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POLITICS

Hello, Trump. Goodbye, Obama. And what does it mean for us?

In the week that Donald Trump enters the White House, Gaby Hinsliff asks: how is Theresa May going to deal with this?

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

What if we clung to his ankles and begged? Or locked the Oval Office door, and swallowed the key? 

But it's no good, of course. Nothing can now stop Barack Obama handing over the White House to Donald Trump this Friday. Goodbye, America’s first black (and unashamedly feminist) president; hello, guy endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. As someone wailed on Twitter, it’s like America’s amazing dad is leaving home while Mum’s dubious new boyfriend moves in.

But perhaps it’s time now to snap out of it and embrace the new reality. Theresa May clearly thinks so, having written to Trump over Christmas stressing the historic closeness between the two countries, while Downing Street is bravely talking up the “opportunities” presented by the resident-elect. Even her current “can-do” attitude to Brexit, insisting she'll make a success of it no matter what the doom merchants say, has a very American ring. But how much further is she ready to go to make a potentially awkward personal relationship – her so formal and proper, him so volatile and unpredictable – work?

This week Trump gave his first British press interview as president-elect to none other than the Tory MP/journalist Michael Gove – the man who could have been prime minister himself had things turned out differently last summer. Gove was duly photographed grinning cheesily and doing the thumbs-up alongside his interviewee, beneath a framed copy of Playboy. The message of the picture seemed clear: if you want to do business with The Donald, park your dignity at the door. If he does the thumbs-up, then no matter how stupid it looks, you do it too, because mirroring is a form of flattery and that's what he requires. Now imagine Theresa May’s expression if put in the same position.

It is perhaps telling that while Trump had a lot to say about Germany’s Angela Merkel (whom he both criticised for letting refugees in and identified as the key player in Europe), his views on May seemed rather more uncertain. He asked his interviewers how they thought she was doing, but quickly lost interest and started asking about “our Nigel”. Trump likes our Nigel, it turns out, mainly because he said Trump would win at a time when others were dismissive. And the quickest way to Trump’s heart is clearly to rate Trump almost as much as he does.

If you want to do business with The Donald, park your dignity at the door

For the most striking thing about Gove’s interview was how quickly the president brings everything back to himself. Asked how he’d conduct relations with Britain, he explained that his golf course in Scotland was doing brilliantly and that he was right to predict Brexit – which is obviously gonna be great, the best Brexit ever, because how could it not be when Trump himself foresaw it? 

True, there was no actual detail about what the US could offer in a trade deal that's better than the one we’ve already got. But in fairness, Trump is not the first modern American president to rely on radiating gung-ho enthusiasm while being vague about the detail, even if he’s using this trick to very different ends than Obama. The awkward question for everyone who’ll miss the Obamas terribly is whether the last president’s failure to deliver (admittedly against sky-high expectations) unwittingly opened the door to this one. 

In some ways, Obama in office did exactly what his campaign suggested he would – namely provide an incredible role model for black (and indeed white) kids growing up in America and elsewhere, and a symbolic force for good. He’s been a thoughtful president, graceful under pressure.

But it’s telling that the Obama years are more easily described in pictures – the president playing with kids in the Oval Office, or hugging Michelle – than concrete achievements. The post-crash years were tough on poorer Americans who lost their homes after being sold mortgages they couldn’t repay, or lost jobs. The Black Lives Matter movement emerging in response to police shootings meanwhile was a clear expression of frustration that even a black president couldn’t eradicate racism from the criminal justice system. Pictures don't change lives. 

Voters could turn against Trump just as fast if he doesn't deliver the jobs he promised to bring back. But for now, millions of Americans want to believe and they take him very seriously. British politicians must do the same if they want the White House’s help on everything from trade to military co-operation through NATO – but as Michael Gove just helpfully demonstrated, doing that while retaining some shred of dignity isn't easy. Chin up, prime minister. Just maybe not the thumbs. 

@gabyhinsliff

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