Trump: What Now?

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Sometimes you don’t need words.

The expression on the face of President-elect Donald Trump – an entertainer who was only ever interested in being watched and adored – says volumes.  This is a man who has just had his first presidential briefing.  He’s heard about the bio-terrorism weapons about to be unleashed, the dirty nuke that’s slowly being put together on American soil, the rapid growth in Chinese militarisation and troop shifts towards borders, the anarchist hackers who are primed to shut down all safety procedures at US nuclear plants, the latest research that suggests global warming is now accelerating so fast it may already be ‘game over’…

This is the candidate who not only didn’t expect to win, he didn’t really want to win.

And now he has millions of lives in his hands.  Look at that expression. Does it say, I’m up to this?  Or does it show an existential terror about what he’s got himself into?

And then there’s the matter of symbolism.

We’ve talked here before about how symbolism is more important than facts in communicating with people – it drills deep into the unconscious.  And the President of course is as much, if not more, of a symbol than he is a political leader, particularly to the wider world.

It doesn’t matter that more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton.  Symbolism annihilates statistics.

To the rest of the world, Donald Trump now *is* America.  His beliefs are America’s beliefs.  His way of behaving is the way other countries expect America to behave.  His language is America’s language.

America’s image across the world was at an all-time low under the Bush administration.  Under Barack Obama, by almost every metric, it is at an all-time high.  That has made it easier for Obama’s team to forge alliances, to encourage trade, to persuade countries across the globe to invest in the US and thereby increase the prosperity of Americans.

And now?  How is the world seeing Trump’s America?

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No doubt many of the President-elect’s supporters believe it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks. The concept of American Exceptionalism produces a worldview that is easily dismissive. But in an era of globalisation, where everything is connected, it matters more than ever before.

Trump And Putin And The UK Right: The World Turned On Its Head

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“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever.  We begin bombing in five minutes.”

US President Ronald Reagan’s radio sound check joke in 1984 perfectly caught the mood of America-Russia relations throughout most of the twentieth century.  For Conservatives particularly, the Soviet Union was the ‘Evil Empire’, the antithesis of everything the US stood for, a threat to peace and security, an opposer of western values, and an enemy bent on world domination for its ideology.

For many in the West, again particularly Conservatives, it was a comforting worldview: you knew who wore the white hats, who wore the black.

But if you’re looking for a comforting touchstone in the massive disruption of the twenty-first century, politics is not the place to go.

Donald Trump, the candidate of Reagan’s Republican Party, praised Vladimir Putin as a “leader far more than our president” and has offered other words of support for the Russian strongman.  Trump, too, seems thoroughly happy that the Old Enemy’s hackers have interfered in US democracy.  Two days ago, the online version of the journal of the Hard Right in the UK, the Daily Mail, published a Russian propaganda piece as news.  (For US readers, the Daily Mail is a mainstream newspaper which, like many hard right publications, claims to be the voice of the ‘silent majority’ – it supported Fascism during the time of Hitler’s rise and proudly sported the front page headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’.)  And Nigel Farage, the right wing former leader of the UK Independence Party and one of the architects of Brexit, has also waxed lyrical in his praise for Putin.

Now Russia is not the Soviet Union in terms of geography, but much at its core remains the same.  The UK and US military and security services still see Putin’s government as the single greatest threat to world peace.

The current UK Chancellor of the Exchequer and former Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “The rapid pace with which Russia is seeking to modernise her military forces and weapons combined with the increasingly aggressive stance of the Russian military including Russian aircraft around the sovereign airspace of Nato states are all significant causes of concern.

“We are in familiar territory for anyone over the age of about 50, with Russia’s behaviour a stark reminder that it has the potential to pose the single greatest threat to our security. Hence, continuing to gather intelligence on Russia’s capabilities and intentions will remain a vital part of intelligence effort for the foreseeable future. It is no coincidence that all of our agencies are recruiting Russian speakers again.

For many who remember the last century, a Republican Party candidate for President praising a Russian leader over his own commander-in-chief is incomprehensible.

And yet, this is the world we’re in now and the explanation lies in one of the regular themes of these posts: that the widespread disruption of all areas of the twenty-first century has wiped away the familiar Left-Right basis of party politics.

The real divide now is those who are ready to accept the future and those who want to cling on to the past, and that crosses party boundaries.  It explains a big part of Brexit, and Trump and the formerly left, right and independent supporters of both.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz carried out a series of focus groups in the UK before the last General Election where he tried to understand the rise of the UK Independence Party.  When its members were asked to mention something they really loved about Britain, there was a long, long silence until someone ventured: “The past.”

Those who want to cling on to the past, or turn the clock back, admire authoritarians like Putin because that kind of Fascistic control is the only thing that might possibly halt the tramp of progress.

There’s a must-read piece by Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine about how America is flirting with Fascism at this election and how many mainstream commentators are afraid to call it for what it is.

That’s a mistake.

The choice at this month’s US election is stark, but there are many people still treating it as if it’s politics as usual.  It really isn’t.  And the Past or the Future is the only outcome.

The ‘Elite’ Should Speak Out

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The debate rolls on.  Is the problem with Donald Trump that he’s a pretty terrible person, or is the problem not about Donald Trump at all – that there’s actually something rotten at the heart of America that he’s bringing out of the shadows?

Most of the attacks throughout this long election campaign have been directed at the candidate and not at the source of the unpleasant views to which he gives a face, the very root of his support.  Critics steer clear of making a fundamental challenge for a variety of reasons, but a big part is guilt, middle-class guilt (if you’re in the UK), the guilt of those who are doing okay in the world.

They’ve been branded the ‘elite’ and told they don’t have a right to speak out because they’re not poor and they’ve not been dealt a tough hand in the game of life so they don’t understand the hard choices that shape this ‘authentic voice’ of the downtrodden. And because the privileged – the university-educated, doing okay – tend to care about these things, and honestly feel a little guilty at their privilege, they go along with this argument.

Yet the attack is not directed at an ‘elite’ which is simply rich – in fact, it’s often people who are very well off who are using ‘elite’ as a pejorative.  No, ‘elite’ in this context means better educated, and the sub-text is: don’t come here with your facts, statistics and evidence – they might stop me voicing my deeply-held prejudices.

But there’s a warning here from the UK.

The attack on the educated was a fundamental part of the Brexit campaign by the Leave team who didn’t want facts getting in the way of their, shall we say, ’emotional’ appeals.  But in light of their victory, that worldview has now become mainstream and it’s being used to unleash a great deal of nastiness – racism, violent attacks, suppression of facts and those who speak out in opposition to their agenda.

Racist attacks on citizens have soared since Brexit, hundreds reported all over the country, mostly in white working class communities.  The Hard Right is now fighting hard to deny this as a myth, one started by those who wanted to stay in the EU, much like some of those shadowy people behind Trump claim many of the factual attacks on the candidate and his views are also myths.  “Mostly debunked.”

Trump has unleashed the same wave of unpleasantness in America, coming from a similar source, and it’s not going to go away when he does.

You can’t change things by example.  America elects a black president and racism increases.  Elect a female president and the problems women face are likely to be exacerbated too.  Because the unpleasantness that lies behind this is emotional and deeply-felt.

Some things are open to debate, and some things are just wrong.  Tolerance should only go so far.  Ignorance is not an excuse, and challenges need to be made.  If they don’t, oft-repeated views stop being beyond the pale.  They just become normal.

William Poundstone, the author of Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy To Look Up, ran many surveys and interviewed a huge number of people.  One dilemma he posed was: would you throw your pet off a cliff for a $1 million?

About 7% of people said yes.  But the percentage was double that amount among the poorly educated.  Poundstone said, in an article in The Observer, that his findings showed, “the less informed are either greedier or less kind to animals.”  But it didn’t end there.  Those who didn’t know the name of their elected representative were more likely to say it was okay for businesses to post fake online reviews under fake names.  Those who can’t answer easy questions about dinosaurs have a poor grounding in science and can’t form good opinions about, say, vaccinations, even with Google to help them.

Poundstone says, “Knowledge is not wisdom, but it’s a pre-requisite for wisdom.”

If people aren’t told that they’re wrong, if they’re not pushed back at every turn, those unpleasant ideas take root and flourish.  The danger for the ‘elite’ is that by allowing themselves to be silenced, they will allow a worldview that they long thought defeated to become mainstream.

Being educated is not wrong, it’s a boon to society, and with it comes a responsibility that it needs to be used, in public, against the accusations of ‘talking down’, to create a society we can all be proud of.

The Donald Trump Problem

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A Wall Street Journal poll published yesterday (Sunday) revealed that more than half of American voters don’t care if their president is a sexual abuser.

That finding sent a shiver through the people of Western Europe.  You could feel the sense of bewilderment rolling out across social media, in texts and emails.  How could this possibly be?

We’ve long been told that Trump is the response to globalisation, disruption and industrial decline, a champion of people who are ill-equipped to deal with the 21st century.  This has become something of a global narrative – explaining the Brexit vote, the rise of Marine le Pen and the National Front in France and more.

But 53% of US voters believing allegations of Trump’s long-standing sexually predatory and abusive treatment of women shouldn’t rule him out of being the leader of the free world is not anger about lost jobs.  It’s not a response to declining prospects or the inchoate rage of the Left Behind.

This was a mirror held up to the face of America and it showed something particularly ugly.

The problem with Donald Trump is not Donald Trump.

Except there may be a different way of seeing it.

While the allegations against Trump have moved some voters into the Clinton column, there’s a hard core that seem unshakeable in their support, however horrendous the revelations levelled against the businessman-turned-politician.  The usual response is a kind of gallows humour and multiplying memes of what terrible thing Trump would have to say or do to get these people to flee, finally.

They never will.

The truth is, to them, Trump is not a man, he’s a symbol, and that makes him bulletproof.  Any allegation can be levelled at him and they will all be discounted because those allegations are about Trump the man, which is an irrelevance.  Trump the symbol of all that is wrong with someone’s life will always shine through, because symbols cannot be degraded.  They’re lodged in the unconscious mind, the secret language we all speak yet don’t realise that we do, where one symbol can contain behind it a library of reasons, thoughts, feelings, all tangled up.

The symbolic voter may not be a new phenomenon, but thanks to the Communication Age which has linked up so many disparate tribes, that bloc has now become connected, and organised.

This is not peculiar to Trump, or to America.

All the Remain campaigners who thought the public would swing against a Brexit vote once they were faced with the stark facts of the economic fallout were deluded.  They were fighting a completely different referendum from the people they were trying to convince.  The Leave side got it.  They just made stuff up to knock off a few Remain voters at the margins, knowing their core support came from symbolic voters who were not being engaged, even slightly, by the other side.

These people were wholly buying into the Liberation Myth, the idea that Brexit would result in a new-found freedom.  On the surface, this meant simply an escape from what was perceived as suffocating European laws.  But when you hear these Brexit voters speak about their decision – and there are many accounts online, not just this one – you realise it wasn’t about Europe at all.  Many were voting for a symbolic freedom that would reach down through all aspects of their lives, lifting them out of a stultifying job, an oppressive relationship, the poverty trap, wherever they felt constrained or beaten down.

As with many psychological drives, the people who succumb to them are sometimes just as bewildered by what they’ve done as the people who vote with their heads.

You can see the same response from some supporters of the UK Independence Party, which has gone from strength to strength despite mockery of its leaders and allegations of racism and sexism and recently a fistfight among its elected representatives which left one of them in hospital.

And with supporters of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn who has proven so immune to attacks that some have branded his followers a cult.  Corbyn remains a prime draw for the symbolic voter, because, to many, he’s a tabula rasa.  His policies are so few and so high-level it’s possible for many to project all their hard-held beliefs into that void.

Symbolic voters break down into two groups: the victims, the kind of people who use the word ‘gatekeepers’ or engage with a whole range of conspiracy theories – they’ve tried hard but things aren’t working out for them, and because they know they’ve tried hard their failure can only be the fault of someone else/the system; and utopians, for whom it’s most important to imagine a better world at the highest level possible before delving down into the nitty gritty of how to get there.  Both are immune to facts, statistics, evidence, for different reasons, and both attach their political beliefs to symbolic figures.

These are usually gut people, not head people.  There’s no value judgment in that statement.  Psychology shows us people divide quite clearly along these lines (these aren’t binary choices – it’s a spectrum like most psychological states, but we’re looking at the fringes here).  Their response to a piece like this would be emotional – anger, contempt – not a reasoned argument.

Symbols are important – they speak louder than anything.  And as Brexit shows, they can crush puny facts and policies.  If their political opponents want to win, they need to engage the symbolic aspect rather than simply throwing more mud, or making more reasoned arguments, and that needs a good deal of lateral thinking.

The Third World War Is Beginning In The Background

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Away from the clown show that is Trump’s presidential bid, the ludicrousness of post-Brexit debate and the self-immolation of the Labour Party, an important event slipped by.

It wasn’t flashy – that’s the key for traction in modern media – but the US’ public accusation that Russia was trying to interfere in the coming election was unprecedented.  In years past, the intelligence services would never have openly flagged up Russian involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee servers to sow chaos and try to get a win for Trump, an ‘admirer’ of Putin.  That they now feel forced to do so shows how much things have escalated.

The key to understanding Russia under Putin is not to see it as a country in the democratic tradition with which we’re all familiar.  Imagine it more as that part of New Jersey ruled over by Tony Soprano and the mob.  Thanks to Wikileaks, we know the US has long considered Russia a Mafia state, where the rule of law does not apply to people at the top.  If you fail, or offend, or break the code, you’re more likely to get rubbed out Soprano-style than sacked.

This is the calculation Vladimir Putin continually has to make.  He can’t be seen to fail.  Nor can he be seen to back down.  Both paths will result in defenestration with extreme prejudice.  His invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine was designed to draw attention away from major economic failings.  It only made things worse.  Western sanctions hobbled the economy further.  But he can’t pull out his backing for the Ukraine resistance to put things right.  That would be failure.

The only way forward is something bigger, to distract attention from the economy *and* Ukraine.  And so: Syria.  Russia jumping with both feet into the barrel of dynamite that is the Syrian civil war was supposed to be a mark of prestige.  They can still ‘get things done’, unlike the US.  They’re not a failing power that can’t make anything the world needs – they have a sphere of influence.  They talk, very loudly, people listen.

Russia came in on the side of the beleaguered President Assad, a long time ally, and took a stance in direct opposition to the West’s strategic aims.  By saying one thing and doing another, it has disrupted the plans of the US and its allies.  It’s behind the bombing of aid convoys, most western intelligence services believe, and now it’s about to move in a battery of S300 air defence missiles, which could cause carnage when the skies are thick with US planes.

There is no plan, only the illusion of a plan for the consumption of his domestic critics.  Look over here!  No, look over there!  Ukraine!  Syria!  The US elections!  Misdirection as a strategy is not sustainable.  The only way Putin can maintain his position – and perhaps even his life – is escalation, each newer, bigger outrage wiping out memories of the last failure.

But like the noise made by a mouthy drunk in a bar, there’s a point where everyone decides they’re not going to sit back and take it any more.  NATO has to step up or lose the potency it needs to keep Russia contained.  What will trigger a confrontation?  A Russian attack on Estonia and the Baltic States?  A ‘skirmish’ on the Polish border?

US-Russia relations are worse than at any time since the Cold War, and some analysts believe that this is absolutely the start of Cold War mk II.  But that concept of a frozen conflict only works if both sides make rational, strategic calculations. If it’s personal, if one of the players only wants to keep his job/head on his neck, than no other outcome matters, even if it’s destruction on a grand scale.

Now: who do you want in the White House?