In 1981, the British band Heaven 17 released a single called Fascist Groove Thang. The song, a fierce attack on Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, described the US President-elect as a "fascist god in motion" , bewailing "evil men with racist views spreading all across the land" and "Democrats out of power across that great wide ocean." Sounds familiar? The BBC banned it from the airwaves citing legal concerns. Thirty five years on, with Donald Trump as President-elect, the world is crying out for Reagan. After his election victory, Trump remarked that he was looking forward to having the same relationship with Theresa May, Britain's Prime Minister, that Reagan had once enjoyed with Thatcher. A Trump visit to Britain may take place next summer.
There are some interesting- if eerie - similarities between the situation in 1979/1980 when Thatcher and Reagan came to power and the state of the world today. Thatcher herself was not averse to indulging in 'Trumpian' electioneering, remarking in 1978 that British people feared that they might be "rather swamped by people of a different culture". In May 1979, she came to power in Britain partly because of a backlash against the post-war consensus, as opposition to the role of the trade unions intensified, and amid public concern that Britain was a diminished country. The consensus politics of the previous thirty-five years had apparently passed their sell-by date. A similar backlash resulted in the Brexit vote of June 2016, while Trump won the US presidential election partly because he too had convinced the American public, by fair means or foul, that the United States was in severe decline and only he could arrest it.
Trump's election mantra to "make America great again" recalls Thatcher's own talk of restoring Britain to greatness when she was in power and Reagan's attack on the Democrats' defeatism. But this is where the comparisons between Trump and Reagan/Thatcher end. Significantly, Reagan came to power amid heightened fears of a new threat from Moscow in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the collapse of détente. In 2016 as in 1980, a resurgent Russia is once more dominant in the Middle East. It is also posing a renewed and alarming threat to vulnerable NATO member states in Eastern Europe.
However, Thatcher and Reagan were united in their visceral dislike of totalitarianism and their determination to stand up to Moscow.
In stark contrast, Trump has questioned the value of NATO and has expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin and other strong men such as Syria's Assad and Turkey's Erdogan. In an interview with The New York Times in July, Trump remarked that he would not automatically give support to vulnerable members of NATO in the event of a Russian attack. While Trump should be encouraged to improve relations between Russia and the West, his remarks suggest that he may be prepared to indulge Moscow at the expense of US allies in Eastern Europe. Where Thatcher and Reagan took pride in Britain and the United States as countries that represented freedom and democracy, recent comments and foreign policy positions indicate that the President-elect is not animated by the traditional values cherished by generations of mainstream conservatives.
In my book, Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East, I questioned the myths that have developed in regard to Thatcher's pro-American orientation and her relationship with Reagan. The fact that she was pro-American in her outlook and had a close relationship with Reagan did not mean that she shared his perspective on the Middle East. On the contrary, Thatcher believed that Reagan's automatic support for Israeli policies was damaging western efforts to keep the Arab states out of the reach of the Soviets. While Thatcher greatly admired Israel as an oasis of democracy in the Middle East, she became disappointed when it failed to live up to her expectations.
During a visit to Washington in 1987, she told the Americans that Israel's policy denied basic rights to the Arabs and "removed Israel's credibility as the only Middle East democracy."
Thatcher became increasingly disenchanted with Reagan over his hesitancy and drift when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, in a private conversation with Jordan's King Hussein days before Reagan left the White House, she remarked that the US president had never shown "the slightest interest" in the region.
Yet, notwithstanding their strong differences on Middle East policy, Thatcher and Reagan remained ideological bedfellows united by their strong belief in resisting totalitarianism and standing up for democracy and individual freedoms.
Trump's outspoken backing for Israel while campaigning appears to be at odds with his comments on Japan and the Baltic States. If US allies in East Asia must pay for their own security, this could have repercussions for Israel. If the US halts its support for NATO's missile defence system in Europe how about Iron Dome, David Sling and the Arrow? Could a Trump administration conclude that support for Israel is not consistent with an 'America First' outlook?
Theresa May will have to work with Trump but it will hardly be an ideological match made in heaven.