities instead of driving them away with policy proposals that are based on prejudice and timidity rather than evidence and science’.
Contrary to appearances, Trump is not the East Coast American equivalent of a British Tory but instead is a centrist albeit of a radical kind. In his brief British tour, he may find plenty of evidence of a self-satisfied political class presiding over an increasingly fractured society that will feed into his own campaign discourse in the run-up to November.
Britain’s currently beleaguered Prime Minister may find it unavoidable to dodge a meeting with someone who now has at least a one in four chance of soon being the 45th President of the USA. David Cameron is reeling from his own home-grown insurgency and will likely be distracted and exhausted if and when he presses the flesh with Trump for the official photocall after 23 June. He has waged a flat-footed campaign to keep Britain in a European Union whose leaders have cut Britain no slack, even as the troubles of this dysfunctional entity pile up. His fiercest opponents are now drawn from colleagues in his own party who feel that the EU is unreformable and that it threatens Britain’s well-being in increasingly direct ways.
The British Conservatives are facing bitter turmoil as the Republican party at least makes a show of unity in order to try and reclaim the Presidency after 8 years in opposition. The ever- resourceful Trump is sure to put his trip to see his British cousins to full use. He may be tempted to draw some favourable comparisons between an introspective and divided Britain trapped in a sterile relationship with the EU and America after 8 years of Obama. But it is quite possible that he will be more sombre than this. He could point to the sunken condition of Scotland, refer to the British social and economic malaise underneath superficial glitz and modernity, and warn that America must avoid becoming a carbon copy of the Old World facing yet another bout of troubles.
Visits of presidential hopefuls to Britain during an election year are not unusual. But this one is guaranteed to stir the waters and could well have reverberations on the campaign trail itself.
Tom Gallagher lives in Edinburgh and is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. His latest book Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published earlier this year.
(Image: Ric Lander)