LONDON — You might think our British friends would be too busy freaking out over the refugee crisis, their epochal June 23 referendum on whether the UK will stay in the European Union, and the revelation that some London convenience stores are stocking bottles of cow urine right next to the milk, to take much notice of the 2016 American election.
But you’d be wrong. They’re riveted. Compelled. Appalled. Maybe terrified. In pubs and chip shops, at dinners and in schools and casual encounters in the supermarket cereal aisle, Britons grapple with the burning question: who’s worse, Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.
Ted Cruz spouts demented Joe McCarthy stuff: Harvard law professors are mostly “communists;” Defense Secretary (and Republican senator) Chuck Hagel took money from North Korea; and Barack Obama’s health care plans are similar to the policies of Adolf Hitler.
Cruz gives British people the creeps. He’s a scary bastard, always threatening to “carpet bomb” the Middle East.
Carpet bombing is, of course, a war crime. You know that. The British know that. Ted Cruz either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.
“Annoying,” “rude,” “jerk,” “douchey,” and “monster” are just a few of the epithets gleefully cited in an article titled “Why Do So Many People Hate Ted Cruz?” The Daily Telegraph quoted, among others, Cruz’s college roommate, who called him a “nightmare” and said, “What you see before you now is exactly who he was back then. He does not change, the way zombies and mould don’t change.”
You should know that 1. the Daily Telegraph is a right-wing newspaper; and 2. The British can’t believe there’s a Texan even more objectionable and obnoxious than George W. Bush.
Still, the British distaste for Cruz is nothing compared to their absolutely gobsmacked, jaw-dropped, brain-singed puzzlement over Donald Trump, a creature so outside the realm of normal human decency the House of Commons actually held a debate over whether to ban him from the United Kingdom altogether.
In the end, Parliament didn’t forbid him to visit the UK (that would have been really stupid), but MPs lined up to vent their horror and distaste, calling him “poisonous,” “corrosive,” and a “wazzock,” which is Yorkshire-speak for idiot.
The closer Trump gets to the nomination, the more alarmed our allies become. They’ve seen his kind before. Remember Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s human festival of inappropriateness, with his tantrums, his babes, and his weird, weird hair?
Or how about Jean-Marie le Pen, the leader of the xenophobic French National Front, Vladimir Putin, or Benito Mussolini?
To be fair, the British have their own Trump-wannabe, a dude named Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-immigrant, crypto-racist UK Independence Party, which has suggested that it’s irritating to hear people speak foreign languages in England, that Asian men wear “pajamas” in public, that dogs are smarter than Muslims, and that it might be best if Islam be banned in Britain.
Not surprisingly, Farage has endorsed Trump: “They all said Ronnie Reagan was a cretin, but he was a great president, and maybe they are underestimating Trump.”
In January, the respected British journalist Matt Frei made a television documentary called “The Mad World of Donald Trump” in which he followed Trump on the campaign trail from his mini-Nuremburg rallies to Sarah Palin’s endorsement, the one when she wore the famous “disco hedgehog” and delivered her speech in Authentic Frontier Gibberish.
Frei did his damnedest to keep a straight face. He mostly succeeded. But sometimes his mouth fell open ever so slightly, and he couldn’t help shaking his head.
A former Washington bureau chief who has always said he admires the United States, Frei had the look of a man rethinking his position.
The British press finds it rather charming that some Americans freak out over the way Bernie Sanders describes himself as a “Democratic Socialist.” Tony Blair was a Democratic Socialist (well, he said he was). So was Clement Atlee, the prime minister who gave Britain its brilliant National Health Service just after World War II. Socialism is neither dead here, nor a dirty word.
And as for Hillary Clinton, well, the British think they know her — as first lady and as a former secretary of state. She’s been around. The media here hadn’t been paying that much attention to her until recently when it dawned on everybody that it’s almost certainly going to be Hillary versus Herr Drumpf.
Now they’re casting the election as a battle for the Soul of America.
The Soul of America still matters, you see. For all the jokes, the sniping at American silliness, the disapproval of persistent American racism, the U.S. is looked up to. Barack Obama is hugely popular here — where he’s regarded as a centrist.
America still matters; no wonder the world is worrying that we’re going to screw this election up big time.
Diane Roberts’s latest book is Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She teaches at Florida State University. Column courtesy of Context Florida.