On a sunny Friday evening in early July, a group of drinkers gathered by a railway arch in South East London to sip a beer called July 13th. The cans, a collaboration between craft brewers Boutilliers and Affinity, were covered with orange splotches, which on closer examination were unflattering portraits of the 45th president of the United States, who was due to visit London on that very date. “I was saying a lot of stuff online about how I hate his awful face and Ben saw it and said ‘we need to make a beer’,” said Drew Harris from Boutilliers, of the collaboration.
One week later, Trump arrived to protests of up to 250,000 people in the capital city alone, with thousands more gathering in other cities in Britain. In London, protesters proudly inflated the “Trump Baby”, a crowdfunded balloon, outside the parliament in Westminster. By early afternoon, groups of drag queens, Muslims, Latin Americans, trumpeters and climate change campaigners were winding their way towards the center of the city for the rally. On the other side of town, a pub that had renamed itself after Trump for the day remained notably empty.
In the midst of on incredibly turbulent week in British politics, the U.S. president brought the country the gift of unity. “It’s the position on climate change, his position on trans people, his Islamophobia,” said Shahina Bahar, a protester at the march clutching a homemade sign stating “super callous fascist racist sexist loser POTUS”. Behind her, in Trafalgar Square, a samba band began playing, and the fountain filled with dancers, including both a woman in hijab and an androgynous, sad-faced clown. “It is really incredibly diverse,” said Alan, a veteran hard-left demonstrator who didn’t want to give his last name. Most of the placards, he noted, “seem to be made in someone’s living room”.
Nor were they the preserve of Alan’s comrades on the far left. The placards included several riffs of the national anthem (“God Save the Queen from the Rotten Tangerine”). In contrast to the anti-U.S. overtones of some British protest marches, many signs pledged solidarity with “all normal North Americans”. Huey Nhan-O’Reilly, who had brought his teenage son along, held an “Obama 2020” sign featuring the previous first lady. “I desperately miss the Obama years,” he said. Among those joining the anti-Trump protests was the former centrist deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who declared his reason on Twitter as the president’s “crazed attacks on the EU, NATO and the WTO”.
If Britain’s usually fractured opposition was suddenly harmonious, Trump’s trip also helped rally the divided ruling Conservative party. While he enjoyed a lavish dinner on Thursday night, The Sun newspaper published an exclusive interview, in which the president appeared to insult Prime Minister Theresa May and talk up her blonde Brexiteer nemesis Boris Johnson. The once-popular and nakedly ambitious Johnson had resigned from government just a few days previously, but his departure failed to topple May. If Trump aimed to boost his fortunes, he overplayed his hand. The presidential intervention caused outright offense, even on the British right. “Where are your manners, Mr. President?” demanded Conservative minister Sam Gyimah. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, meanwhile, made her opposition to a Trump visit clear as early as January 2018.
The welcome Trump has received during his U.K. visit might be amusing to the world at large, but for many Brits, the U.S. president reflects an unsettling turn of events. Trump once dubbed himself “Mr. Brexit” and the two political shocks of 2016 are often compared. Yet while diehard opponents to leaving the EU have been organizing protest marches ever since, so far they have failed to catch the imagination of the wider public. Anti-Trumpism, on the other hand, has wide appeal. According to the pollsters YouGov, 77 percent of Brits disapprove of Trump, but only 45 percent say it was wrong to leave the EU. In contrast to the carnival atmosphere on Friday, Brexit tends to summon up a mood of disillusionment and resignation among its critics.
Michael Chessum, one of the organizers of the Friday protest, hoped to change this. “It’s about making the links between Trump and what’s happening at home,” he said. “If we can bring a coalition of people together to fight against Trumpism, that coalition could go on to form the basis of a much more significant social movement in the U.K.’s domestic politics.”
Trump, he conceded, is easier to oppose than Brexit. “You can’t lose votes by attacking Trump— basically no one thinks he’s a decent person or president here, but a lot of people in Labour think opposing Brexit will lose them the next election.”
He hoped to prove them wrong. Meanwhile, the brewers at Boutilliers and Affinity were already considering their next project. “Brexit,” said Drew Harris. “What a horrible waste of time. Let’s get drunk.”
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus