Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Why the reassuring stories about Donald Trump are quickly falling apart





When May visited Trump, the UK media were full of comparisons with Thatcher and Reagan. The US free press paid little attention to the visit, because they were fully preoccupied by the enormity of what was happening to their country. They were not seeing the first few tentative steps of another Republican president, they were seeing the confident strides of the equivalent in the UK not of Nigel Farage, but the leader of the BNP or the EDL. If you think this is going over the top, read on.

There were three kinds of story about Trump that encouraged people to think things wouldn’t be so bad. The first, which we now know is untrue, is that he would surround himself with more experienced and wiser counsel. Instead probably the most powerful man in Trump’s White House is Steve Bannon. He is executive chairman of Breitbart News, essentially a far right, or what is called in the US alt-right, news and opinion outlet that promotes white supremacist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic ideas. One of Trump’s latest actions is to oust the director of intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from always attending the Principals Committee of the National Security Council and replacing them with Bannon. John McCain said the appointment of Mr. Bannon is a radical departure from any National Security Council in history.

The second story was that everything said on the campaign trail was to win the presidency, and that once that was achieved more ‘serious’ (aka traditional Republican) measures would be introduced. (US financial markets might have bought into that idea, and are now beginning to realise their error.) Once again the first few days, and particularly this travel ban, have proved that wrong. Trump is enacting the headline measures that were both highly controversial and also effective on the campaign trail, and doing that fast. This is smart politics. His strength was never in the Republican party or in the business community, but in those who watch propaganda networks like Fox News and who helped him into the White House.

The final story, which continues on both the left and right, is that Trump and his team are inexperienced buffoons who will quickly make fools of themselves, and will be brought to heel by the checks and balances of the US constitutional system. Its too early to tell, but the signs so far do not look good. Take the holocaust statement. According to this story, leaving out any mention of Jews or anti-Semitism from the Holocaust Day statement was perhaps an oversight that would get corrected later. But it was not, but instead intentional and purposeful.

A far more plausible explanation of what is going on is that it is part of a strategy, not only to firm up Trump’s base but also to test those checks and balances. Telling border agency staff to ignore court orders is not confusion but deliberate, to see how far they can go. Initial reports that the top state department officials had resigned were perhaps deliberate misinformation: they were all fired by the White House, with no replacements in sight. What this looks like is a concentration of power at the very centre. The lack of consultation about the immigration order was not inexperienced oversight but the shape of things to come.

The trouble with checks and balances are that they are designed to work on the margin, stopping small acts of overreach by different parts of a normal government. Whether they can cope with a determined and fast moving small team in the White House we have yet to see. These checks and balances are often slow. For example Trump has become president with his business affairs hardly altered. The travel ban excluded the four countries in the area in which Trump has business interests. “This isn’t the way the presidency has worked since Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978,” said the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, but what is anyone going to do about it?

Given all this, for Prime Minister May to celebrate a “new era of American renewal” after meeting Trump represents either craven grovelling or a complete misreading of what is going on, or both. As Simon Schama tweets:

“Nothing is being renewed in USA except hatred. Nothing is being renewed in USA except ignorance and the dissolving of distinction between lies and truth. Nothing is being renewed in USA but much is being destroyed: equity under law, the climate, civil decency, public education, public health.”

If you think that quote, and this post more generally, are overreactions of the type often found in the worst kind of left-wing hyperbole, here is Charles Koch, scourge of the American Left: “We have a tremendous danger because we can go the authoritarian route ….”.

All this is going to have huge consequences for the people of the US and the world. But I make no apology for ending on a more parochial point, because it is critical and happening right now. Brexit is like a train with no way of stopping before its destination, full of people who think they are going to paradise, but their paradise has just been taken over by someone who is turning it into hell. Does our leader say we must get off the train before it starts, fit it with more brakes or even that we must pause before we leave? No, she says she sees and hears nothing, and even the normally rebellious guard says we must follow the will of the people. As Trump goes about putting his campaign pledges into action within days of taking office, Boris Johnson in the Commons yesterday actually said that it was clear that “Trump’s bark is considerably worse than his bite”. Keynes may not have said “When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”, but it is the right question to ask right now..

27 comments:

  1. Don't know if u attended the talk on Trump at your school by the visiting MIT Sloan professor but his panglossian views are already looking pretty silly.

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  2. I would not have chosen DT as a candidate for POTUS and I would not have voted for him in the election.

    However, your piece has the aura of "the shock of the new" rather than a damning indictment. It implicitly assumes that all was well beforehand and that DT is the arch destroyer of worlds. If that is the case why was he elected in the first place? There are obviously a very large number of folk in the US who think things are not well and that business as usual will no longer suffice. Are they wrong?

    I've no idea how it will turn out under DT but to criticize a politician for carrying out campaign pledges must be a very unusual complaint.

    Also it's a bit rich for one of the Koch brothers to complain about authoritarian tendencies when they are one of the most prominent representatives of that.

    As for May she is doing what she should be doing: not interfering in another country's politics and looking after our national interests. I'm sure that Henry Kissinger, the arch realist, would approve of both.

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    1. "There are obviously a very large number of folk in the US who think things are not well and that business as usual will no longer suffice. Are they wrong?"

      There was a larger number of folks in the US who voted against Trump (larger by 3 million, as you know). Trump is an accidental president, essentially illegitimate, in the White House due to the Electoral College system, unwarranted intervention by Comey and intervention by a foreign power as well. If you think America *wanted* a Trump presidency, you're delusional.

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    2. This post is about why some peoples misconception of how Trump would act in the White House are wrong. Quite what this has got to do with that I'm not sure.

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    3. " Trump is an accidental president, essentially illegitimate, in the White House due to the Electoral College system"

      This implies that the EC system itself is illegitimate which is obviously wrong. The EC system is there for a very good reasons most of which are relevant today; without it, or a similar system, it might well spell the end of the USA as a federal system because vthe EC provides balance.

      As to America "wanting" Trump as POTUS there was a choice between a corrupt,truth challenged, boring warmonger and an erratic real estate megalomaniac with a questionable haircut and, in these circumstances it's difficult to believe the electorate "wanted" anyone.

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  3. You’re right to highlight the odious coverage in the UK, but please don’t assume that anything was at all rosy in the US before these first few weeks. To your three kinds of stories that you mention that made people think that Trump wouldn’t be so bad, I’d add a fourth – which is one that I happen to believe myself – that things were unutterably awful already.

    If you take ONLY the countries affected by Trumps temporary immigration order and consider only the last 15 yeares, the United States – checks and balances, Dems and GOPs and all - have conducted illegal invasions, proven war-crimes, cynical state destabilisation, cyber-attack, promotion of sectarianism, murderous sanctions, secret no-fly lists, the arming of Al Qaeda, mass surveillance, extra-judicial assassination, drone terrorism, kidnap for torture, corporate looting and on and on. Not to mention the 26,000+ bombs they dropped on those countries last year alone.

    Trump is just bringing it home.

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    1. I really do not understand comments of this kind. Its like you think 'bad' only comes in one colour or flavour.

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  4. 'Donald Trump says, “What I’m doing is about as close as you’re going to get, in the twentieth century, to the quality of Versailles.”

    On page 2, Donald Trump tells you that he doesn’t take lunch. On page 7, he says it again. On page 8, Donald Trump goes out to lunch. On page 34, he does it again.'

    (Corey Robin, reading On the Art of the Deal).

    Simon Schama wrote one of the worst books on the French Revolution, 'Citizens', which argued that nothing but bloodshed came out of that historical episode, so equating it to a ur-Holocaust.

    Hopefully, the Americans have learnt much from that revolutionary period, and if Trump turns out to be a Louis XVI, then democracy can impeach his golden rump (see Wikipedia, 'golden rump'.)

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  5. The checks and balances could also work for larger overreaches, if the Congressional Republicans were more principled and less in fear of being punished by the party establishment for breaking with Trump. This has been the most depressing part of all of this thus far, because it vastly expands the range of what the President might get away with. I had had hope that the Republican establishment's disdain for Trumpism would mean that Congress would constrain the President's range of action. It's not looking at all like that's going to happen.

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    1. Indeed. I argued in an earlier post that they were all frightened of Fox News, but maybe I was being too charitable.

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    2. The republicans have been breaking norms for years. Much of the resilience of the so-called "checks and balances" is based on adhering to certain norms. That is the "establishment" you had hoped would come to the rescue. But for them, party and power is more important than country and people (other than the .01%).

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    3. I agree. But Trump has built on that to take it to another level.

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    4. The Republican leaders -- McConnell and Ryan -- are treading carefully with Trump not because they are fearful but because they see an opportunity to advance their agendas: tax cuts for wealthy people and corporations, no safety net for poor people. As long as they can see a way to accomplish these noble goals, they don't seem to mind Trump's xenophobia, racism, and misogyny.

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  6. Been tracking your retweets, of many of the links in the post, sharing the growing horror you express.

    Always sceptical of web conspiracy theories, I am fearful that team Trump is testing to American system of government to breaking point.

    The end goal, which would only have been the wildest conspiracy theory 2 weeks ago, increasingly looks like dismantling the little remaining cohesion of the west, and it's supra national institutions, the UN, the EU, NATO, and presumably the World Bank and the IMF.
    Who benefits?
    The obvious candidate is Putin. But that seems so ridiculous. But he has been the elephant in the room for many months.

    I can't believe I just wrote that lot.

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    1. I hope you and SWL aren't victims of a viral post on Medium called 'trial balloon for a coup?'. They have given up on enforcing the Muslim ban while fighting it in the courts. The NSC is for the prez to listen to, or not, and its influence has varied depending on who is prez. And the top ranks of the State Dept are supposed to be replaced each time, same as other senior civil servants in the American system.

      The EU is very cohesive, at least in the eurozone! Trump has a fair point on NATO countries not paying 2% of GDP on defence. Clinton was wrong to want to expand NATO into Ukraine, something which led to Crimea being annexed by Putin, which should have been predicted. Ukraine could, for example, have been given EU membership in exchange for being permanently neutral like Austria. Our greed has screwed the Crimeans.

      Putin is a mass murderer, yes. Clinton refused to say if she'd shoot down a Russian warplane in a Syrian no fly zone if she created one. Syria is an ally of Russia, under Assad. Shooting down a Russian plane in its ally's airspace could escalate to war like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Trump warned of that and, for once, was being perfectly sensible unlike the insane Clinton. I hope if you have a rebuttal to this argument that you'll share it

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  7. The anti semitism of Bannon (and Trump) is more nuanced than you let on. The alt right hates liberals (American sense) above all else. Far right wing neo fascists are welcome regardless of ethnicity as long as you believe in one God excluding Muslims of course since extreme radical ones are currently attacking us. So Catholic,Protestant, Jew are welcome if they espose the correct hatreds. And voila Netanyahu is like another pea in the pod with Bannon.
    Massive settlements are the greatest thing since building a wall with Mexico in America to make sure only the "deserving" people get to live
    on nationalistic conquered turf.

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    1. Considering Bannon was trained by "Zionist Jews"(particular Sheldon Adelson) and Trump is half-Ashkenazi, this post is pure junk.

      Get it right: There is nothing "really" anti-semitic about the Trump "group" period. They are manipulating the typical interfaith zionism that was there during the Bush Administration. Matter of fact, this same group main problem with the Bush/Cheney "neo-cons" were that they did not go far enough.

      There is nothing really "nationalistic" either. It is pure Zionism and global corporate governance. When you study the actual backgrounds of Vlad Putin and company and his "right wing populists", it call comes together.

      The next thing you know, Adolph and the Nazis will be called "Alt-Left". Media needs a laxative.

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  8. So what's wrong with BNP exactly? Labour and Tories took part in the slaughter of a million Muslims in Iraq for no very good reason, in contrast to which the BNP opposed the war from day one. If you're exceptionally bright, you'll be able to work out who the real big time racists and extremists are.

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    1. Because the objection to the BNP is its domestic policy would be racist. And if they had known the Iraq war would kill a million maybe they would have supported it!

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  9. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/opinion/building-a-wall-of-ignorance.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region

    At the weekend Krugman wrote a piece about the infamous Wall and the proposed import tariff, including this nugget of wisdom:

    "As economists quickly pointed out, however, tariffs aren’t paid by the exporter. With some minor qualifications, basically they’re paid for by the buyers — that is, a tariff on Mexican goods would be a tax on U.S. consumers. America, not Mexico, would therefore end up paying for the wall."

    Interesting isn’t it.

    Let’s reword it a little:

    "As economists quickly pointed out, however, tariffs aren’t paid by the exporter. With some minor qualifications, basically they’re paid for by the buyers — that is, a tariff on British goods and services would be a tax on EU consumers. The European Union, not Britain, would therefore end up paying for a Hard Brexit."

    Now isn’t that a revelation. :-))

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    1. Kinda no. The US has leverage because of the size of it's market. It's why they can get away with clattering foreign firms with pay to play giant fines . By contrast EU consumers would simply choose non UK goods that are cheaper because they're not subject to tariffs (and/or sterling falls further)

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    2. Anonymous 1 February 2017 at 05:38

      Tariffs (and non-tariff barriers) on British goods and services would prompt at least some EU consumers to switch away from UK goods and services. Would we plug the gap by selling to Donald "America First" Trump?

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    3. The final situation is still unclear because it will depend on how future govt policy reshapes the British economy. And what if Brexit reduces EU exports to the UK more than vice versa?

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    4. What UK goods and services?

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  10. What is particularly frightening is that Donald Trump appears to have a diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder. Sadly Theresa May's action did nothing other than to inflate his narcissistic bubble. Anyone who pricks it will be greeted with rage (e.g. the AG who he sacked for betrayal).

    Like Farage, Nuttall and other far-right extremists, Trump appeals to those with a very low level of education and intelligence by offering simple explanations and various groups of people who are to blame for the ills of the country... Problems usually caused by his ilk. At the risk of being accused of invoking Godwin's Law, Trump's mental instability provides the perfect context for nazis like Bannon to operate and prosper.

    Of course we need to cultivate the best possible relationship that we can with the USA but Theresa May's decision to simply capitulate to Trump is extremely dangerous and stunningly ignorant. Quite frankly crowing about Trump's assurances regarding NATO would be laughable if the issue was not so serious.

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  11. Regarding Johnson, he is under Trump's thumb. He will say whatever Trump wants him to say.

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  12. Simon I hope you will correct your post once I let you know that Trump's daughter Ivanka is married to a Jew and has converted to Judaism. Her husband Jared Kushner is an Orthodox Jew and one of two Senior Advisers to the President.

    There is a real problem here of the Guardian and HuffPo types being too Clintonian and too little Sandernista. Wittingly or not they are amplifying rubbish that Democrats have been putting about re Trump that he's crypto-fascist. Warning of that would be fine, as long as they had evidence. By getting things wrong they increase the chances of losing in 2018.

    As for the State Department stuff, that's been debunked too. Unlike here, the top civil servants in the US are presidential appointees and they are routinely replaced with each incoming president. A level politics students in the UK know this, American writers should know it.

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