“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”
Thus Charles Dickens begins “A Tale of Two Cities.” Would that the greatest of all novelists could return to us for a week. For it would take Dickens in his prime to do full justice to President Trump’s state visit to Britain this week.
At its best, a state visit to Britain dazzles the foreign head of state. Not much dazzles Trump, aside from his own very stable genius, but being greeted by Her Majesty the Queen on Monday should come close. She has, after all reigned since Trump was five. She has been receiving presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But this seems certain also to be the worst of state visits. For Tuesday, the group Stop Trump has promised “a diverse Carnival of Resistance,” at which they will doubtless chant childishly: “Say it loud, say it clear, Donald Trump’s not welcome here!” Up to a quarter of a million people are expected to participate in anti-Trump protests in London and elsewhere. If permission is given, the 20-foot-tall inflatable “Trump baby” will hover over Trafalgar Square.
Conspicuous by their absence from the festivities will be Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Opposition, and the American-born Duchess of Sussex, née Meghan Markle — perhaps because she is still on maternity leave, perhaps (or so the Express speculated) because she has previously described the president as “misogynistic” and “divisive.”
On his state visit in 2011, President Obama addressed the two houses of Parliament at Westminster Hall. No such honor will be bestowed on his successor. A carriage ride to Buckingham Palace was deemed appropriate for the President Xi Jinping of China in 2015. There will be no gold coach for Donny from Queens.
For his part, Trump can be depended on to fuel the flames of British condescension. The hapless Theresa May will doubtless have to endure yet more presidential criticism of her handling of Brexit. It will not make her last week as Conservative leader any more pleasant when, as he seems inclined to do, Trump meets with Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.
On the whole, I expect, the president’s reception will be authentically Dickensian, in the sense that Dickens personified English anti-Americanism. When he visited the United States in 1842, Dickens was scathing, as readers of his “American Notes” and “Martin Chuzzlewit” will recall. Yet I would urge Britons to take a long, hard look in the mirror before joining in the anti-Trump clamor.
For a start, they should reflect on the catastrophic mess British politics has become. So badly have the Conservatives bungled Brexit that they are now staring electoral disaster in the face. Thrashed in the local elections, annihilated in the European elections, they now live in mortal dread of a general election. A YouGov poll last week put the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party ahead of the Tories. If an election were held today, more than 200 Tory MPs would lose their seats.
Even among Americans, Trump is not a popular president, it is true. Compared with the Conservatives, however, the Republican Party is in rude health.
Whoever succeeds May as Tory leader and prime minister — and I would not bet the house on its being Trump’s buddy Boris — will find themselves in exactly her predicament. With too few votes to pass the existing Withdrawal Agreement, but no majority in the Commons for a no-deal Brexit, the new premier will soon find that there is no renegotiation on offer in Brussels and no chance of a further extension beyond October without either an election or another referendum.
The country seems to be sleepwalking toward a Corbyn-led coalition of Labor, the Lib Dems and the Scottish Nationalists, with the prospect of not one but two more referendums — one that may well undo Brexit, another north of the border that might just undo the United Kingdom itself. Brits may be tempted to sneer at the United States because the president is a vulgarian. But isn’t Trump entitled to sneer at them?
In their complacency, many Britons fail to notice that, with every passing year, they become more American in outlook. “How are you?” I ask my older children, who were raised in England. “Good,” they reply. But they should really say “fine” or “well” or — the correct English response — “Mustn’t grumble.”
About 3.2 million British television viewers sat up until 2 a.m. a couple of Mondays ago to watch the final episode of “Game of Thrones.” And heaven knows how many Londoners will turn their backs on the Cricket World Cup to watch the Yankees take on the Red Sox on June 29-30.
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. By most objective measures, life on both sides of the Atlantic has never been better. And yet most Brits feel closer to Dickens’s winter of despair than to the spring of hope. Their sole consolation is that somehow things in America are worse. I hate to say it, but they’re not.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.