Donald Trump and Brexit are no longer identical twins

Britain’s approach to the world more closely tracks the EU than America

Gideon Rachman


Images from Theresa May's early visit to the newly annointed US president became a symbol of the closeness of Trump’s America and Brexit Britain - but the countries have drifted apart over time © Getty

The Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump will forever be linked in history. The two events took place within a few months of each other. Both were populist revolts that appealed to similar constituencies.

After Mr Trump’s election, Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, was the first foreign leader to visit the new US president. A photograph of the two leaders walking hand in hand quickly became a symbol of the closeness of Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. For mainstream politicians in Europe, “Trump and Brexit” became shorthand for the forces that they were trying to combat.

But, as the months have passed, it has become clear that Trump and Brexit are not, in fact, identical twins. They are more like distant relations who are growing further apart with the passage of time.

The differences between the Trump phenomenon and Brexit are a matter of both style and substance. Mr Trump violates the conventional expectations of how a US president should behave on a daily basis. Mrs May, by contrast, is scrupulously correct in her behaviour. She is about as likely to attend an EU summit in her pyjamas as to tweet that she is a “very stable genius”.

Early in her period in office Mrs May suggested hopefully that she might get on with Mr Trump because “opposites attract”. But that pretence has now been dropped. When the president retweeted posts from a British far-right group, Mrs May was forced to condemn him. Predictably Mr Trump lashed back, although he initially directed his ire at the wrong Theresa May, lambasting a British housewife with just six Twitter followers.

The slapstick comedy of this incident obscured a serious political difference. In office, Mr Trump has embraced anti-Muslim rhetoric that Mrs May has carefully avoided. That difference is part of a broader divide between the radical nationalism of Mr Trump and the cautious and conventional globalism of Mrs May.

For although many Europeans and Remainers are convinced that Brexit is a nationalist spasm, and little else, the May government is determined to present it in a different light. The prime minister’s argument is that leaving the EU is an opportunity to forge a new future as “Global Britain”. She has emphasised her support for the international, rules-based, liberal order. By contrast, Mr Trump remains a proud, “America First” nationalist who is deeply suspicious of all international institutions, from the UN to the World Trade Organization.

These very different international visions have led to policy disputes between Brexit Britain and Trump’s America. Neither side has much interest in playing up these differences. But on a succession of issues, Britain has sided with the EU rather than the US. When the Trump administration repudiated the Paris climate accord, the UK stuck with the agreement and the European consensus. The same pattern repeated itself when the White House announced its intention to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. And while Mr Trump is itching to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, Britain has joined the rest of the EU in supporting it.

Perhaps the most consequential policy division is over the WTO. The Trump administration is quietly hobbling the world trade body by blocking appointments to its court. But a functioning WTO is critical to Mrs May’s plans to make Brexit work. The UK has stressed that, if it cannot strike a new trade deal with the EU, it will fall back on WTO rules. Mr Trump’s agenda could wreck the body that Britain is relying upon as its insurance policy.

Some of the ideologues behind Brexit remain wedded to the idea that Britain is part of an “Anglosphere” of English-speaking nations, with the US and the UK at its heart. But Britain’s foreign policy choices since the Brexit vote suggest that the UK is actually more comfortable with the Franco-German worldview than the American one. The repeated low-key clashes between the May government and the Trump administration emphasise the extent to which Britain is now “in play” as a foreign policy actor. If the Brexit negotiations come to a reasonably amicable conclusion and Mr Trump remains in the White House, post-Brexit Britain could easily end up closer to the EU than the US.

The more ardent Brexiters would argue that this is simply because the British establishment has failed to understand the populist moment. But opinion polls suggest that Mrs May’s policy decisions reflect wider sentiment in Britain. A Globescan survey last year showed that only 33 per cent of Britons believe that the US has a “mainly positive” impact on world affairs; compared with 84 per cent positive ratings for Germany and 66 per cent for France. Some 79 per cent of Brits trusted President Barack Obama’s judgment, compared with 22 per cent who trust President Trump.

These numbers underline the differences between Brexit Britain and Trump’s America. British political debate since the Brexit vote has been bitter, but it has been conducted in largely conventional terms. By contrast, Mr Trump’s White House increasingly feels like a deranged episode from a reality TV show. The vote for Brexit and the election of Mr Trump may have sprung from similar instincts. But they have ended up in very different places.

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