The dust has barely settled on the Trump presidency and survivors are already tottering out of the debris, battered and bruised but ready to babble. Trump Takes on the World, a three-part BBC documentary on Donald Trump’s approach to foreign affairs, begins with Europe, and top-level interviewees range from former presidents, ambassadors, politicians and chiefs of staff to hapless policy advisers and civil servants. Some have regained their composure while others seem still to be in mild shock. Just figuring out the psychological factors at work would require 19th-century-Russian-novelist levels of insight, but it’s fun just to look at their faces as they recount their experiences with this “very unique personality”.
The series opens after one of the most confounding US presidential elections ever. Trump’s inauguration speech made no mention of allies, yet Europe’s diplomats and politicians were willing to give the new president a chance. “In politics you have to dance with the girls in the ballroom,” says an aide to Jean-Claude Juncker, then president of the European Commission. François Hollande recalls his first baffling phone conversation with Trump, as the then French president vainly tried to bring the subject round to issues such as climate change, Iran and the global economy while Trump just wanted to talk about how much he loved French wine, food and culture. The world would have to get used to Trump’s stream-of-consciousness style.
A little eccentricity or gaucheness would not be difficult for the old hands of Europe to contend with, but Trump was starting to show more concerning traits, at one point unable to contain his rage at his own team during a meeting with British prime minister Theresa May. If “the adults in the room” thought they could contain POTUS’s iron whims, they were soon disabused. It’s not necessarily a terrible idea to have an entirely new style of leadership at the top of any organisation. Former national security adviser John Bolton is among the measured voices here, unwilling to deal either in schadenfreude or condemnation.
In a first episode largely given over to the Paris climate change agreement and Nato, there are some amusing shots that reveal the texture of lives spent shuttling between one high-level global meeting and the next: a mix of kooky entertainments, chummy knee-to-knee moments and exhausting ceremonials. It was a brilliant move to ensure that at one dinner Melania Trump was seated next to Vladimir Putin. What could be more natural that halfway through the proceedings, Trump should amble over to talk to his wife? Fierce contention at a G7 meeting in Canada turns on the use of “a” versus “the” in a key phrase. Trump accepts a compromise before deafening everyone by departing in a flotilla of military helicopters. The ringing in the world’s ears hasn’t stopped since.
On BBC2 from February 10 at 9pm