Donald Trump seemed very happy to be with Theresa May on Thursday, smiling, waving, even holding the British prime minister’s hand as they strolled following a gala dinner May threw in honor of his visit. But Trump’s apparent attitude was really the ugly, anticipatory joy of the naughty child who has left a sack of something vile on the doorstep and is just waiting for the moment when it’s discovered.
Previous to meeting with May, Trump conducted an interview with ultra-right tabloid, The Sun. In what CNN referred to as an “astonishing political knifing” and “a stunning intervention in British domestic politics” that interview, the release of which was timed to drop while May and Trump were together, contained a number of nasty surprises that were designed to harm May, roil her government, keep the fires of white nationalism burning, and give a boost to the UK’s own blowhard Trump-a-like, Boris Johnson. Some overnight reporting even suggested that Trump’s interview might be enough to unseat May’s fragile government—an idea that surely thrills Trump.
Trump’s interview was particularly savage on the topic of “Brexit” — Britain’s departure from the European Union. Where May has been trying to manage a “soft Brexit,” one that would move the UK out of the union while preserving freedom of movement and mostly open trade in exchange for continued observation of EU rules on some goods, Trump thundered that May was “doing it wrong.” So wrong, in fact, that as the Wall Street Journal relates, he stated that rather than working out the one-on-one United States and UK trade deal many had expected to emerge from his talks with May, Trump thought the US would be better off going back to talking with the EU. And best of all, Trump delivered this information in the form of an ultimatum.
Trump: If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the U.K., so it will probably kill the deal. If they do that, then their trade deal with the U.S. will probably not be made.
So Trump is telling May how she should conduct the delicate business of extracting the UK from the EU, directly interfering British domestic politics, and holding up the threat of taking away a US trade deal unless she reverses course in the eleventh hour to do it the way he wants—an action that would likely result not in a clean Brexit, but a “Brupture” that would leave the UK isolated and apart from an angry EU. But Trump didn’t stop there. He had plenty of time for other topics—like a massive shot of white nationalism.
Trump: Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame. I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was—and I don’t mean that in a positive way.
As CNN relates, these statements are …
… a fresh sign that Trump has no time for diplomatic niceties, is either oblivious to the political pressures that foreign leaders face or simply does not care about them and is willing to sow disruption wherever he goes in order to enhance his own outspoken political brand.
But the idea that Trump doesn’t understand the damage he is causing, like the idea that he doesn’t understand the nature or funding of NATO, is last year’s news. Trump understands. He understands that his way forward requires that he always find some source of fresh outrage. And his base at home demands the scalps of leaders who are playing along to the white nationalist autocratic game.
That’s why Trump went out of his way during his NATO visit to attack Germany. That nation’s success in integrating migrants, accepting large numbers of refugees, building up an infrastructure of renewable energy, and holding off the force of alt-reich nationalism is a massive rebuke to Trump and to the forces he represents.
It’s not that Trump doesn’t understand what he’s doing. It’s that he does understand. And that’s far worse.
According to The Guardian, British lawmakers of all parties have united around one thing—their disdain for Trump and their offense at the diplomatic storm he’s not just causing, but cheering on. But those lawmakers also found time in their attacks for a sideswipe on May for simply tolerating Trump’s visit—and that’s all Trump needs. Instability is his fuel. A weakened, angry, divided UK is his goal. This is the age of disaster politics, and Donald Trump surfs the catastrophic wave. Even when he has to make it.
On Friday, Trump is meeting with May again, and the Wall Street Journal reports that May and Trump will speak together at a joint news conference, attend one of Trump’s beloved military parades, and dash off to tea with the queen. But unless the 92-year-old Elizabeth puts a nice cuppa in his face, it doesn’t much matter what faux niceties are exchanged on Friday. Trump has done his dirty work. And he’s not the only one smiling.