Aesop’s fable of the boy who cried wolf teaches that it is not a good idea to fabricate dangers when there are none. But it doesn’t contain any practical advice for what to do when danger really arrives.
Put yourself in the shepherd boy’s shoes. He has already lost his reputation as a spotter of wolves. The villagers think him a liar. Then he sees the real thing. What option does he have but to cry wolf again? He is forced to use the only defence mechanism available. Or should he stay penitently silent, hoping the feral canine predator is, by some miracle, actually vegetarian?
You’ve guessed where this is heading. There have been sightings of incipient fascism in the actions of democratically elected governments for as long as I can remember. When former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher faced down striking miners, her left-wing antagonists weren’t shy of attacking her. When another former British prime minister Tony Blair wanted to introduce mandatory ID cards, his liberal critics plotted the policy alongside anti-terror laws and antisocial behaviour orders, charting a gradient towards tyranny. Oppositions never seem to accept that democracy is on a horizontal axis. It must be on a slope — and a slippery one too.
The horrors that lie at the bottom are belittled by constant, casual hyperbole. There will always be someone on the Left willing to decry western foreign policy as cold-blooded colonial expansionism. There will always be some conservative fanatic trying to draw equivalence between the European Union and the former Soviet Union.
But there is an essential difference between the current moment and past sightings of totalitarian shadows. When previous British prime ministers or United States presidents upset rival parties or affronted liberal sensibility, the alarm was mostly theoretical. A handful of paranoiacs might have believed that Blair or former US president Barack Obama were actual dictators. The more pertinent claim was that some legal apparatus was being created and should be resisted, lest the power one day fall into the wrong hands. With US President Donald Trump, the objection is not abstract: He is the wrong hands.
Willingness to grasp that distinction is a dividing line in the debate over how much deference should be shown to the US president when he visits Britain later this year. On Monday, the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, picked a side by saying Trump would not be welcome in parliament. The government sees his intervention as irresponsible diplomatic freelancing. Tory MPs have heaped scorn on Bercow, saying he has embarrassed Britain and harmed its interests. Opposition MPs have mostly supported the speaker.
Bercow has authority over parliamentary invitations to foreign dignitaries, so he was not overreaching in a technical sense. But he was pushing hard at the bounds of convention. The Speaker’s chair has not previously been used to launch accusations of racism, sexism and contempt for the rule of law at a US president. Then again, no US president has invited the charges so brazenly.
There may be a handful of Conservative MPs who admire Trump and would gladly see him caressed with the plushest pomp that British protocol can muster. The majority Tory view is more nuanced. It is that intimacy with US presidents is an unshakable axiom of British diplomacy, made strategically urgent now that Britain is preparing to quit the European Union (EU). Trump holds the office and so tributes traditionally paid to that office must be paid to Trump, whether you like him or not.
Besides, the British parliament has hosted any number of violent dictators and kleptocratic scoundrels. The Speaker has shaken blood-soaked hands before. His Tory critics see the sudden discovery of a pious veto on visits as self-aggrandising, hypocritical theatre. Even Bercow’s friends wouldn’t pretend that he is immune to vanity.
So Tory MPs say Trump’s flaws must be overlooked because of the famous special relationship, and buttress that opinion by noting that other leaders are not subjected to the same extreme moral vetting process. These look like two aspects of the same argument — varieties of realpolitik — but they are in contradiction. The reason Britain wants a “special” relationship with America is that, historically, it shares more than transient economic and military interests: There is a cultural affinity and an alliance based on common political ethics. And the reason to dislike Trump is that he traduces those values.
It is a backhanded kind of tribute to say a US president must be cut some slack over contempt for democratic norms because Britain does not give the leader of the Chinese Communist party a hard time about that stuff. With this logic, Tory Trump apologists are downgrading the special relationship, not defending it. They are adopting a relativistic view of American power, detached from principles enshrined in the US Constitution. This approach would be familiar to the far left, except the Conservatives want to nuzzle under the wing of an amoral superpower while the old Leninists want to take it down.
There has always been a strain of European anti-Americanism that treats the US as a colossal rogue state whose claims to champion freedom are just a cover story for rapacious imperialism. That used to be a facile caricature, drawn by focusing exclusively on Washington’s most cynical foreign policy escapades while ignoring the civic and cultural virtues that flow from a rich tradition of political and religious tolerance.
Now there is a president who wants to rip up those traditions and refashion the US so it better conforms to the ugliest stereotypes projected by its enemies. Yet, Tory MPs struggle to disown him.
It isn’t hard. A truly pro-American position — whether motivated by realpolitik or cultural affection — cannot want Trump’s presidency to succeed. His temperament does not tolerate democratic restraint. He wants his whim enacted as law. His entourage organises his prejudices into an aggressive nationalist ideology.
Such a project is antithetical to US interests, let alone British ones. Whether it can be called actual fascism or is just fascistic in style hardly matters. No, the lights of American democracy have not gone out. Yes, the alarm has been sounded prematurely and wrongly many times before. But sometimes, even when the cry sounds drearily familiar, the danger is new and real. Wolf!
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Rafael Behr is a political columnist for the Guardian.