As a British-born New Yorker, I am beginning to find the complete lack of American interest in the coronation of King Charles III mildly irritating. Charles and President Joe Biden seem to evoke the same enthusiasm gap. Two woke old geezers who got the job too late and want us to ignore the ticking clock.
Americans got the point of Queen Elizabeth II. Her Maj was regal. What they don’t get is kings who are merely kingly by virtue of their office. Charles isn’t regal so he has no aura with which to seduce us. The palace assurances of a slimmed-down, fiscally responsible, inclusive coronation are not what’s needed. Absent gold carriages stuffed with ermine-cloaked grandees, crowned heads tripping over each other’s robes, and the Sussexes – if they deign to come – strategically obscured behind a flying buttress in Westminster Abbey, what’s to ogle? Americans wouldn’t dream of getting “slimmed down” without a prescription for Ozempic.
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The English art of understatement
Alas, the Queen Consort’s image rehab since the Princess Diana days has not broken through here. Camilla’s shrewd decision not to risk self-immolation in a TV sit-down with the likes of Oprah Winfrey means that US audiences have not been exposed, as Brits have, to glimpses of her endearing and humorous personality.
One of my favourite Camilla factoids from the Nineties is that she used to sign her love letters to Charles with the words “your devoted old bag” – so used was she to being trashed by the tabloids. But self-deprecation of this most British kind either mystifies Americans or offends them. Hugh Grant discovered this in the backwash of Twitter hate that followed his rueful refusal to play the I’m-so-excited game with a red-carpet interviewer at the Oscars.
Queen Elizabeth was brilliant at combining personal understatement with the need to stage a full-on royal show. According to her biographer Robert Hardman, when Geoffrey Hardy-Roberts, a former master of the Household Brigadier, worried that a particular dish at a state dinner would go cold more quickly if it was served on gold plate the Queen assured him, “People come here not to eat hot food, but to eat off gold plate.” In the presence of Her Majesty even Donald Trump felt compelled to behave. Their 2019 state dinner was one of the few occasions he looked appropriately awed.
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The arch disrupter
Perhaps Trump shouldn’t expect another invitation to the palace even in the God-help-us event he wins again in 2024. Despite facing multiple criminal investigations, the disgraced former president’s poll ratings are rising. No one is better at gaming the media than Trump.
News outlets recently scrambled to be the first to cover what turned out to be just another publicity gambit. On 18 March Trump claimed on his social media platform Truth Social that “illegal leaks from a corrupt & highly political Manhattan District Attorney’s Office” had indicated that he was about to be arrested over an old scandal regarding a pay-off to the porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.
There was, in fact, no imminent arrest – so Trump won on two fronts. Alvin Bragg, the beleaguered district attorney for New York County, was made to contend with multiple stories about his “weak” case against Trump and lack of readiness, while the Trump base was stoked with enough outrage to hand their hero $1.5m in three days. Trump now basks in a narrative of prosecutorial overreach, a bellowing Gulliver held down by tightening legal threads. Yet how much have we truly learned from the last cycle of his political chaos? Cable news hosts, tanking in the ratings since the beginning of the snoozy Biden presidency, have relished the return of the Cirque du Trump.
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A strength of Trump’s is that just when you think he can’t go lower, he does. On 24 March he posted a photo of himself wielding a baseball bat next to a picture of Bragg and threatening “death and destruction” should he be prosecuted. He hosted his first 2024 campaign rally in Waco, Texas, a site iconic to the far right since the botched FBI raid on the Branch Davidian cult in 1993, which ended with the deaths of 76 members.
In Homegrown, a forthcoming book about the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, the author Jeffrey Toobin tells us that in the years leading up to the terrorist attack in 1995, McVeigh roamed rural gun shows looking for hatemongers. “I believe there is an army out there, ready to rise up, even though I never found it,” he said. McVeigh didn’t find his army, Toobin explains, because he didn’t have social media. And mercifully, he didn’t have politicians inciting violence.
Tina Brown’s “The Palace Papers” is published by Penguin
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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special