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.