Monday, 23 January 2017

The Trump White House: We Shall Overcomb

And so we enter the era of Trump, an era that was started with an appalling speech greeted by a small crowd and an audience up on the podium who wore expressions on their faces that were not so very far removed from those you see in the cartoon above. It was an appalling speech, not so much because of the content, although that was bad enough, if vacuous. It was appalling because this was an occasion for lofty rhetoric, of reaching out to the majority of Americans - yes the majority, Donald  - who did not vote for him.

This was an occasion for a grand vision, a quotable sentence or two, for a speech written by someone who knows what he or she is doing, who understands the rhythm and cadences of great speech writing, who understands how to sell a point, lure in the listener, make hearts fly and cynicism, if not dissipate, at least give him a grudging well done. Instead the ego who has landed in the White House wrote his own speech and it came across as such, like the random jottings of someone who has spent his political career to date shouting at crowds and tweeting. This was a speech that, you felt sure, had an awful lot of exclamation marks in it, at least in the version he read out.

We should probably have expected this really. In truth we feared much worse. The language was simplistic and uninspiring. It was as if it had been written for a tabloid audience, an audience of rednecks. A man who once boasted of knowing lots of big words - he has lots of words - has never seen fit to speak any of them in public. Friday he hadn't seen fit to write any of them down either. But it wasn't just the language, it was what it was expressing. One of the very few large words the new president probably does know is hyperbole, although perhaps he doesn't know how to pronounce it. He uses it though. Constantly. Witness his description of American carnage of drugs, crime and joblessness, a description that is simply not borne out by the data or the facts, although, as Kellyanne Conway asserted at the weekend, this administration will be using alternative facts, including an alternative definition for the word fact. America is a violent land for certain, but not a lawless one. And how will Republican insistence on the right to bear arms help with that anyway? Trump has thus far offered no remedies for these maladies, indeed they seemed during the campaign to be his way of showing he knows what ails people who live in inner cities and who are black given that his experience of such people and places is sketchy at best. It demonstrated his remarkable lack of empathy. It demonstrated his remarkable ignorance of the lives of millions of people he is now promising to return power to. Yet here he was on Friday doubling down on the rhetoric and telling people that they live in carnage.

Yet this is the bombastic, take no prisoners style we can expect of Trump and his administration. Never recant, never apologise, never admit you are wrong. You can understand why he and Putin seem to like each other so much. They are very alike. Putin last week dismissed all of the talk about Trump and prostitutes and even boasted about his country's hookers being the best in the world. It's only a matter of time before they meet in Reykjavik and have a whore off before heading down to luxuriate in the hot spring baths only to emerge at the end having discovered treasure at the bottom and probably left their by Vikings. Trump likes Vlad because he is a bullying vulgarian just like him, a man in  love with money for its own sake. Fortunately, given the state of his body, we can at least be sure that Trump won't take his shirt off in public any time soon.

This is clearly the Trump we are going to get for these next four years before the galvanised American people turn out in force to vote him out of the White House in a way they should have done last November if they could have been bothered. This is the Trump of the campaign trail who, as in his business and TV career, cannot turn off the campaigning and the attention seeking. He tried to sound magnanimous by claiming to be giving power back to the American people. But this was hubristic nonsense as was all the idiotic language about how the Washington elite have enriched themselves at the expense of the people. This, incidentally coming from a property billionaire who has routinely stiffed small contractors and customers including to his Trump University. It is also the same man who so admires Vladimir Putin, a crook who has enriched himself many millions or even billion times more than any democratic politician could ever hope to get away with even if that were their intent. In truth this is a nonsensical slur against a political class who usually go into politics for all of the right reasons.

American democracy is not perfect, no system is, but, as the man whose bust is now back in the Oval Office where it belongs once said in the sort of bon mots that Trump could never dream up in a month of inaugurations, democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Many have observed, since the couple of days since the speech and after they picked their jaws up from off the ground, that the hubris and bragging of the speech represent gigantic hostages to fortune for the new president. He has promised to variously get America working again (unemployment is actually at near historic lows already) and bring old factories back again, although there is no mechanism for doing so and the president does not have the power to force companies to relocate. He has even promised to end the decades old war on drugs as the victor, end poverty in America's cities, build endless new roads, bridges, airports and railways, win the war on terrorism, This is all going to make America great again, something that he will do by turning it on itself and turning it into a kind of autarky presumably. And people wonder why he is being compared to fascists.

The inconsistencies and contradictions in all this are stark and startling. How does he intend to make America great again when he is intent upon turning it in on itself. America at its greatest bestrode the world stage, projecting power, standing up for bullied and poverty stricken Europe against Russia. Yes, Russia Donald. Pax Americana it was called. That was American when it was great. He harks back to a time between the wars when America was isolationist and when fascism and communism stalked Europe. America looked away when Germans waged war on a continent and started to commit first state sponsored bigotry and then state sponsored mass murder. America watched while Britain, led by a certain prime minister whose face he may recognise in his new office, stood alone against Nazi Germany and might easily have been beaten and invaded. Later, after it entered the war and the Nazis were vanquished only for us to face a new enemy in the Soviet Union, America helped create NATO and lent money to impoverished Europe. A zero sum analysis might see this as money wasted. It was seen in more pragmatic and indeed far sighted terms. It was an investment in freedom against tyranny. Perhaps Trump sees it as the start of the rot, after all that money helped create modern day Germany only for it to start making really excellent cars and thus putting American manufacturers of inferior products out of business.

NATO has been the guarantor of western peace and prosperity ever since. It won the Cold War thanks to America being able to outspend the Soviet Union on weaponry. Since the end of the Cold War it is true that western Europe has come to take all of this for granted and has spent progressively less on defence. But only in recent times has it become clear that increased defence spending was becoming necessary once again. The peace and prosperity dividend has been to all of our advantage in recent years. The US remains by far the largest economy on the planet, but it seeing the retrenchment of old style industry in keeping with many economies around the world, Britain's included. The US however has been home and chief creator of the new IT economy that has revolutionised all of our lives and made Trump's victory possible. Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Apple, Netflix, Amazon all of these companies and more besides are American companies built with American money thanks to the excellence of American higher education.

As we saw in that speech Trump is no sophisticate and his thinking is an simplistic as his speech writing. For a start it will be difficult to cut the US from the world and start trade wars whilst at the same time keep selling debt to the world so as to fund the existing deficit and debt let alone the new borrowing Trump has planned. The rest of the world might well feel that it would be better off with a new reserve currency under such circumstances.

Let us be fair though, albeit not based on that speech. Trump is not wrong on a number of issues and it is very welcome that he intends to be generous and accommodating towards Britain, although one cannot help but consider this inconsistent once again with his avowed intention to turn more protectionist. In fairness however it has been said that his preferred way of doing trade deals would be by doing them with individual states rather than with large blocs. This might explain his antipathy towards the EU, an antipathy with which it is hard to disagree. It ill behoves us in the UK to disagree with him about that after all.

This blog gives Trump a rousing three cheers about his plans to cut US taxes and simplify them. Corporation taxes are ludicrously high and cause companies like Apple to keep billions of dollars off shore. Cutting them and offering giant corporations a deal to bring this money home is a good policy. Going on a spending spree is not a good policy though. Its certainly the case that America needs substantial infrastructure spending and this is defensible. More spending overall that would add to the deficit will be less easy to justify.

On China Trump is absolutely right. China has been playing fast and loose with trade now for years. It is not a currency manipulator, or at least isn't now. It has been in the recent past however. It definitively is a trade cheat though. Its markets are not open and yet it buys up foreign companies and assets freely and with abandon. It is a serial intellectual property thief and routinely prevents foreign companies from setting up there without handing over such property. Its activities in the South China Sea are outrageous and illegal and its refusal to bring North Korea to heel mean it has no right to expect that the US should kowtow to its demands over Taiwan. Nevertheless confronting China needs to be done with great care and finesse. Perhaps in the past there has been excess of care and finesse. This is a fair summary. But its not clear that the Trump approach will be an improvement.

And anyway, how is Russia any better than China? Why is one being favoured over the other? One cannot help but suspect that this is either racism or something more personal or even financial. Trump's repeated indulgence of Russia and Putin's recent reciprocation is worrying.  What is going on?

Trump's mistake is that he is confusing what clearly won him the election, albeit by a wafer thin margin, with what will make his a successful government. It is always easier to run as the insurgent candidate, calling into question the decisions and policy positions of the incumbent party with the benefit of hindsight. It is even easier when, as with Trump, you can pretend you didn't say some of the things you did say or pretend you did say things you didn't. Now he will be followed everywhere by cameras and reporters, his every word will be on the record, his record will be there for all to see. He will own his decisions and even he will not be able to claim he did not say what we all heard him say.

Trump made a lot of big if not exactly lofty promises on Friday. It is hard to see how he is going to fulfil one of them let alone all. Poverty in America remains a problem as does white American anger. It will likely be the same in four years time as we welcome in the era of Mr Trump's successor. Barack Obama left a lot of people disappointed and the world a more dangerous place. His presidency was the triumph of lofty rhetoric over realistic expectations and eventually over reality. With Trump we have not even had the lofty rhetoric. Note to Trump supporters: Make America Great Again is not lofty rhetoric.

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