Saturday, April 22, 2017

The bleak outlook for liberalism - in all parties


Labour and the Conservatives have never been particularly hospitable homes for their moderate, centrist members.  Corralled within an insulated party bubble consisting mainly of true believers, the moderate members have often been regarded as potential betrayers, consensual minded types who occasionally find common ground with their opponents; worse, as people who seem too willing to question the orthodoxies of their chosen tribe and challenge some of their heart-held beliefs.  What kept them going was the belief that their party leaderships, whatever they said in public, often shared their own centrist, outward-reaching attitudes.  In a sense they had to, for how else could they expect to govern except with the support of some of that part of the electorate which didn’t traditionally identify with their party?  So for decades in the past century or so, the two parties were, for the most part, led by mainstream centrists. 

Since 1945, the Labour party has had only one exception to this general rule until Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected victory; Michael Foot, who presided over the disastrous defeat of 1983.  For the Conservatives, the story has been more mixed, as the era of One Nation leadership came to an abrupt halt with Margaret Thatcher’s election as leader in 1975.  Her electoral success was enabled by weak and divided opposition, but her leadership eventually became too divided for the party’s parliamentary leadership and was brutally shunted aside in favour of the more centrist John Major in 1990.  Major’s appeal brought his party an extra term in government, but his three successors ditched the appeal to moderation and presided over two election defeats until the more One Nation oriented David Cameron took over. 

Even in their darkest times – the early 80s for moderate Labourites, the noughties for moderate Tories – moderate members of each party could take solace from both the possibility of a return to favour at the top, and the knowledge that at least their opponents weren’t out and out lunatics.  A centrist Labour leadership benefited from the Tory retreat into its right-wing laager in the noughties just as David Cameron was able to see off the leftwards tilt of Ed Miliband.  Alas, no more.

If the liberal progressives in either party were tempted to be despairing about the outcome of the Brexit referendum, that is as nothing compared to the political landscape that looms before us in the 2017 general election and its aftermath.  Never has it been such a bad time to be a moderate in politics.  While Jeremy Corbyn exercises a complete control over the Labour party on behalf of his left-wing supporting movement, Momentum, Theresa May abandoned some time ago any attempt to face down her right-wing in turn.  Indeed, for all the eloquence of her chief of staff’s speech writing in the early months, it is difficult to discern a clear political vision from May, other than the need to stay in power and bludgeon a hard Brexit through parliament whatever the consequences.  There is a small remnant of moderate, independent minded MPs on the Tory benches, but they are unlikely to be much enlarged by the influx of new Tory MPs on the back of this election.

It is a bleak picture, but is there some light to be had from the direction of the Liberal Democrats?  Tim Farron has bounded fresh faced and energetic into the election and his party has trumpeted over 5,000 new members since the election was called.  They may even pick up seats – probably at the expense of Tory MPs in Remain-leaning southern metropolitan seats, or traditionally liberal south-western ones.  As nice as such a boost will be, they are unlikely to reach their glory days of 60 plus MPs without further work in the Labour strongholds of the north, and here it is more likely to be Tories – as in Copeland – who take the prize.

Why has liberalism, the progressive attitude once prevalent in all parties, reached such a dire state?

In essence liberalism has never been a far-reaching ideology in populist terms. Labour’s brand of social liberalism was smuggled onto the statute books by Roy Jenkins and his successors on the back of its more populist electoral appeal to manual Britain for better wages and working conditions, and better public services.  Margaret Thatcher’s economic liberalism came cloaked in populist attacks upon the failures of social democracy, and then appeals to national identity (via the Falklands and latterly Europe). 

Progressive liberals always sought validation from the establishment in power, and not from the people.  The belief in a reasoned, consensual, progressive building of a civilised state served by governments committed to at least some aspects of the liberal cause wasn’t one easily sold in gut electoral terms.  But populism was always tearing away at the fabric.  Most people, uninterested in politics and prepared to vote instinctively and emotively, and once upon a time tribally, had no time for the finer aspects of political debate and theorising.  While the liberal state delivered, this seemed fine, especially when each party had a core of leaders committed to variations on the same project.  Nevertheless, as turbulence swept the global community, and mass migration became a feature, the fragile belief in a liberal state that could both serve its people and extend magnanimity towards others started to explode. 

The incendiary devices for such resentment had long been readily to hand in the form of the popular press.  Once the liberal state stumbled in its attempt to explain the impact of global trends that put indigenous workers out of their jobs, and seemed to fail to arrest influxes of foreign workers to occupy the lower reaches of the salary earning spectrum, the way was open for the ever louder beat of nationalism. 

It came from the right-wing press, and was quickly adopted by politicians with an eye to the main chance.  It seems odd, in the age of social media and the generally accepted ability of anyone and everyone to forge their own news sources via facebook, blogs and twitter, to talk of the power of the press, but power it is.  Few twitter accounts or facebook pages can match the reach – even today – of traditional newspapers.  Where social media is bifurcated and diverse, newspapers still provide a common currency in news and opinion.  In some respects, social media merely amplifies this.  A single front page in the most powerful of the papers – the Mail or the Sun – can drive social media comment for days.  A largely mediocre political class remains in thrall to the apparent and high profile power of newspapers.  The Telegraph had MPs on the run for months over expenses a few years ago; Theresa May crafts her agenda almost entirely to suit the Mail and the Sun today.  And what makes these papers even more powerful is their ability to dance to the otherwise inchoate beat of the nationalist drum up and down the country.

Liberalism – the belief in reasoned, rational politics – is upended today by the resurgent triumph of nationalism.  In a shrewd column recently, the Economist’s new Bagehot (Adrian Wooldridge) identified the posthumous triumph of Enoch Powell’s vision for Britain (“Thethird man”).  The party that succeeds, he argued, would be the party that successfully articulated this ideal of a national identity, and he further noted that Theresa May’s provincially rooted Englishness seemed to have a far better chance of success than Labour’s messy, divided party. 

For the liberal, this is a most unappetising vision.  Having successfully emerged from the last wreckage of nationalist triumph in the first half of the twentieth century, securing what seemed to be a permanent supra-national and liberal dominance, the collapsing of that same hegemony, and the accompanying lack of confidence in its future, is once again unleashing the darkest of political forces.


It is a bleak time indeed to be a moderate.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

6 quick election announcement takeaways

       1.  Theresa May hasn’t actually called a general election yet.  She can’t.  The Fixed Term Parliament Act leaves that decision with the House of Commons, so in reality the fate of this putative election lies with the other parties (see Lord Norton's short sharp analysis).  If Labour – as Corbyn has asserted – supports the call, along with the SNP and the Lib Dems, then the one thing they cannot do is accuse May of putting party interest before country.  The Act no longer allows her to do that.  Instead, it makes a 2/3rds majority of MPs responsible instead.  Murmurings of turkeys and early Christmases spring to mind, and I do wonder if all Labour MPs are going to sign up to Corbyn’s suicide pact tomorrow.  If they do, then for more than a few it will be a means to hastening their unloved leader’s end.

2.       2.  Most forecasts – actually all forecasts – give the Tories a whopping likely majority.  This is pretty solid, and it will take a small political earthquake to dislodge the Tory advantage (although…Trump, anyone?).  Therefore much of the interest will be on how the opposition forces realign themselves.  If Labour really does head into an electoral meltdown, are the Liberal Democrats well placed to take advantage of it?  Tim Farron was far more sure-footed today than Jeremy Corbyn, and the Lib Dems are claiming a thousand new members in the few hours since Theresa May’s announcement.  They may also benefit from the “Remain” leaning seats currently held by Tories in south London and the south west – some estimates put their possible gains from the Tories at 27 seats.  Nevertheless, can the Lib Dems also budge Labour in its northern heartlands?  The now redundant Manchester Gorton by-election was showing some real LD strength thanks to a good local candidate, but can that be repeated across a swathe of Brexit believing Labour seats?

3.       3.  Will this election make UKIP formally redundant?  They are not defending any seats since the defection of sole MP Douglas Carswell (who was never a spiritual UKIP-er anyway)  and it will be interesting to see what happens to their 3 million 2015 votes.  If they see a sharp decline, we can probably rule them out as a political force from June 9th onwards.  If we haven’t already done so.

4.       4.  Theresa May has crafted this as an election on Brexit, but does that mean she is hoping no-one will look too closely at the rest of her domestic agenda?  She is struggling to define herself at the moment, making speeches that lean towards One Nation conservatism but carrying out actions that suggest old style Tory callousness.  Catastrophic morale in the NHS, short-funding of schools, budget incompetence recently over NI contributions, craven-ness on challenging the corporate interests she claimed to be ready to face up to….all this points to an uneasy domestic agenda that has hardly been crafted to win popular support. 

5.       5.  It’s about personalities.  With Brexit the dominant political item, and no-one really having a clue about how it will or should pan out, the election will – as so often – come down to personalities, and for May there is very little competition.  Jeremy Corbyn is as hopeless a leader as you could hope for in your opponent, while Tim Farron will struggle, even with an election megaphone, to make the impact he needs.  By slapping down the chance of a TV debate May has also deprived Farron of his possible “Cleggmania” moment.  It was a smart move on May’s part – she had nothing to gain from such a venture.

6.       6.  Finally, the result doesn’t mean a one-party state.  Should the Tories win big – the most likely outcome – they still face inordinate problems over the next five years, and such a result gives both Lib Dems and Labour the chance to properly regroup (under a new leader in Labour’s case, or with a spun off new party).  Five years may seem like a lifetime to upset liberals, but it offers May a mere two-year extension on her current lease.  In the end, that may not actually be enough if Brexit bombs.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Is Trump treading Reagan's path?

Republicans consistently rave about Ronald Reagan as one of the twentieth century's greatest presidents.  There is more than a little yearning for Reagan in their attitudes to Donald Trump. Trump himself is an admirer of the 40th president and sees himself treading the same path.

And Trump may well be right.  I was struck, when reading William Leuchtenburg's chapter on Reagan in his "The American President", just how much there was a similarity between them.  Forget the traditional smiling picture of Reagan, and consider this:

"If the casual observer thinks that Trump’s presidency is headed for the rocks, then reflect for a moment on the actuality of Reagan’s presidency.  His swingeing budget cuts condemned millions to poverty and wretchedness, cutting off millions more from any realistic chance of health care. His tax cuts benefitted primarily the very wealthy.  He sought to weaken the Voting Rights Act and became the first president to veto a civil rights act; in both his elections he received the smallest share of African American votes ever given to a presidential candidate.  He appointed an anti-environmentalist to the Environmental Protection Agency who proceeded to halve the EPA’s budget, urged drastic weakening of the Clean Air Act and refused to enforce most of the congressional regulations on the environment.  Her name, incidentally, was Anne Gorsuch, and her son became President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee.


 In foreign affairs, Reagan actively connived with a hostile power (Iran), selling them arms in a trade that his administration banned as aiding terror when undertaken by other countries.  He went to great lengths to deceive Congress on this, and when he could evade responsibility no longer he threw those of his aides who had done his bidding under the proverbial bus, sacking them without a backward glance.   His consistent defence was that he couldn’t remember authorising such sales.  He also supported some of the most brutal and dictatorial leaders in the world, including the murderous presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala.  Early in his presidency he sent several marine divisions to Lebanon against the advice of his military chief.  Over 260 marines were eventually killed, mainly in suicide attacks, before Reagan recalled them, having gained nothing.  

For all the mishaps, for all his political ignorance and his utter disdain for the poor, working class victims of his domestic policies, Reagan is somehow remembered as a great president."  

There are some extraordinary parallels between Trump and Reagan, even down to the reason why so many people voted for them.  The above extract is part of my longer article on Reagan as Trump's curtain-raiser, and even when writing it I felt increasingly pessimistic about the chances of anyone really dislodging Trump before his time is up.

The full piece is here.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Democrats unappeased by Gorsuch choice

Democrats are in no mood to play nice with the Gorsuch nomination it seems.  I still maintain that since Gorsuch will be confirmed anyway, Democrats might want to hold their most lethal fire for the next one, who may not be as qualified or as easy to sell as a suitable Supreme Court Judge as the undeniably credible Gorsuch.  Nevertheless, after denied a vote on Merrick Garland, with Republican leaders McConnell and Grassley mounting a very effective year-long blockade, you can see why there is such anger on the Democratic side.  It can't be denied that Republicans have no moral authority on this issue at all.

For a sense of just how deep the anti-Trump anger runs, look at any post on Daily Kos.  Or have a read through this interview with New York Magazine's Frank Rich.  Rich was the most famous and feared theatre critic of his day and he has lost none of his punch when discussing - or writing about - politics.

Gorsuch's presentation by Trump reduced him to the "status of a supplicant at a corrupt royal court".

Trump was "using language you'd expect to hear from a Vegas lounge singer paying tribute to Frank Sinatra".

And on the wretched House Speaker Paul Ryan, Rich is especially sharp, describing him as "the leading Vichy Republican.  A coward who will do anything to hold on to power."

Meanwhile, Politico's report on the prime time presentation ceremony noted Trump's lack of apparent understanding of any of Judge Gorsuch's legal opinions.  The show was everything.   As, so far, seems to have been the case with the whole of this presidency thus far.


Can the Gorsuch nomination restore dignity to the Supreme Court process?



We simply don't have a similar institution in Britain.  Our own relatively new Supreme Court - a creation of Tony Blair's - received its first real bit of headline publicity with its deliberations on triggering Article 50, and acquitted itself perfectly soundly, providing a new and important constitutional document in the process.  But British citizens are unlikely to get too exercised by the UK's deliberately down-played Supreme Court.

It's a whole different matter in the United States.  The very pillars of the Court breathe remote majesty and authority through their brilliant white marbled stone.  The nine robed justices play such a significant role in the legal ante-room of American politics that they were once even charged with deciding the president of the United States.  It is said that candidate Trump paid most attention to the poll that said the Supreme Court was the single most important issue to them.

After eleven days of perhaps deliberately provoked chaos and division, President Trump's Supreme Court nomination looks positively statesmanlike and actually presidential.  The originalist nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is respected across the spectrum and is clearly a fine jurist with the capability of producing lucid, deeply thought out rulings.  He is no right-wing head-banger.  He speaks honeyed words when defending the law and the principle of an independent judiciary.  Even if you disagree with his broad legal philosophy, you get the impression that the integrity of the Court is safe in the hands of this man, this chosen successor to Justice Scalia.

Of course that isn't quite how this is playing, and the Republicans have only themselves to blame for that.  The unprecedented action of Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Judiciary Chairman Grassley has undeniably poisoned the atmosphere of Supreme Court nominations.  For Democrats, this is the "stolen" seat.  The one that Republicans held back when President Obama still had nearly a quarter of his last term to run.  If Neil Gorsuch is being garlanded with praise by Republicans and their ilk, is being spoken of as a great jurist, a man with previous support across the political spectrum, well then so was Merrick Garland similarly presented back in March of 2016.

This National Review article by Jim Geraghty is pretty typical of the paeans of praise to Gorsuch and damnation to oppositional Democrats currently being generated (this one too, from American Greatness, lays out the Republican case pretty clearly).  How stupid of the Democrats, how narrow-minded of them to want to oppose such a universally loved jurist as Judge Gorsuch.  But nearly everything in this article could have been written by a Democrat about Judge Garland too.  The Supreme Court process has become so politicised that neither side can give credence to any suggestion or nomination from the other.

But, you know, this was also Justice Scalia's seat.  Gorsuch's appointment simply maintains the old balance of the Court, with a man who undoubtedly deserves his nomination.  Democrats may be wise to row back from a dust-up over this one.  They may still be fuming over the Garland obstruction, but fighting Gorsuch would seem to be the wrong battle this time.  And maybe we should remind Democrats that they had their scalp long ago, back in 1987 when they successfully prevented Robert Bork's nomination.  The Republicans are simply catching up.

Gorsuch should be given tough questioning by the Judiciary Committee Democrats, but they might be willing to give the Supreme Court itself a chance to recover some much needed dignity by not invoking a filibuster here.  By submitting to Gorsuch's nomination, the Democrats can keep their moral high ground, leave the Court where it was before Scalia's death, and most importantly keep their more lethal ammunition in reserve for the nomination that truly matters.  The one to replace the first liberal to step down.

Despite himself, Trump has played this one well.  After an exhausting eleven days, plenty of people would thank the Democrats for not picking an unnecessary fight.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Trump in his supporters' words

There is a lovely twitter post by the Toronto Star's Washington correspondent, who asked various Trump supporters in Washington for the inauguration their view of the man they admired.  He tweeted their responses with their pictures, without comment.  Have a read.  If you are cynical about Mr. Trump, you will find the responses intriguing, and will certainly be left asking, "But how could they think this?"


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Theresa May and the delusion of a special relationship

Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, has arrived in the US to be the first foreign leader to meet President Trump, and she sounded as if she was in optimistic form, suggesting that “opposites attract”.  The visit has caused a resurgence of hope in Britain that the much vaunted “Special Relationship” is back in vogue.  In Britain, the term “special relationship” refers to what is believed to be a unique partnership between the two English-speaking powers of Britain and its old colonies across the Atlantic. 

The problem is that Britain is rather more devoted to the idea than the United States.  Whilst the new president undoubtedly has some anglophilic tendencies – he is, for example, restoring the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office, and speaks positively about the British vote to leave the EU – the British prime minister should tread warily.  Mr. Trump himself is quite clear in his commitment to “America First” – it dominated the thinking in his inauguration speech – but British prime ministers have always tended to be a little disappointed by their attempted diplomatic embrace with the much bigger power overseas.  Whether President Trump breaks the decidedly one-sided nature of the relationship remains to be seen, but if the actions of past presidents are anything to go by this may be one area at least where he is well in vogue with his predecessors.

Since the time of Franklin Roosevelt and the expansion of American power consequent upon the Second World War the British, for all their desperate flirting, have often been left in the cold with occasionally just enough acting paint to hide the tears.  Here is a brief history of the not-so-special-relationship that Theresa May is hoping to reignite.

Roosevelt and Churchill.
This is where it was meant to have started. FDR moved heaven and earth to get US aid to brave little Britain, and he and Churchill bestrode the post-war world stage like conquering colossi joined at the hip. Yes?

Er, well not quite. Roosevelt was a thoroughly reluctant interventionist. He gave short shrift to the pro-interventionist Century Group, deferring instead to advisers like Sumner Welles, who in January 1940 was still determined to get Hitler and Mussolini to talk peace. When help did come, Roosevelt extracted everything he could from Britain and then tried to make sure the Atlantic War was firmly eastern focused, which suited American interests better. Neville Chamberlain had always believed that the cost of American help would be too high – he wasn’t wrong. Military bases, trading concessions and considerable regional influence was all ceded to the USA. The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship existed mainly in the mind of Churchill himself, who did so much to propagate it. Which is surprising, given the way FDR himself sought to undermine Churchill in front of Stalin at Yalta.

Truman and Attlee
Attlee didn’t speak much anyway, but his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did, and it was Bevin who felt so downtrodden by Truman’s Secretary of State that he advocated British ownership of nuclear weapons, if only so that “no foreign secretary gets spoken to by an American Secretary of State like that again”. It was another Truman Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who caustically remarked that “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role”. Thanks for the support Dean.


Eisenhower
One word really. Suez. When Anthony Eden tried to protect British interests in the Suez Canal, Eisenhower was the first and most important statesman out of the blocks to condemn him. And then begin a run on the pound. Never mind that Khrushchev was slaughtering Hungarian rebels at the time – Britain was Enemy No. 1! Oh, and lest we forget, it was Eisenhower as US Supreme Commander who stymied Churchill and Montgomery’s plan to beat the Russians to Berlin. He didn’t believe the Russians posed a threat and decried Churchill’s pleas to the contrary.

Nixon and Heath
Possibly the only really effective working relationship between a US President and a British Prime minister, because it was based on an understanding that there wasn’t actually a Special Relationship at all. Both Heath and Nixon believed that America’s real focus in Europe was never going to be a single country, but a united European organization. Nixon, in any case, was very clearly identifying the East as the true arena for US activity.

Reagan and Thatcher
This is where it’s meant to really go into overdrive. If the lovebirds Maggie and Ron didn’t have a special relationship, then who did? But, alas, for all their cooing to each other in public, Reagan not only proved notoriously slow to throw support behind Britain in the Falklands crisis, but then didn’t let Thatcher know when he invaded the Commonwealth country of Grenada. Britain had to content herself by joining 108 other nations in condemning the invasion at the UN. Tellingly, Reagan later recollected than when Thatcher phoned him to say he shouldn’t go ahead, "She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada. I couldn't tell her that it had already begun." Special Relationship indeed.

Bush and Blair
No world leader was more determined to show his support for the US than Tony Blair. No other world leader was greeted familiarly as “Yo, Blair”. But for all the support he gave to George W. Bush’s strategy of middle east invasion, Blair’s voice was heard as tinnily as anyone else’s when it came to trying to influence US foreign policy. It was one of the supreme, defining failures of his premiership.
Obama and Cameron
They played table tennis and cooked burgers together, but when it came to an alignment of interests there was precious little empathy.  President Obama famously noted that Britain would be “at the back of the queue” when it came to negotiating new trade agreements after a Brexit vote, and he was very critical of Cameron’s role in foreign policy.  Obama believed Cameron was wrong on Libya and stymied his own efforts in Syria when the British PM allowed parliament to vote against intervention. 

Theresa May, then, is following in a grand tradition of trying to re-start a special relationship that has never got past the warm-up phase.  She might be lucky.  President Trump will be in the business of surprising everyone over the next four years and he might just take a different tack on this one too.  But don’t bet on it.  Realpolitic will be as important to him as his predecessors, and by that principle Britain is just another pygmy, albeit one with a common language. 


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Supreme Court defends constitution

Tempers have calmed down a bit in the more extreme fringes of the media and the decision of the Supreme Court justices - by an 8-3 majority - to reiterate the lower court ruling that parliament is sovereign when it comes to legislation, may be greeted by rather less fuss than met the original lower court conclusion.

In part, this may be because the fanatical Brexiters have now realised that their precious project - whatever form it finally takes - isn't going to be blocked by parliament.  The rage of the Sun and Daily Mail tribe and all their acolytes was never about constitutional propriety and always about the invidious cheek of anyone daring to challenge Brexit.  But parliament will accede to May's request to initiate Article 50.  It was always going to.

I forget what the Spectator magazine stance was when the first ruling was made, but editor Fraser Nelson has this time produced a careful and effective acknowledgement of why the Supreme Court was right.  It's well worth a read since it encapsulates the issue of both constitutional power in Britain and also links it coherently with one of the Brexit demands - that British institutions reign supreme, without foreign oversight.

It's also refreshing to read because the Spectator have had a tendency in recent weeks to publish more irrational right-wing rants than they used to.  They've always made room for Rod Liddle and Brendan O'Neill, who are virtual caricatures of the angry loon shaking his fist at everything in the world, but they seem to be adding to their number in some of their features.  I read an egregious piece a couple of weeks ago railing against the unadulterated teaching of liberal nostrums in our schools.  Utter fantasy but why let facts ruin a good rant?  Anyway, Nelson has moved the balance back a bit this week which is good news as I've always had a soft spot for venerable weekly.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

The certifiable lunacy of the Trump White House

Has the White House had a certifiable lunatic as its resident in previous years?  Here we are in the second day of the Trump presidency and the most important thing on the mind of the most powerful individual in the world is how big his crowds were at the inauguration.

As he addressed his intelligence community - or part of it - you might have thought he could have come up with slightly more pressing topics of consideration for his speech.  But nope.  Crowd numbers and the mendacity of the press were his highlights.

We know Trump cares about his ratings.  During his bizarre transitional period he found time to lambast Arnold Schwarzenegger for his low ratings as the new host of the "Apprentice".  He even gave himself a nickname.  "Ratings Machine DJT".  So this stuff is important.

The two picture above have had wide circulation.  The top one shows the crowd for Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2009.  The second shows the crowd for Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017.  There is a bit of a difference.  Even a casual observer can see that.  Whatever the numbers were in 2009, they were considerably lower by the looks of it the other day.

This would normally be a matter of inconsequential comment before moving on.  But partly because Trump bigs himself up so much, the photos received wide publicity across various media.  Cue the statesmanlike White House response.

Not only does Trump major on this to the intelligence officers, but his new press secretary, Sean Spicer, indulges himself in an extraordinary rant at the media in his first press conference.  Both Trump and Spicer show-cased their infrequent relationship with the truth.  Trump could apparently see that there were around 2 million people in the crowds from his perch at the podium.  Spicer ranted first that there were no official numbers available and then, without batting an eyelid, announced that this had been the largest inauguration crowd ever.  Period.  So there.  He also misrepresented a comparison of DC metro numbers, claiming that there were over 500,000 journeys on Friday compared to a mere 3000,000 on the day of Barack Obama's second inauguration.  Washington Metro actually reported 193,000 metro rides just after 11am on Friday, compared to 513,000 on Obama's first inaugural.  The figures for Friday seemed to be the lowest of any inuagural travel since 2005.

Spicer- surely the most comic figure to ever stand in that press room - then had to go further.  When Trump addressed the intelligence officers, so the press were told, there over 500 people there, and over 1,000 had applied to be present.  The officers were ecstatic in their joy at having Trump as their new president.  They love him and he's got their back.

The problem is I'm not actually sure they were lying.  There is a serious danger that they actually believed their own nonsense.  Trump is delusional enough to convince himself that he can accurately assess 2 million people standing in front of him.  The raging Spicer could not even maintain a basic consistency for two sentences.

Pathological liars or delusional maniacs.  Either way, the lunacy in the White House became more palpably certifiable just two days in to the administration.

The New York Times report of the press conference is here.  The opening part of the press conference from old loony-bag Spicer is below.

Slate fact-checked the lies in Spicer's statement - 4 in 5 minutes.




Friday, January 20, 2017

Give Trump a chance

Donald Trump has broken a lot of norms, but it is likely he might keep to one at least - making his inaugural address today an address that reaches beyond party or personal politics to speak to the nation, and the world, at large. He'll doubtless do it in inimitable Trumpian style, but the man we hear today won't be Twitter Trump.  It should at last be President Trump.

His has been the most chaotic transition in a long time, not least because of the large number of potential ethics and financial conflicts from his predominantly billionaire cabinet.  Trump lowered standards himself with his failure to make his tax returns public - and even to hint that he hadn't paid any - so it was hardly likely that his conflicted cabinet nominees would somehow try and raise the bar again. I wonder whether future political candidates will decide that it is worth keeping to the Trump standards?  I think they'd like to, but I suspect they will lack his sheer chutzpah and that utterly fanatical support from his popular base.

But it's Trump's day today, so let's hear him on his terms and allow for the possibility that this very different president was elected because he's very different.  It could work, you never know.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trump's New Normal

The Washington Post puts it best here:

Washington veterans marvel at how much Trump has been able to get away with because he just doesn’t seem to care what anyone else thinks. The president-elect has disregarded the longstanding tradition that there should only be one president at a time. He talked to the leader of Taiwan in contravention of the One China policy; his national security adviser has been in contact with a senior Russian government official. He’s refused to fully divest his financial holdings, given his son-in-law a government job and ordered his aides to declare war on an independent ethics office that raised questions about these arrangements.

Just reading through that reminds us of how far the goalposts have moved.  This may be a failure of news reporting, although to be fair most outlets are busy trying to hold Trump accountable; there is just so much material that it's difficult to keep track.  Perhaps the big problem is the lack of obvious public discontent.  This is still the Trump who was on offer in the elections, and I guess if you thought he was suitable to be president then you are not likely to think anything he has done since is out of order.

By way of comparison, the Post referred to the case of Tom Daschle.  A former Senate Majority Leader tapped by the new President Obama to be Health and Human Services Secretary in 2009, Daschle eventually had to withdraw over an issue of unpaid taxes (which he later repaid on being nominated).  Unpaid taxes?? Donald Trump pretty well admitted he didn't pay taxes during the campaign and it's a fair bet that several of his billionaire cabinet appointees have found ways to avoid such a tedious task.  But there has been so little trasnparency from Trump and his appointees that virtually anything goes now.  The new normal is that ethics and openness are for the birds, and much of that is thanks to a Republican controlled legislature led by one of the most cynical men to adorn a democracy, which operates on an anything goes policy if it brings party advantage.

Welcome to the new normal.  Old standards no longer apply.