US President Donald Trump’s visit to the UK this past week lived up to expectations. It provided political commentators, comedians, cartoonists and the general British public with non-stop, real-life entertainment, the sort of reality-meets-fantasy event that many British people associate with everyday life across the Atlantic. Outrage at Trump’s bigotry and misogyny and disgust towards his downright vicious immigration policy consisting of the ‘Muslim ban’ and the separation of thousands of children from their families at the border with Mexico was mixed with raw pleasure at the opportunities for cathartic laughter that the Trump visit generated.
Tens of thousands of protestors in about a hundred cities across the UK vied for social media attention for the most creative insults. Whether figured as the baby blimp rising above Parliament Square or animated into a figure bumbling his way around the sedate and elderly Queen, his mouth was also morphed as a toilet bowl and his face adorned the toilet rolls that were for the taking at the 250,000 strong anti-Trump protest march on July 13 in London. Accompanied by angry slogans that expressed disgust towards the “sex-predator-in-chief” or loftily, like the Southall Black Sisters, whose banner challenged Trump’s hatefulness with courage, these images became weapons of resistance against the world’s most powerful man.
Since Trump came to power in 2016, the everyday has assumed bizarre proportions and has given rise to a generalised paranoia within the US. His orange-coloured hair, his jowly expression, the childish pout his mouth assumes when he doesn’t want to (or can’t) answer a question, his complete disregard for civility and diplomatic protocol, his swagger emanating from having amassed vast amounts of wealth and his verbal incontinence as he spews out his basest thoughts have come to represent the ugliest aspects of embodied and entrenched white American patriarchy in a world where the gap between politics, business and entertainment spheres has completely collapsed. The world of political policy-making has fused with global financial deal-making. As the anthropologist William Mazzarella has suggested, Trump no longer represents a brand associated with real estate and luxury hotels—he is the brand.
For his supporters, on the other hand, these very qualities of uncivil behaviour render him authentic and as a man of the people. He represents their aspirations and admiration for plain speaking, for restoring forms of speech that the culture wars of the 1990s had rendered inarticulable. Political correctness that had led to self-censorship on issues of race, sexuality and immigration has been finally vanquished as taboos that maintain social decency in public life have been lifted.
Stays true to his role as a businessman
Trump blundered his way through diplomatic conventions in meetings with the Queen and Prime Minister Theresa May. He blurted insults against May, praising her rival Boris Johnson as good prime minister material at a time when Johnson had just resigned from May’s cabinet and attacked London mayor Sadiq Khan for allowing the Trump blimp to go up in interviews with tabloids such as the Sun and even in formal press conferences. The one aspect that Trump remained truest to was his role as a businessman. As he said in the press conference with May, business is all that matters to him, and trade deals are what he wanted to get out of this visit.
It was only fitting then that at another press conference on the eve of his visit, Trump spoke of the UK as above all a site of property investment and of pleasurable golf courses. Clearly bored by the technical machinations behind Britain’s Brexit policy and only momentarily rattled by the opposition to his visit, Trump spoke, in the same breath, about his mother’s Scottish birth and about his various properties in Scotland and Ireland in order to signal his inseparably affective and material investment in the country he was visiting.
Trump, who advised May to sue the EU and to press for a hard Brexit, knows well that Brexit is going to further weaken Britain’s economic position in the world, allowing the US to press for a completely free hand in negotiating and forcing trade deals without any barriers. For behind Trump’s “bull in a china shop” affect are the hard facts and questions that Britain must face. As Adam Ramsay in his piece in openDemocracy wrote, the idea behind Trump’s visit is to “force through a US trade deal which will turn Britain into a deregulated offshore haven for the rich”. On his way to the UK, Trump had already created a stir at the NATO summit by casting aspersions on Germany’s economic links with Russia and had gone about demanding that NATO countries increase their spending on defence budgets.
Modi-Trump complex of power
It was for not dissimilar reasons that the UK had welcomed Narendra Modi on his two visits here since becoming prime minster of India in 2014. In the same post-Brexit world that promises to give primacy to the US, India is seen as an important ally who must be courted without reservations. But while the US and India are vastly different economies, it would not take too big a leap of the imagination to notice similarities between Trump and Modi’s styles of leadership and governance. Both leaders are at the helm of right-wing populist governments in two of the world’s most major democracies. Both claim power through the art of plain talking and both have tremendous faith in their names as a brand in themselves. In fact, they both often speak of themselves in the third person. Both have presided over an increasingly intensified climate of bigotry and hate, especially against Muslims, in their respective countries. And most importantly, both seem to be blessed with permanent impunity, with their popularity among their base increasing with each allegation of wrongdoing or moral imperviousness.
It is no surprise then that right-wing Hindus in the diaspora, especially in the US, have embraced Trump, as have many sections of the Hindutva brigade in India. The best known among them is the outfit called the Hindu Sena, which conducted havans for Trump’s victory in November 2016. In the US, Hindu groups supporting Trump made easy borrowings of images from Modi’s campaign, replacing Modi’s face emerging from a lotus (the BJP’s election symbol) with that of Trump’s. The Facebook page for the US-based ‘Hindus for Trump‘ declares: “American Hindus are model citizens, educated and industrious”, a bald attempt to distinguish themselves from other so-called ‘problem’ minorities such as the Muslims.
What unites their agenda with Trump’s is a dislike, even hatred, of Muslims, buoyed as they are by tensions between India and Pakistan in the subcontinent and the Islamophobic aspects of the war on terror in the West. A poster, created by a campaign called Justice for Hindus, appeared soon after the Paris attacks of 2017. It made the transnational connections of the Hindu right explicit in its declaration: “From Paris to Mumbai: Hindus and the West United Against Islam” (justiceforhindus.org). Trump has reciprocated this love for the Hindu right. At a charity concert named Humanity Against Terror organised by the Republican Hindu Coalition (inspired by the Republican Jewish Coalition) in Edison, New Jersey, Trump famously declared, just three weeks before the Presidential elections: “I’m a big fan of Hindu, I’m a big fan of India”.
In the UK, far-right white supremacist groups such as the English Defence League have rallied around Trump’s visit, albeit in sometimes embarrassingly low turnouts. In turn, Trump’s aides have lobbied for the release of Tommy Robinson, a well-known British Nazi. But the sparse attendance at the far-right’s rallies should not lead us to undermine the power of the transnational far-right’s consolidation as a political force.
Less explicit support in the UK
Trump has found less explicit support among the Hindu right in the UK. Like in the US, here too both major political parties court the Hindu vote (estimated to be about 800,000), but politicians of all political stripes in the mainstream of politics in the UK have not dared to alienate the substantial Muslim population here in the way that Trump has in the US. As part of a continuing colonial legacy, they attempt to keep conservative, patriarchal elements happy among all religious groups, particularly among the minorities. For this piece, I searched the official website of many organised Hindu groups, such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Forum of Britain, many of whom played key roles in mobilising support for Modi’s visits, but I could find no statement of support for Trump. This, I suspect, has less to do with any dilution of the Hindutva project abroad,and more to do with the different political terrain here. After all, many South Asians here voted in support of Leave in the Brexit referendum, echoing the discourse of good versus bad immigrants that has such resonance in the US.
In light of the absence of any ostensible Indian diaspora support for Trump’s visit (barring those Indians at the highest level of business and trade deals), it was useful to tune into BBC Radio Asian Network’s ‘Big Debate’ on the anti-Trump protests on July 13. The South Asians calling in were clearly a divided lot and political positions did not fall neatly along religious differences. While some expectedly argued that Trump should be made welcome as business matters the most, others expressed repulsion at his bigotry and divisive politics that had escalated xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. Still others pointed to the hypocrisy of the protestors who had not opposed visits of other foreign leaders accused of worse crimes. But some also drew attention to the racist history of UK immigration policies as exemplified in the Windrush scandal. They saw Trump’s immigration policies as having parallels in Europe, particularly in the callous treatment of refugees from war-torn regions of the world.
As the debate rolled on, one listener was finally on to something when he declared that Asians in the UK – Hindus and Muslims alike – were pro-Trump because, he declared, South Asians like bold leaders who are non-politically correct, no-nonsense heads of states. In this, he was clearly drawing attention to the Modi-Trump complex of power. Trump is now an official invitee to India’s Republic Day celebration on January 26, 2019, the year in which Narendra Modi has to return to the electorate to seek another term in office.
Trump is of course irresistibly drawn to charismatic, authoritarian leaders across the world, a fact that was laid bare during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16. Breaking rank with his own country’s intelligence establishment that had formally implicated and indicted a dozen Russians with interfering in the 2016 US Presidential elections, Trump has given a clean chit to Putin and the Russian oligarchs, shocking even his own party members to the core.
In his criticism of Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame that satirises Pakistan’s ruling elites and the leaders who represent them, the critic Aijaz Ahmad had written of Rushdie’s dark humour as a “laughter which laughs, unfortunately, much too often”, for the tyrants are depicted as such “perfect, buffoon-like caricatures” that “one is in danger of forgetting that (Bhutto and Zia) were in reality no buffoons, but highly capable and calculating men whose cruelties were entirely methodical”. As we reflect back on the laughter that Trump’s visit to the UK has generated, one is also compelled to reflect on whether it is a laughter that laughs too much.