In Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and outside the Houses of Parliament, thousands of people braved the relentless London rain to demonstrate against Donald Trump.
On the second day of the US President’s visit, which included a trip to No 10 and a press conference with Theresa May, protest groups for all sorts of causes rallied in central London against the state visit, and “Trumpism”.
The crowd included climate activists, gay pride flags, migrant rights groups, “Bollocks to Brexit” stickers, Handmaids Against Trump (a group of women dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s patriarchal dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale), a Boris Johnson lookalike in a prisoner costume (“I’m a man of conviction who talks in very long sentences”), a man with a Donald Trump mask in a gorilla cage, most of the shadow cabinet, a 16-foot mechanical “Dump Trump” tweeting on a golden toilet, and, of course, the Trump Baby blimp.
With speeches from the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry and other public figures, the world’s media was there too.
The blimp – well-known after last year’s wrangle over permission to fly in Parliament Square – also attracted coverage, as it floated for a strict police-approved two hours this morning outside the Palace of Westminster. (The time was so restricted that when it was inflated, which takes about an hour, one body part always had to be touching the ground.)
The protests were everywhere Trump was too: outside Downing Street, by the Foreign Office where he held his joint press conference with the Prime Minister, along the roads where his motorcade drove. There’s even footage of his car driving past Parliament Square, with full view of the balloon depicting him as an angry orange baby flying above.
I stood outside Downing Street as protesters on the other side of the road booed and waved banners when Trump emerged from No 10.
Yet despite the reporting, and the President seeing and hearing the protests in real life, he still managed to call them “fake news” in his press conference:
“As far as the protests, I have to tell you, because I commented on it yesterday, we left the Prime Minister, the Queen, the royal family, there were thousands of people on the streets cheering, and even coming over today, there were thousands of people cheering, and then I heard that there were protests, I said ‘Where are the protests? I don’t see any protests.’ I did see a small protest today when I came, very small, so a lot of it is fake news, I hate to say. But you saw the people waving the American flag, waving your flag, it was tremendous spirit, and love, there was great love, there was an alliance, and I didn’t see the protesters until just a little while ago, and it was a very, very small group of people put in for a political reasons, so it was fake news, thank you.”
So to fill anyone in who, like Trump apparently, didn’t see the protests, here are a few observations:
Trump Baby grows up
The Trump Baby blimp first flew last year when Donald Trump visited the UK and remarked to the Sun: “I guess when they put out blimps to make me feel unwelcome, no reason for me to go to London”.
As it featured in a promotional Sky News video ahead of the state visit, it was clear the balloon hadn’t lost its popularity this time round.
“We all kind of rolled our eyes in one way when the news came that Trump was coming back,” admits its designer Matt Bonner, also one of the 16-strong team of “babysitters” needed to handle the blimp. “In some ways, we’ve created a monster. It obviously is a beast of a thing. But in terms of the potential that it now has, Trump Baby now has his own political power.”
The team decided they would only fly it this time round if they raised £30,000 for six charities campaigning for the values under attack by Trumpism: UK Student Climate Network, Jawaab for empowering young Muslims, and Sisters Uncut in the UK; and the Sunrise Movement to stop climate change, the youth-led immigrant community United We Dream, and Planned Parenthood in the US.
They smashed their target, and have crowdfunded nearly £37,000 at the time of writing.
“We obviously didn’t ever anticipate how ridiculous a celebrity the Trump Baby would become and that he’d be really capturing the media narrative,” says Bonner. “But that’s fine because it’s meant we’re quite quick to move the attention away from the baby and start talking about the serious nature of what’s at stake in the mainstream media. So it’s become a really useful tool.”
Boris Johnson is a long way from London mayor
Whatever the outcome of the Tory leadership election, Boris Johnson was repeatedly mentioned in the same breath as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and far-right thug Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) by speakers at the Whitehall rally, and on placards. He is no longer the man who won over London twice – his name was repeatedly booed by the crowd and lumped in with extreme right-wingers. Even if he wanted to, it would be difficult for him to shift that reputation among a certain segment of generally liberal, urban, diverse and Remain-minded voters represented in London today.
Playing your placards right
Here are a few that caught my eye:
Some protesters pointed out the bleakness of campaigning against exactly the same policies as they were a year ago, with little change. “We were here last year and we’re here this year,” one of the Handmaids Against Trump dressed in full red robes and a white headdress tells me. “It’s sad that we have to do it again, it’s awful.” This group, many of whom are mothers and some with family in the US, point out the parallels between Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale with Trump America’s zeal for erasing women’s reproductive rights. “It’s speculative fiction, so when these things are so close to reality, it’s time to worry,” another tells me.
At the Whitehall rally, many of the politicians and other speakers received the loudest cheers when calling for a general election. The hope of many in the crowd appeared to be of a Labour government, with Jeremy Corbyn voicing his mission “to work with every government across the planet to bring about a peaceful world, where we don’t solve our problems by going to war, we solve our problems by an understanding of history and how those conflicts came about”.
It turned out Corbyn – who insisted in his protest speech that he hoped for a “conversation” with the President and said “I am not, absolutely not, refusing to meet anybody; I want to be able to have that dialogue” – had requested a meeting with Trump, but Trump refused, calling him “a negative force”.
“Trumpism” is the enemy
Although protesters were poking fun of the man and chanting for him to “go back home” (“No, don’t go back home”, an American journalist responded plaintively at one point), people were keen to point out this was a march against the broader values he stands for.
A lot of the protest felt like a collective response to the general rise of the nationalist right, with Trump as its representative.
The shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: “This is not a demonstration against America, this is not a demonstration against the American people, this is a demonstration against Trumpism, and what Trumpism stands for.
“One of the things we’re standing up against is the anti-Muslim narrative of Trumpism, banning migration from Muslim countries… Those are not our values, I don’t even think they’re British values, so it’s good we’re all up here asserting our values.”
Brexit’s never far away
Although the idea of these protests – whose main organiser was a group called Together Against Trump – were to oppose Donald Trump and Trumpism, Brexit was never far away. On Parliament Square in particular, the same arguments against Brexit were playing out – complete with a giant banner by the Best for Britain pro-European group depicting a tweet by Trump declaring himself “Mr Brexit”.
Even Corbyn, who is usually more comfortably rallying on social justice issues, brought it up. “We’re in the midst of a debate about the future of our relationship between Britain and Europe and the rest of the world…” he told the crowd. “There should not be a debate about how we go forward with No Deal at the same time as offering up our precious, wonderful National Health Service to private American companies to come in and take it over.”
The culture war side of Brexit also entered the narrative about the Trump state visit. ITV’s Robert Peston wrote a piece exploring why Jeremy Corbyn “want[s] to be northern working class on Brexit but London middle class on Trump?” This is despite only 21 per cent of Great Britain polled as having a “positive opinion” on the US President, with 67 per cent feeling negative towards him.
This perceived mischaracterisation of the “northern working class” reached the rally, with the Labour MP for Consett in the northeast, Laura Pidcock, asking the crowd: “Do working-class people want Donald trump here?” When the reply was “NO!”, she declared “So Robert Peston, you are wrong!”
Overall, the anti-Trump rally in London today felt like a unified howl against a host of different trends against progress seen across the world today. That the US President can deny they even took place, on live TV, shows the urgent need for such resistance.