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Seven Fellows of the British Academy respond to the Trump protests

Seven Fellows of the British Academy respond to the Trump protests

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Following the trend of his presidency so far, President Donald Trumps current visit to the UK has proved controversial, leading to protests, counter-protests and even a giant ‘Trump Baby’ balloon. As debate rages around the best way to respond to this unorthodox leader, seven Fellows from across the humanities and social sciences give their perspective.

Steve Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology, University of St Andrews

“In deciding whether to protest against Trump, remember, not protesting is as much of a choice as protesting and sends just as strong a signal. To do nothing when people violate fundamental social norms is to indicate that those norms may not be as fundamental as we thought. But don’t just think about whether to protest, think about how to protest. To be angry at Trump affirms his power and endorses his effectiveness. To be contemptuous of Trump denies his power and diminishes him. Contempt and derision are excellent mobilisers of collective action. So, if you are at the demonstrations, use satire and wit. Have fun. Create a carnival of resistance. Reaffirm core values of humanity over inhumanity, inclusion over exclusion, hope over hate.”

Demonstrators holds signs saying 'Impeach Trump,' 'Elect Women,' and 'Empower Women' at a protest one year after the inauguration of President Donald Trump in New York City.

A New York City protest against Donald Trump's presidency, one year after his inauguration. Photo by Andrew Holbrooke / Getty Images.

Patricia Thane, Professor of Contemporary History, Kings College London

“I will march on 13 July, with friends who are also professionals past the age of 60 – not stereotypical demonstrators. We’ll protest at Trump’s treatment of Muslims, immigrant families, women, the environment, the Iran agreement, NATO and more, and the consequent dangers, national (including to the US) and international. It’s hard to understand objections to the march. Some oppose demonstrations against Britain’s ‘oldest ally’. A dubious description of the US track record, but, even if true, should it rule out peaceful protest against policies which arouse international disgust, just as we protest against objectionable policies of our own democratically elected government, such as the Iraq war? And why not fly a balloon of temperamental Trump as a baby? If disrespectful public images of politicians are unacceptable, the many cartoonists who revel in media caricatures of Trump had better watch out.”

Conor Gearty, Professor of Human Rights Law, LSE

“Donald Trump represents an especial threat to the rational engagement with policy that is one of the hallmarks of representative government. It is not a case of his being to the right or to the left and one liking or disliking that according to one’s taste. It is that he and those whom he recruits to do his work reject rationality as a basis for decision-making. Cronyism, racism and a cult of personality fill the gap. His infantile personality compounds the problem, normalising a racist and sexist way of speaking that had been on the defensive until his election. If his modus operandi survives and those who copy it around the world likewise succeed we will have entered a new era of fascist government, initially camouflaged by populist votes. The final reckoning for the economic collapse of 2008 will have arrived.”

President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a campaign rally on May 10, 2018 in Elkhart, Indiana

President Trump speaks to a full house at a rally in Indiana, May 2018. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rosemary Foot, Professor of International Relations and Emeritus Fellow, University of Oxford

“A visit that few people want, at a time that couldn’t be worse. President Trump in one of his typically undiplomatic remarks prior to his trip to Europe described the UK as in some turmoil. In that he is correct, but Trump is himself the source of far wider and even deeper turmoil, launching a trade war that threatens the health of the global economy, insulting key allies at the NATO meeting, and sparking protests across the UK among tens of thousands who wish to underline their dismay at this Presidency. Next, Trump turns to Russia, with a meeting that many of his allies fear will undo whatever good came out of the NATO meeting. As Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, rightly suggests, the US President needs to think more clearly about ‘who is your strategic friend and who is your strategic problem’, the betting being that during his time with Putin, he will heap praise on yet another authoritarian leader.

The contrast in President Trump’s brief ‘working visit’ with President Obama’s state visit in 2011 couldn’t be greater. Then, Obama and the First Lady stayed with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, Obama gave a speech to both Houses of Parliament and was introduced by the Speaker in terms that Trump would savour but will never receive from a British dignitary. Since so many of the things that Trump has done indicate a desire to destroy the Obama legacy, it is clear that this UK trip hardly fits his playbook.”

Ann Phoenix, Professor of Psychosocial Studies, UCL

“Why does it matter that there will be mass protests against President Donald Trump’s visit to the UK? Because Narrative Matters. The demonstrations are legal, collective ways of storying opposition to the policies and practices that President Trump stands for and has inaugurated. Equally important, they are psychosocial, allowing a sense of solidarity across social groups and agency beyond the clicktivism that otherwise seems the main avenue for protest. They stake a claim to a national home imagined as welcoming of refugees, where separation of children from parents is not considered a justifiable migration policy and with aspirations to gendered and racialised equality. Those who make slow marches across various UK sites may wish that they could have imposed a travel ban on President Trump symbolically to mirror the ban he has imposed on people from various Islamic countries. Yet, even if he is insulated from the protests, the demonstrations and failure to offer a state visit, offer visible and audible contestation to the view that President Trump’s world visions are shared. The narrative may be read as divisive, but the story it sends around the world is that social justice requires the acceptance of multiple, intersecting differences.”

Protesters hold up signs reading 'Theresa the Appeaser' in Parliament Square, London in February 2017 as the government debates a popular petition against Trump's visit.

As the British Government debated the possibility of a US state visit in February 2017, protesters gathered in Parliament Square. Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images.

Archie Brown, Emeritus Professor of Politics, University of Oxford    

In his international diplomacy, Donald Trump has provided a master class on how to lose friends and alienate people. In his latest slight on Chancellor Angela Merkel, the president claimed that Germany was controlled by Russia through its reliance on Russian energy supplies. Since Merkel spent the first half of her life in Communist East Germany when it was under ultimate Soviet control, she was able to retort that she knew the difference between such a society and a contemporary Germany well able to make policy independently.

The Washington-based Pew Research Center, in a survey of 37 countries, found that in 35 of them Barack Obama was evaluated more highly than Trump. Only in Israel and Russia was Trump preferred. Although Trump counts among his domestic supporters those who admire him as a tough defender of American interests, there is ample evidence not only of this president’s low international prestige but also of his negative impact on the reputation of the United States. A Gallup survey of 134 countries found that US leadership has reached a new low of 30 percent approval internationally, a drop of almost 20 points compared with the last year of the Obama administration.

The Trump presidency has brought an especially steep drop in esteem for the USA in Europe and the Americas, including Canada and Mexico. Military power is no substitute for political leadership, and the George W. Bush administration’s ratings in Europe during his last two years in office were even lower than Trump’s. Worldwide, however, the standing of American leadership has never in the post-war period been as low as it currently is, with a volatile and ill-informed egotist as the country’s chief executive.

Gary Gerstle, Mellon Professor of American History, University of Cambridge

“Europeans are now getting a glimpse of what Americans experience every day: Donald Trump’s delight in upending customary ways of doing things. He has little regard for protocol, tradition, civility, democratic rules and practice, or agreements and treaties (such as NATO) hammered out with a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. He is tactically brilliant at upsetting and disorienting those whom he sees as his opponents – Democrats and the liberal news media in the US, European and Asian allies, or simply an individual unlucky enough to draw his wrath and ridicule. If he engenders a furious reaction to his Twitter blasts, so much the better, as long as it keeps him on the front page and draws adulation from a base of supporters convinced that he can do no wrong. Is there a method to this madness? At times there is. Trump is delivering on a number of his campaign pledges: to ease the taxes on the rich; to make the southern border with Mexico a nasty place to cross; to create an impregnable conservative majority on the US Supreme Court; to make Europe pay for its defence; to upend a world of free trade and the institutions – including the WTO and the EU – that support it.

Historians will likely look back on these times as a transition point in world affairs – when the alliances laboriously created after the catastrophe of World War II fractured; when the US turned its back on Pax Americana; when democracy weakened and authoritarianism and ethnocultural populism surged. Trump does not have a coherent plan for the sort of world he would like to see emerge from this transition; but his delight in disrupting the existing world is plain for all to see.


Fellows of the British Academy are elected on the basis of outstanding scholarship in any branch of the humanities and social sciences. The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by the Academy but are commended as contributing to public debate.

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