As Donald Trump arrived in the United Kingdom for his fawning Tory tour of monuments to power—tea at Windsor with the Queen, a meeting at the PM’s country residence of Chequers—a fun-house reflection was borne aloft into the London sky in the form of Baby Trump, a diaper-wearing, phone waving caricature of the American president.
Baby Trump reduces Trump to his poor impulse control, while simultaneously refuses to afford him the respect he bombastically demands even as he systematically degrades everyone around him. It’s also part of a long, long tradition of British satire, turning kings into figures of fun.
“He is unchallenged in his own organization, it’s like being in the court of a medieval emperor,” observed Tom Newton Dunn, the Sun reporter who landed an exclusive interview with Trump as his visit began. When Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced their 10-minute interview slot was over, the President waved her off and ran on for another 18 minutes.
Dunn is far from the first to make the comparison, as this administration publicly runs on a toxic combination of competitive ring-kissing—all those advisors jockeying for the all-important position of favorite, who controls daily access to the person who embodies state power—and sudden, humiliating falls from power.
Which advisors set the agenda at any one moment? Is it the trio of John Kelly, Jim Mattis, and Rex Tillerson, bound together in their supposed pact to resign en masse if the boss comes after any one of them? (So much for that pact.) Or is it the Bannon-Miller nationalist faction? Which minister’s voice can we hear between the lines of which proclamation? Who wrote which tweet? Look at Scott Pruitt’s resignation and try not to picture a groveling counselor:
My desire in service to you has always been to bless you as you make important decisions for the American people. I believe you are serving as President today because of God’s providence. I believe that same providence brought me into your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.
That’s not to mention Kelly’s reported reveal that Tillerson had been on the toilet when he fired him, a detail straight out of some medieval chronicler of the Wars of the Roses. If humiliation has long been a weapon in the arsenal of divine right, then Trump wields it with alarming comfort.
But the comparison goes beyond the inter-office dynamics at the White House itself. It’s striking how many have been willing to respond to Trump on his own terms, accepting this kingly dynamic. The passage of Trump’s tax bill was followed by a press conference in which a parade of Republicans praised him, with Paul Ryan claiming: “Something this big, something this generational, something this profound could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership.” Not that this was surprising, especially after the template set by the 2017 cabinet meeting that opened with every single member taking a few moments to praise Trump.
After Trump coined him “Lyin’ Ted” and criticized his wife’s appearance, Ted Cruz wrote him a glowing tribute in Time magazine. He degraded Marco Rubio as “Little Marco” and yet he still supports many of his policies. Even Republicans who aren’t directly in his orbit treat Trump as though he is the sacred wellspring of power—which is precisely how the Crown functions, politically—rather than looking to their own position as duly elected representatives of specific constituents. Their actual voters are merely there to be appealed to in the form of an aggregated and depersonalized folk.
In the earliest days of the administration, tech CEOs were visibly uncomfortable to be summoned to the White House for a meeting after the inauguration, but they went, regardless. You don’t refuse the summons of a king, for fear of all the myriad ways he can make your life impossible. There are even crackpot advisors elevated from outside the ranks of the political aristocracy, like a religious mystic or up-jumped personal servant, in the form of Fox and Friends and Sean Hannity. He surrounds himself with the scions of various political families, no matter their qualifications—Rob Porter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Rudy Guiliani’s son.
His family, too, provides another parallel. In a piece at the Atlantic, Sonja Drimmer identified Melania’s intervention in her husband’s family separation policy as that of a medieval queen acting in her capacity as intercessor—an avenue of mercy and a way for the king to back down from a policy out of political necessity but without having to own the reversal. What is she if not a mysterious foreign princess upon whom the public can project, anyway? Her styling for the dinner at Blenheim could have very well been inspired by the depiction of a medieval queen in some illuminated manuscript.
Look at Trump’s pervasive use of his children as deputies. Don Jr. is his father’s devoted hype man, the one who can take the meetings and RT the messages of representatives from the conservative fever swamp. Ivanka, meanwhile, positions herself as the loyal but soothing and even gently managing daughter. Look, too, at her husband’s official position. Jared Kushner would be an earl under the Plantagenets, perhaps with an honored command on an important military mission; here he has an office in the White House and an array of assignments for which he is wholly unprepared. Even before Trump’s entry into politics, their union had the flavor of a dynastic alliance—two bridge-and-tunnel real estate empires meeting in Manhattan.
Eric is little more than the spare who fades into the background; Tiffany and Barron are merely brought onstage for photo ops to reaffirm the Trump dynastic strength.
In fact, this is nothing new. Trump has spent his entire life flexing the muscles of a king. He has spent decades convincing the American public that he is the archetypal billionaire, a byword for success, largely through public performance of what America expects a successful billionaire to look like. The looming castle in the sky, the suits, the cars and the planes, the seal and name slapped all over everything—and, of course, the lavish golden interiors. First, it was designed to gain a toehold in the world of New York real estate, and then it was to sell the name itself, licensed out as a brand. This is, ultimately, not that different from how historically one has become a king—particularly in the long and frequently contested history of the English monarchy.
The Tudors are perhaps the best point of comparison. The dynasty’s claim to rule was new and tenuous. And so, both Henry VII and Henry VIII were very careful to look at the role as part of maintaining their grip on power. Henry VIII, in particular, used clothing and tournaments and a sophisticated court to make his mark on the European stage. And Trump, too, is ultimately an heir who took his father’s money across the water and put their name on a more glamorous stage by cutting a flashy path.
In the run-up to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Aminatou Sow tweeted that, “monarchy is a great grift. jobless adult children living on the dole.” And it’s deeply, deeply true: The process of convincing somebody that you are the rightful king is remarkably like a giant con job and always has been, even in the high days of the divine right of kings. Even if you accept that kings have certain divine rights, you still have to determine who actually constitutes a king. Wearing the crown and wrapping yourself in cloth of gold weren’t luxuries to celebrate your assured position; they were part of keeping your head on your shoulders. At the highest levels of business, too, you have to look like somebody with means, somebody worth doing a deal with, somebody worth floating huge sums of money to. What is a crown but a virtually unlimited credit line extended by the most powerful men in the land? Who knows Trump’s true net worth? What does it matter? Kings were perpetually in debt, anyway.
Trump’s most ridiculous behavior is often called out, as though this moment will finally reveal the emperor has no clothes. He isn’t upholding the dignity of his office! But a king isn’t expected to comport himself like everyone else. From Helen Castor’s She Wolves: “Court gossip (reported in 1166 to Archbishop Thomas Becket, once the king’s closest friend, now estranged and in exile) described one outburst of ferocious temper that left Henry screaming on the floor, thrashing wildly and tearing at the straw stuffing of his mattress with his teeth.” Wild temper tantrums that send your courtiers scurrying is, in fact, the prerogative of a king and even, in this light, a power move.
There’s no real disconnect between Trump’s petty use of power, his grasp of small humiliations, and the position of boss. It’s only through careful cultivation of democratic norms and deliberate choices by the first men to hold the office that we got “Mr. President” in the first place. Our constitution may be formal, unlike the United Kingdom’s, but we take for granted customs of the office that have gone unwritten. If you want to style yourself a king, your executive powers as president can go a long way.
Trump has only invested deeper into this behavior as he gets deeper into his presidency. His focus on the border is partly a matter of xenophobic panic. But it’s also a realm where he has near-unlimited powers over people’s lives. And the “border” extends much deeper than you might imagine. Technically much of the state of Florida is part of the “border”—and of course, where does he retreat but Mar-a-Lago, his favorite palace, stocked with fawning club members who make even better courtiers than all those humiliated functionaries.
His visit to the United Kingdom was supposed to the apotheosis of all this. This visit was actually scaled down—a working visit rather than a “state” visit. Trump did visit Blenheim, a symbol of aristocratic power both old world, as the historic seat of the dukes of Marlborough, and new, having been refurbished in the Gilded Age with the fortunes of American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married into the family. The parallel was evident.
He got his meeting with the Queen, too, taking tea within the ancient stronghold of Windsor. “I mean he has to see the head of state. Putting his foot on British soil, it’s job one, it’s very important, very symbolic,” U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood Johnson told Sky News. “Meeting Her Majesty is the most important thing, because she’s the head of state, and from then on, it’ll be what the president wants to do.” Note the positioning of the monarch as his counterpart.
It was originally reported that Trump wanted the full experience, a proper state visit with a highly public appearance and dinner at Buckingham Palace and, of course, the all-important and literal golden carriage ride. That was canceled, likely due to fear of massive protests. And even now, he is going out of his way to avoid London—which has always had a complicated relationship to the throne, anyway.
Even as Trump and May sat together in the lavish surroundings of Blenheim, his high-handed diplomacy was undermining the power of the hostess who had so obligingly rolled out the red carpet. That interview with the Sun dropped, in which he suggested that she was botching Brexit and that her rival, the recently resigned Boris Johnson, would make a great prime minister.
His fellow head of state, the Queen, got the closest thing to respect he ever seems to afford a woman. Though even that was backhanded: She spent 10 minutes waiting outside in the heat for the Trumps’ arrival, and at one point during their inspection of the Coldstream Guards, he stopped in front of her, forcing the woman on western Europe’s oldest extant throne to walk around him. The footwork may have been accidental, but an accident stemming from a king-like assumption that everyone else you ever encounter is a satellite.
Meanwhile, May, his actual counterpart on the world stage, had her government destabilized by Trump’s monarchical confidence in his own pronouncements.