It is a common refrain among foreigners living in the US, one that comes round like clockwork whenever something bad happens: what are we doing here? During the Trump administration, after the supreme court overruled Roe v Wade, or in the wake of yet another school shooting, the choice to live in this country when there are better alternatives seems at best eccentric, at worst actively mad. It was an odd feeling, therefore, to glance across at Britain from the US this week and experience a powerful sense of relief. No matter how bad things are in the UK, they’re usually slightly better – more reasonable, less bonkers, however you want to phrase it – than in America. Not so now. Whatever may be wrong with the US, at least no one is looking to Liz Truss to solve it.
If we have been here before, it was never this bad. After the Brexit vote or during the lies and reversals of Partygate, Britain didn’t exactly shine on the international stage. Still, it benefited from certain comparisons. Parallels drawn between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson inevitably flattered the British prime minister. Unlike Trump, it was said, Boris Johnson wasn’t actually stupid. And while he might have been venal, untrustworthy and a habitual liar, he did at least stop short of inciting a mob to invade parliament and overthrow British democracy.
To be fair to Truss, it seems unlikely she’ll outdo Trump on this front, either. The idea of following Truss anywhere, let alone to a violent death on the barricades, would be like following Captain Mainwaring on to the beaches at Normandy. Paradoxically, of course, this is part of the horror of her ascent. That someone of Truss’s abilities should be in charge at this dire moment of British history makes her seem, in defiance of political physics, even worse in some ways than her predecessor.
Cometh the hour, cometh the woman; Britons could only laugh hysterically on Monday and rock back and forth. In the US, where Britain’s influence dwindles hourly, seeing Truss’s appointment splashed on the homepage of the New York Times triggered a brief ping of excitement: oh, look! We made the news! It didn’t last. One after the other, American media organisations summarised Truss’s task as one of reckoning with “a time of crisis for Britain” (New York Times), “a country in crisis” (CNN), and Britain’s “deepening crisis” (NBC). Over on NPR, analysts asked: “what broke Britain’s economy?”
For Britons in the US, meanwhile, it became apparent that the precise nature of Truss’s shortcomings weren’t immediately discernible to everyone. From her record, clearly, she has the gravitas and integrity of a Weeble. But the exact nature of her shitness – that peculiarly British marriage of feebleness, glibness and a sort of aggressive vacancy – doesn’t entirely translate over here. If Sarah Palin wore her chaotic energy so boldly you couldn’t miss it, the danger of someone like Truss is in a swivel-eyed officiousness untethered to any idea beyond her own survival – and that, at a glance, can read vaguely as normal.
As a result, the American media has been somewhat generous. In the New York Times, Truss was described as “a party stalwart, hawkish diplomat and free-market champion” with a “practical, unfussy style [that] could appeal to Britons after the circuslike atmosphere of the Johnson years”. The Washington Post sought cheerfully to present her as a corrective to Johnson, a happy transition from “a prime minister known for colorful metaphors and a loose relationship with the truth” to “one who offered unadorned bullet points for dealing with the country’s looming economic crisis”. In the Wall Street Journal, John Bolton, former national security adviser to Trump and himself no stranger to the swivel-eyed school of management, furthered the opinion that “Liz Truss may be just the prime minister America needs.”
If US coverage of Truss had a through-the-looking-glass feel, figures attesting to the scale of the national crisis in Britain snapped things back to reality. With an incredulity matching domestic reporting, American newspapers detailed the predicted 80% jump in household fuel bills, the double-digit inflation and the forecast of imminent recession in Britain. Anecdotally, friends reported stocking up on basic supplies in anticipation of a winter of blackouts and shortages.
Things will swing back; the forces that put Trump in office haven’t gone away. But for five minutes, many Britons in America are looking across the Atlantic and finding themselves in the novel position of feeling lucky to be a long way from home.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist