Ioan Marc Jones: Activists should be pleased the government rejected the Trump petition
Preventing Trump from meeting the Queen would have undermined our ability to exert pressure on the US.
The petition signed by over 1.8 million people did not seek to prevent Donald Trump from visiting the UK. It did not even preclude standard diplomatic relations. The sole intention was to ensure that the Government did not invite Trump for an official state visit ‘because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen.’
The Queen is no stranger to such embarrassment. Over the years, Her Majesty has faced figures far more unsavoury than Trump. In 1978, for example, the Queen greeted Nicolae Ceaușescu, one of the most ghastly of the many ghastly communist dictators. The prospect of conversing with Ceaușescu so embarrassed the Queen, in fact, that she jumped into a bush in the Palace gardens in order to avoid the Romanian tyrant.
Robert Mugabe and Bashar al-Assad have also held Her Majesty’s attention and indeed her hand on state visits. The Queen has welcomed world leaders with appalling human rights records in the last decade alone, including King Abdullah and Xi Jinping. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
There was public anger surrounding these previous state visits, to be sure, but the anger was far less widespread than at present. It is thus easy to claim that the present furore is overstated, but there exist cogent reasons to afford Trump a special degree of disdain. The most obvious is that the US continues to be the most influential country in the world. It retains a beguiling soft power, achieved through a long-standing yet imperfect allegiance to liberty and democracy, and an intimidating hard power, achieved through the active use of military force. In addition to unrivalled global influence, the US also possesses a greater degree of influence on UK politics than any other nation.
It is therefore understandable that the British public reserve special criticism for the US President. It is indeed important that we do, as the UK remains one of the few countries in the world capable of influencing US politics. This influence is the primary reason that the public should welcome the Government’s decision to reject the petition: preventing Trump from meeting the Queen would have undermined our ability to exert pressure on the US.
Under normal circumstances, an unprecedented petition from a key ally questioning the moral substance of a US President might have had a lasting impact. Under normal circumstances, the prevention of a state visit hastened by the UK public would have forced a degree of self-reflection. It is worth remembering, however, that Trump does not exist under normal circumstances.
Trump has demonstrated an innate ability to shrug off widespread protests and indeed petitions in the space of 140 characters. That is not normal. And he has evidently been rather successful. One can assume his response to the prevention of a state visit would have been one of disparagement, one of offence taken, presumably in the form of a Tweet.
I have no problem offending Trump, but the present offence would have served little purpose. It would have emboldened Trump, allowing him to brush off the UK’s future criticisms, future protests, and future petitions. It would have afforded him the opportunity to ignore UK representatives. By preventing Trump from meeting the Queen, therefore, the UK would have undermined the ability to assert pressure. It would have been a small victory at a great cost.
Activists have to understand their opponents and use that knowledge to mount the best possible attack. In his short time in power, blanket protests and petitions have failed to rattle Trump – in some cases, they have emboldened him – but he has conceded, albeit only slightly, to pressure from elected politicians. The Trump administration made concessions after attempting to implement the ‘Muslim Ban’ following criticisms of the policy. The concessions were admittedly minor, but they were concessions nonetheless. In addition, the reaction to Trump’s policies from certain nations, notably Germany, has weakened Trump’s position on the world stage. These are early days, but elected representatives thus far seem the best avenue with which to challenge Trump.
This does not mean UK protests are pointless. It means precisely the opposite. It shows the importance of anti-Trump activism and offers an insight into the direction that such activism should take. Activists should seek to exert pressure on politicians within their jurisdiction and force them to challenge Trump. It is important that our politicians have Trump’s ear – not to whisper gently, but to shout courageously. Activism can offer politicians such courage. Preventing Trump from meeting the Queen serves no such purpose.
The petition was a futile dalliance, a misguided manifestation of our collective disdain. It was virtuous, to be sure, but futile nonetheless. It offered only an inconsequential gain at the expense of a significant future challenge. The UK public should object to Trump’s divisiveness and they should challenge his vulgarism, but they should do so through the most effective methods at our disposal. That doesn’t mean a pointless petition. It means exerting pressure on domestic politicians to ensure that they exert pressure on Trump.