Trump is stomping on European views of immigration to score political points with his base at home

Geoff Pugh – WPA Pool/Getty ImagesBritish Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband, Philip May, greeting President Donald Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, at Blenheim Palace on Thursday in Woodstock, England.
  • President Donald Trump gave a bombshell interview, published shortly after he arrived in the UK, in which he bashed Prime Minister Theresa May and immigration.
  • Trump immigration talk is often unpopular in Europe, but that isn’t his intended audience. Instead, he’s focused on his political base, which he bragged about being very popular with.

President Donald Trump’s tour of Europe had already publicly produced some fireworks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but by the time he landed in London on Thursday he’d already dropped a bombshell interview on UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

Trump dramatically dived into the UK’s domestic affairs by telling the British newspaper The Sun that May’s preferred Brexit deal would “kill” a potential bilateral trade deal between the UK and the US. As the US is the UK’s second-biggest trading partner (after Germany), this looked bad for May, who was still reeling from a Brexit-induced reshuffling of her Cabinet earlier this week.

But Trump may have struck an even deeper nerve with his comments on immigration.

“Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame,”Trump told The Sun.

“I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was, and I don’t mean that in a positive way,” Trump said.

“I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad,” said Trump, who has previously attacked Merkel’s policy of allowing a million or so people to resettle in Germany as refugees in recent years.

“I think you are losing your culture,” he said. “Look around. You go through certain areas that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago.”

Trump’s anti-immigration comments by now are familiar to Americans. Many Europeans, feeling stressed by the high levels of immigration their countries have experienced in recent years, no doubt agree with him, but UK politicians generally have a more moderate outlook and were taken aback by the comments.

“Where are your manners, Mr. President?” Conservative MP Sam Gyimah tweeted after the interview.

Trump opposes resettling any Syrian refugees in the US and has restricted travel to the US from seven majority-Muslim countries. Trump has also expressed support for immigration from countries like Norway, whose population is mostly white, while disparaging countries in Africa.

In massive protests across London, people condemned Trump as racist and xenophobic. “Theresa May should condemn Trump for this ugly dog-whistle politics,” Dawn Butler, a Labour MP, said, referring to the strategy of using veiled wording designed to appeal to certain supporters but be overlooked by others.

In Europe, especially in Germany and the UK, where the memory of World War II and the mass destruction caused by xenophobic ideas remains close at hand, Trump’s immigration rhetoric is often unpalatable for mainstream politicians. But he’s not talking to them.

Firing up the base

In the same interview in which Trump said it would be negative and “very, very sad” for Europe’s culture to change, Trump talked up his job-approval rating not with the US public but within his party.

Trump claimed he was “the most popular person in the history of the Republican Party,” even besting Abraham Lincoln.

“I beat our Honest Abe,” Trump said.

A Gallup poll published last month found Trump’s approval rating among Republicans to be 90%. But George W. Bush, the US’s most recent Republican president, had higher approval during his first term, The New York Times reported on June 23.

Additionally, the type of polling Trump referred to hadn’t been invented in Lincoln’s day.

Trump’s focus on his popularity with his political base represents a common thread to his attacks on European leaders, in which he often uses an international stage to play to a domestic audience.

Europeans don’t vote in US elections, but US Republicans do.

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