Hard News by Russell Brown


The next four years

And so, tomorrow, the United States of America will inaugurate a new President. I've been meaning to write about what that portends, but it's surprisingly difficult. Each of the last few dozen mornings has brought a fresh basket of outrages and absurdities. The opportunity to stop and summarise goes missing daily.

On one level, obsessing about another democracy's election is silly. Don't we have our own general election this year? We do. But it's already clear that there will be international consequences to President Trump.

The confrontation with China that Trump and his team have been fecklessly stirring, even before he takes office, bodes no good for New Zealand. We don't want a crazy trade war between two of our largest trading partners. We really don't want the actual shooting war implied by the incoming secretary of State's promise to blockade China's man-made islands in the South China Sea. We especially don't want to be required to choose sides in either war.

There's no good for us either in an unstable, roiling Europe. When Trump airily declares that NATO is "obsolete", people in Lithuania and Estonia (where thousands, mindful of Russia's annexation of Crimea, are signing up to paramilitary forces) hear something different than self-professed "anti-imperialists" in the West do. Late last year Sweden's government put local authorities on the first rung of a war footing and revived a defence strategy unused since the Cold War. As Russian military aircraft repeatedly breach Sweden's airspace, its government is drawing closer to NATO than it has ever been.

Sweden has also for the past two or three years suffered a wave of apparently Russian-initiated cyberattacks. The pattern should be familiar: disruption, the fostering of fringe ultra-right groups and a big, targeted fake news campaign spreading disinformation. Last year, employing what is now a familiar form of doubespeak, Russian attackers knocked all of Sweden's major newspapers off the internet, in a purported protest against their spreading of "false propaganda".

Last month, Germany's intelligence agency reported a surge in Russian-initiated cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. It said that the aim was to spread uncertainty, strengthen extremist groups and parties, complicate the work of the federal government and "weaken or destabilise the Federal Republic of Germany". The Czech Republic, which, like Germany, has national elections this year, is also taking steps to protect its democratic infrastructure.

A particular focus of the attack messaging in Germany is the country's refugee intake under Angela Merkel. Last week, Trump told the German newspaper Bild that Merkel had made an “utterly catastrophic mistake by letting all these illegals into the country”.

This messaging is quite pervasive. I recently argued on Facebook with a pro-Putin New Zealander (who seemed to be a leftie or at least some sort of greenie) about Russia's actions in Syria. It wound up with her literally posting neo-Nazi material to the Facebook thread. She was not at all chastened when I pointed that out.

I guess there are always going to conspiratorial dingbats at the extremes of the political left and right, so far as their actual politics can be determined. What I've found more surprising is the attitude of people I'd always thought to to be classical conservatives – people with whom I might disagree, but who I figured believed in institutions and in conventional notions of probity. In free trade. Not so much, now, apparently.

I had trouble getting my head around this until I read this long, fairly dense New Yorker story about the "conservative intellectuals" furiously trying to backfill "Trumpism" with some sort of theory. They are more impassioned than they are coherent, but a kind of picture does emerge. As the author, Kelefa Sanneh, notes:

It is no surprise that many of Trump’s critics, and some of his supporters, heard his tributes to a bygone American greatness as a form of “identity politics,” designed to remind white people of all the power and prestige they had lost.

These freshly-minted Trumpists distrust globalism, they are economic nationalists. The same applies of course to many on the left. But the Trumpists and the Brexiteers seem to be motivated less by economic philosophy per se than by the loss of their cultural primacy.

The world is actually getting better on a range of measures. According to the World Bank, China has raised 500 million people out of extreme poverty in the past three decades. That's an extraordinary achievement and it can't be separated from China's engagement with the global economy in that time. But remarkably  low numbers of people in wealthy western countries are currently inclined to perceive the world as improving. And some, clearly, see withdrawal from institutions as a way to address their own relative disadvantage (and it is strictly relative: the poverty bar used by the World Bank is income of $US1.90 a day).

This rhetoric is not coming in any coherent form from Trump himself, of course. As Sanneh says, it's not even clear whether Trump is a Trumpist. But amid his narcissistic flailings, enough Americans in swing states heard the anti-establishment philosophy they wanted to hear.

And, again, Russia has found remarkably successful ways to employ such sentiment for its own ends. Putin does not want a cohesive Europe. He began a trade war to persuade the Ukraine government to back out of an Association Agreement with the European Union – a step Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych eventually took, on the promise of billions of dollars worth of Russian loans. The Euromaidan protests that followed led to Yanukovych being dumped by his own party, fleeing to Russia and subsequently being stripped of his role by the country's supreme court. And that led Putin to annex Crimea and facilitate, with Russian troops, a shooting war in the east of Ukraine that seems to be becoming even more intense.

In a no-holds-barred speech at the Davos Economic Forum overnight, outgoing US VP Joe Biden declared that Putin wants to see a "collapse of the international order." It sounds much less of a wild assertion than it might if you've read a bit about the strangeness of Putin's Russia. As to the motivations behind such a goal, well, let's just say that "Kremlinologist" is going to be a good trade to be in for the next few years.

In the New Yorker this week, Robin Wright notes the concern and confusion of foreign leaders and diplomats as they try to reconcile Trump's wild statements with the understandings and alliances they have had with the US for many decades. If you were trying to sow chaos, this is how it would look.

But how much influence have Putin and the needs of his mafia economy actually had on the Trump bandwagon? It's hard to say, but perhaps the multiple US intelligence agency investigations underway as the new President takes office will bear fruit. It is hard to see some things – the installation of Putin confidant (and political novice) Rex Tillerson as US Secretary of State, the Trump team gutting the Republican platform on Ukraine but being apparently almost uninterested in most other policy – in any other light.

At WORD Christchurch in August, I heard American historian Peter S. Field insist that should Trump become President it would be a thrilling time for the Congressional Republican Party, which would set about holding a President to account as the founders intended. It would be great for democracy! I've seen other conservatives express the same hopeful view since. But really? Are we talking about some other Republican Party?

The Republicans, in firm control of both houses, seem disinclined to address the unprecedented conflicts of interest which Trump takes into office. Insofar as they're concerned about ethics, it is to roll back ethical oversight on themselves. Earlier this month, House Republicans voted to gut the House's independent ethics office – only to reverse their decision on a message from Trump.

Yes, that's right. US House Republicans were schooled on ethics by Donald Trump.

But there are already clear signs that oversight and accountability will be under threat in the new regime. Trump ally Newt Gingrich is calling for the abolition of the Congressional Budget Office, because its assessments reflect poorly on Trump policy. As Forbes contributor – and government spending specialist – Stan Collender noted, it's as if Gingrich wanted to take his party back to the economic dark ages.

Simple competence is another issue. Trump's Cabinet is stacked with people who are either ignorant of their portfolios or openly hostile to them. His education secretary (and handsome donor) Betsy DeVos knows little of education, but is associated with a gay conversion "therapy" group. This week she said that there should be no federal protection for the education of disabled children.

There's one area where competence really matters – to an existential degree – and that's around climate change. His major Cabinet appointees are nearly all climate change deniers. The new head of the Enviromental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a coal industry lawyer who led a lawsuit against the EPA's clean energy reform.

This matters on an international level too. Multilateral accords are utterly crucial to addressing climate change, and if Trump withdraws the US from the Paris Agreement, it weakens, perhaps critically, the whole structure.

The next four years are going to be very important for American journalism. Journalists and the organisations they work for will be attacked, abused and marginalised – that's what Trump's done from the moment he started campaigning. Obama's use of his final press conference to give a pep-talk to the White House press corps, emphasising their key role in a democracy, was no accident.

They'll have plenty to work with. With the hammer coming down on oversight and transparency, I think US politics will enter an unprecedented era of leaking and whistleblowing. Public servants are likely to display more principle than elected representatives, put it that way.

In seeking to make Trump seem less unprecedented, Field compared him to the famously badly-behaved Democratic President Andrew Jackson. But as fond as Americans are of comparing presidents, I don't think that works. Jackson was a rascal, but he wasn't a compulsive liar and a sociopath. And the world is different place than it was then. Far worse things can happen than ever could in 1829. 

So it's uncharted territory, and I haven't even got to the extremely valid fears of America's various minorities, or of American women who see the prospect of a Trump administration defunding Planned Parenthood as an attack on their very wellbeing. (Some of those women are even Trump voters.)

Here in New Zealand and, I'm sure, other places, we've seen a less tangible consequence of the Trump phenomenon: an erosion of social norms that seems to have given permission for expressions of racism or misogyny that might not have been made before. The bigots have been emboldened. So, while the institutions and Constitution of the United States of America face an unprecedented stress test, I think the next four years will be interesting times for for us all.

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