Few features of life in the United States befuddle the average Brit more than the presidential election system and most of us fail entirely to understand what a primary is and why the whole business takes so long and costs so much. But it is a particular element of whatever stage you Americans are at right now—possibly it’s those primaries are happening now but maybe it’s something else—that has not only intrigued us but has annoyed several of us. We speak here of Donald Trump.
We’ve been puzzled, in roughly equal measure and to the extent that we are really that interested, by two main things about him: firstly, how such a patently talentless, dim and unlikeable individual could have amassed so much money, and second, how anyone of sound mind and judgment could even for a moment consider this unpleasant and bigoted man as a potential president. Yet we see him maintaining and perhaps increasing his lead in the polls. (Also, we can barely believe the cantilevered hair as it appears to repudiate Newton’s Law.)
Where this peculiar style of doing electoral politics has touched public life in Britain, and caused a lot of offence, is his claim that the United Kingdom has a “massive Muslim problem” and that we are going to great lengths to disguise it. This evoked a range of furious responses and not only from British Muslims who have been remarkably restrained. An online petition, on an official government website, has now garnered over half a million signatures calling for a ban on Trump entering the country. It’s a record number of signatures for this site, which is meant to trigger a Commons debate on any issue that attracts more than 100,000 signatories.
In Edinburgh, the Scottish Government’s Minister for international development, Humza Yousuf M.S.P., supported calls for a Trump ban, noting that "Recent comments from Donald Trump are divisive, hateful and designed to cause division between communities.” The situation is complicated by Trump’s ownership of two Scottish golf complexes, the long-established Turnberry links course on the Ayrshire coast, an Open venue, and a more recent development in Aberdeenshire, opened in 2012.
Nearby Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen stripped Trump of an honorary degree. Then Trump, who has a Scottish grandmother (which presumable accounts for his Caledonian-sounding forename) was sacked from his role as a Scottish business ambassador, the Edinburgh government failing to recognize his greatness and describing him as “no longer fit” for the role.
Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Sir Peter Westmacott, abandoned diplomatic protocol to challenge the Republican front-runner’s extraordinary statement that Muslims have made some parts of London into “no-go areas” for the Metropolitan Police. Although envoys would normally shun any involvement on the host country’s domestic politics, Westmacott felt he had to say, “We are very proud of our Muslim community in the United Kingdom,” later tweeting that “Just to confirm: police patrol ALL parts of the wonderful, diverse, multi-ethnic city of London.” Even the current Tory Mayor of London, another right-winger given to strange hair and unconventional utterances, Boris Johnson, was moved to observe that he wouldn’t visit certain parts of New York in case he bumped into Donald Trump.
What we also find puzzling, indeed offensive, is Trump’s lack of repentance for some of his statements. We share this response with many in the United States, it would appear. Not only does he not appear to mind whom he has offended but sometimes looks as if offence has been his deliberate aim. And then, far from retreating from a step too far, he actually goes further. This is puzzling on two counts: firstly, that even one of these recent remarks would ordinarily mean electoral suicide, and secondly that clearly there are people responding favorably to what he has to say. Surely, we say to ourselves, even though he has by now stopped being amusing, he could never become the leader of the Free World? Surely not?
Britain does not have a massive Muslim problem in the way that Trump attempts to describe it. His arrogant populism ignores that there is an important public conversation, as in France and in other nations, about how young British-born Muslims are radicalized leading some, for example, even to run off to join ISIL. We most certainly need to continue and develop that conversation in a responsible way. Uninformed commentary suggests that faith is the problem, not a potential solution, failing to notice the absolute difference between authentic Islamic teaching that bans the taking of any human life in the name of God and the murderers of ISIL. The long process of the U.S. presidential election may confuse us here but many of us do worry that the United States might have a massive Trump problem.
Perhaps we like to think that it could never happen here in Britain.
David Stewart, S.J., is America’s London correspondent.