I picked a fine time to become an American. It was a grey, overcast morning in Oakland, California. The finest England football team for a generation had just been beaten by the dastardly Croats. And Hurricane Donald Trump was making landfall in London.
Theresa May v Trump had one thing in common with England v Croatia. If in doubt, the other side played the man, not the ball — or, in the case of the prime minister, the woman. “I would have done it [Brexit] much differently,” Trump told The Sun. “I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me.”
(Sound of breaking glass in Downing Street)
“The deal she is striking is a much different deal than the one the people voted on. It was not the deal that was in the referendum.”
(Alarm bells start ringing)
“If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the . . . trade deal with the US.”
And what did Trump think of his Old Etonian doppelganger, Boris Johnson, until last Monday the foreign secretary? “I am just saying I think he would be a great prime minister. I think he’s got what it takes.”
Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American, as a 20ft Trump “baby” balloon floated over London, hideously symbolising a new nadir in Anglo-American ties.
Or perhaps not. Down on the ground, slack-jawed Tories studied the government’s Brexit white paper, a substantial number of them thinking pretty much what Trump had so bluntly told The Sun. So when May had said “Brexit means Brexit”, what she actually meant was Britain would become an unhappy cross between Switzerland and Ukraine. Common rule book? Consultation of the European Court of Justice on disputed points of European law? Brexit shmexit.
And this is just the prime minister’s opening pitch. It has taken two years to thrash out within the government and was finalised only at the cost of two cabinet-level resignations. Heaven only knows how many further concessions the EU’s formidable divorce lawyer Monsieur Michel Barnier will demand. And when she brings the further-mutilated compromise back to Westminster, these are the lousy options MPs will have to choose between: swallow fake Brexit (which everyone despises), risk a no-deal hard Brexit (for which no one has prepared) or call another referendum (which no one wants).
Come to think of it, I picked a fine time to become an American.
I was one of 1,094 people of every colour and creed, from 85 nations, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Yemen. We had gathered, anxiously clutching the requisite documents, outside the rather antique Paramount cinema. I was not the only new citizen of European origin, but we were a distinct minority. Rather to my surprise, the Chinese were the most numerous group, accounting for close to a fifth of the new Americans (how many Americans became Chinese citizens last week?). Next were the Mexicans (more than 150 of them), then the Filipinos, closely followed by the Indians.
Yet it was the sheer range of countries represented that was most marvellous. The young man to my right, immaculately dressed in white, was from Eritrea. He had studied computer science in Swansea and had initially come to California to work for Nasa. Others among us were plainly less well educated. Observing those who had failed to follow the simple instructions to tick the boxes on one last form, I wondered how on earth they had passed the citizenship test, with its occasionally tricky questions on American history and geography.
I approach any encounter with US bureaucracy weighed down by dread. Would this be like the Department of Motor Vehicles, famed for its Soviet-style antagonism to the public? Or would it be more like the implacable, pitiless Internal Revenue Service? In fact the officials of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services could hardly have been more affable. The master of ceremonies was a genial, balding, bespectacled chap who won his audience over with a virtuoso display of multilingualism, chatting to us in what sounded like pretty fluent Spanish, Chinese, French, Hindi and Filipino.
Yet this was very far from a multicultural occasion. Quite the reverse. To get us in the mood for our impending Americanisation, a choir sang a patriotic medley, including a rather baroque setting of the preamble to the constitution, Yankee Doodle and Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land.
That did it. The way that song conjures up vast American landscapes (“From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”) always gets me by the throat because, glimpsed in films, such vistas were what first drew me to the United States.
Then came the information about our rights and obligations — specifically our right to vote, our option to obtain a passport and our inextricable link to the social security system. (Nothing — rather disappointingly — about the right to bear arms. And not a word about the spiralling federal debt we were all now on the hook for.)
The ceremony then became more stirring. A “Faces of America” video had a distinctly martial soundtrack. We raised our right hands to swear the oath of allegiance, absolutely and entirely renouncing and abjuring “all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty” and swearing to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law”. Then we placed our right hands on our hearts to recite the pledge of allegiance to the national flag “and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.
It’s heady stuff, even in Oakland on a Thursday morning. And then there he was — eliciting disapproving intakes of breath from some — the Potus himself, much larger than life on the big screen. “This country is now your country,” Trump told us sternly. “Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.”
And that wasn’t all: “You now share the obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of life.” Compare and contrast with the Barack Obama version: “Together, we are a nation united not by any one culture, or ethnicity, or ideology . . .”
The grand finale was God bless the USA, a bombastic country anthem by Lee Greenwood. It too was a call to arms. “And I’m proud to be an American / Where at least I know I’m free / And I won’t forget the men who died / Who gave that right to me / And I’d gladly stand up next to you / And defend her still today.”
More than half a century of being British has made it hard for me not to cringe at this kind of thing. But this hokum is now my hokum. And this president is now my president, until such times as we, the people, vote in another one. Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American — because there is no other kind of time.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford