America: a lament



Let me start by saying this: today has been a wretched day. I’m going to try and get more specific and rational in a moment, but before I do it’s only fair to acknowledge the emotional place I am writing from. This post is not about informing, persuading or educating you. It is about making me feel better. When something bad happens I often find writing about it helpful. Reality may be chaotic and unknowably complex but if I can grab hold of it for long enough to examine it and knit an argument from it, then I feel like I am back in control even if only on the page. I could, for example, feel the gut punch of the Brexit vote and yet still stand up and craft a plan for what should happen next.

But the enormity of what has happened, the range and power of the shockwave it will create leaves me unable to produce anything that coherent. Too much has changed and too little is stable for me to feel I have a purchase on it. And that uncertainty is distressing.

After Brexit, I felt like I’d lost my country. After Trump’s victory, I feel like I’ve lost my world. I used to assume that, broadly speaking and with exceptions, the world would get more prosperous, safer and more co-operative. Even horrifying events like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, seemed like setbacks rather than fundamental reversals. Trump’s victory seems more devastating than that.

The most powerful man on earth is a racist, misogynistic, conspiracy theorist, who has admitted to assaulting women, lacks any respect for the rule of law, has dodgy finances, holds some ‘maverick’ views, possesses little understanding of the issues with which he must grapple and most damningly seems to have no compunction about telling blatant lies.

That seems to speak to America and the West more generally having given up on making the world better and instead now just want to lock it out. We have gone to a dark place of hatred and suspicion, and I don’t know if we even want to get out of it.

If this was happening anywhere else it would not be so devastating. Even when grim events hit my own country, like the upsurge in hate crimes that followed Brexit, we could at least see them as our problem rather than something universal. Of course, it wasn’t happening in isolation. Nativism, populism and authoritarianism are on the rise more or less everywhere, and Brexit actually seemed to be a milder form of that tendency. Nonetheless, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Orban and the like still seemed to be a nasty sideshow so long as there was an American president willing to use his country’s enormous power to counterbalance them. Now one of their number is headed for the Oval Office and they suddenly seem to run the world.

I move in circles where to degenerate America and its power is fashionable. Even the American’s do it.  The US and its hegemony was a menace to freedom, the story went, it used its incredible power to get rid of those who got in it – and its corporations – way. It overthrew awkward but democratically elected leaders like Chile’s Salvador Allende and Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh, it missteped all over weaker countries like Vietnam and Iraq, and even made the rest of us sign up to its stupid copyright laws just because Disney can afford a tonne of lobbyists.

That is a reasonable story but it is only partial. It sees America’s imperfect espousal of democratic values as equivalent to other actors rejecting them outright. That’s an especially grievous error because while America is not alone in having these values, no other country backs them up so forcefully. America sometimes act like a bully because its strong and it’s that strength that guarantees freedom in many parts of the world. When Putin eyes the Baltic States, when Xi wonders about bringing Taiwan to heel and when Kim Jong-Un fantasies about the reunification of the Korean peninsula, a voice says “DON’T YOU DARE!” and it has an American accent.

Trendy lefty anti-Americanism has never given America enough credit for this. It has looked at America’s huge defence spending and seen a monstrosity, not a burden it bears for the sake of the global stability in which it wishes to share. Yes, this was self-interested, it made it easier for America to trade and reduced the risk of them being caught up in any instability. But that was also in the rest of the world’s interest too: it made it easier for us to trade and stopped us getting caught up in instability. 

Now Trump, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, doesn’t appreciate this. Which ironically may be what finally gets people like me to see the merit of an America that tries to control the international order. The alternative may not be liberty but that order breaking down, and a return to a world of more naked geopolitics in which Russian or Chinese wolves can eat Ukrainian or Vietnamese lambs. But I fear it’s too late now. We will probably never get a chance to be grateful for that America, for it is likely gone, replaced by something meaner, nastier and smaller.

Can American democracy survive a Trump presidency?

The real danger is not Trump but the person who cleans up the mess he leaves behind

History turns backwards

For decades, the Freedom House think tank has tracked which countries are democracies and which aren’t. For a long time it seemed there was mostly good news. It began in Portugal in 1974, when the Portuguese people toppled their military rulers and forged a new democracy. Freedom House duly recorded this switch. And year after year more such switches came. Military dictators in Spain, Chile and South Korea lost power, followed by communists across the Warsaw Pact countries, and then Africa’s anti-colonial hereos turned post-colonial tyrants began to be dispatched.

Democracy marched on until 2006, when something disturbing happened:

…the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119 (about 60 percent of the world’s states).

What initially appeared to be a stagnation now looks like a contraction. Freedom Houses’ most recent report noted that:

…the number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year — 72 — was the largest since the 10-year slide began.

I tell you this to illustrate that we are in a time when democracy is tending to falter. To date this has mostly meant the reversion to authoritarian rule in countries that democratised in the waves that followed the fall of Portugal’s military government. But given the apparent direction of travel, it would be a mistake to feel complacent about more established democracies.

An autocrat at heart

Indeed, it is the most established democracy of all that I am currently most concerned about. That is in large part a result of Donald Trump having a realistic chance of becoming its president. He may be the nominee of a party that traditionally stands for small government conservatism but he is an authoritarian plain and simple. He betrays this predilection with his admiration for autocrats like Vladamir Putin. It is reflected in his evident attraction to violence, be that inciting punch ups at his rallies or suggesting the American military torture captives and executes children. He vilifies the press and advocates using strengthened libel laws to silence them – a classic technique of autocrats who can’t stand to hear about their nakedness. He has a sorry record of corruption that hints at an alarming disregard for the law. He called for his opponent to be jailed and refused to agree to be bound by the election result.  And most alarmingly there is his unmistakably racist rhetoric and willingness to associate with racists and conspiracy theorists. It is thus reasonable to fret as Vox‘s editor Ezra Klein has done that Trump “…is not running to be America’s president so much as its dictator.

If that is his intention, what are his prospects of success? Some are deeply worried. Andrew Sullivan wrote back in May that:

In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event.

And also of:

…the Weimar aspect of our current moment. Just as the English Civil War ended with a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the French Revolution gave us Napoleon Bonaparte, and the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.

Their constitution to the rescue?

There is a more sanguine view. Trump may try to behave as an autocrat but the America’s system of government is loaded up with check and balances to prevent that. Politico’s Zachary Karabell reassures us that:

The American presidency is an office of vast powers that are also maddeningly constrained for anyone with dictatorial aspirations. We also know that Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s bears little resemblance to the United States of the 2010s. Before we get too breathless about impending fascism and the end of America as we know it, we need to stop and consider just how hard it might be for a president to bulldoze through the multiple hurdles to unilateral action.

Trump’s own offspring have taken this tack. Donald Trump jnr demonstrated that he has inherited his father’s odd way of speaking but not his talent for creating emotionally compelling arguments by suggesting:

For those who say: ‘Oh he’s so dangerous’, there is nothing dangerous about it.

He is going to have the greatest system of checks and balances in place watching him.

Even Sullivan suggests:

…this is not the time to give up on America’s near-unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility. The country has endured far harsher times than the present without succumbing to rank demagoguery; it avoided the fascism that destroyed Europe; it has channeled extraordinary outpourings of democratic energy into constitutional order.

I am not going to deny that the courts and legislature are more powerful in America than more or less anywhere else in the developed world, and that as a result an American president enjoys less freedom of action than say a British Prime Minister.

But this is only partially reassuring. Sullivan correctly identifies the risk that these check and balances might not operate:

Were Trump to win the White House, the defenses against him would be weak. He would likely bring a GOP majority in the House, and Republicans in the Senate would be subjected to almighty popular fury if they stood in his way. The 4-4 stalemate in the Supreme Court would break in Trump’s favor.

Even if these safeguards do operate there are ways around them. For example, if President Trump cannot introduce more powerful libel laws, he could instead instruct his justice department to launch anti-trust investigations into media organisations that displease him. He has already threatened to do as much.

The gridlocked road to Trumpism

At a more fundamental level, I actually fear that America’s systems of checks and balance make its democracy more rather than less vulnerable to a demagogue like Trump.

For starters, it may have contributed to the dissatisfaction that enabled his rise. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama has argued that American democracy is in a state of decay because of a phenomenon he calls ‘vetocracy‘.

The U.S. political system has far more of these checks and balances, or what political scientists call “veto points,” than other contemporary democracies, raising the costs of collective action and in some cases make it impossible altogether. In earlier periods of U.S. history, when one party or another was dominant, this system served to moderate the will of the majority and force it to pay greater attention to minorities than it otherwise might have. But in the more evenly balanced, highly competitive party system that has arisen since the 1980s, it has become a formula for gridlock.

Which is bad, firstly because it leads to weak and ineffective governments:

In parliamentary systems, a great deal of legislation is formulated by the executive branch with heavy technocratic input from the permanent civil service. Ministries are accountable to parliament, and hence ultimately to voters, through the ministers who head them, but this type of hierarchical system can take a longer-term strategic view and produce much more coherent legislation.

Such a system is utterly foreign to the political culture in Washington, where Congress jealously guards its right to legislate — even though the often incoherent product is what helps produce a large, sprawling, and less accountable government. Congress’ multiple committees frequently produce duplicate and overlapping programs or create several agencies with similar purposes. The Pentagon, for example, operates under nearly 500 mandates to report annually to Congress on various issues. These never expire, and executing them consumes huge amounts of time and energy. Congress has created about 50 separate programs for worker retraining and 82 separate projects to improve teacher quality.

It is also produces plenty of opportunities for soft corruption:

The openness and never-ending character of the U.S. budget process gives lobbyists and interest groups multiple points at which to exercise influence. In most European parliamentary systems, it would make no sense for an interest group to lobby an individual member of parliament, since the rules of party discipline would give that legislator little or no influence over the party leadership’s position. In the United States, by contrast, an influential committee chairmanship confers enormous powers to modify legislation and therefore becomes the target of enormous lobbying activity.

When democracy ends

Not only does a presidential system that allows for divided government seem more prone to creating crisis, it seems less able to weather them than do more parliamentary models. In a seminal 1990 paper called the Perils of Presidentalism, Yale professor Juan J. Linz noted that:

the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States . . . [a]side from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government — but Chilean democracy broke down in the 1970s.

And by ‘break down’ he means be replaced by a military junta so ambitious in its use of kidnapping, torture and murder that it turned ‘disappear’ into a noun. As in ‘even decades after the fall of the Pinochet regime the final resting places of over a thousand of the disappeared have yet to be found’.

So why is presidential democracy generally so difficult and why has America nonetheless managed it? Well Linz argued:

what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power. One might argue that the United States has successfully rendered such conflicts “normal” and thus defused them. To explain how American political institutions and practices have achieved this result would exceed the scope of this essay, but it is worth noting that the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties-which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties-has something to do with it

Well Linz’s colleagues got their wish. America’s political parties have become way more polarised. There used to be Republican congressmen who were more liberal than some of their Democrat colleagues and Democrats who were more conservative than some Republicans. Such politicians have now gone extinct. It is unclear if Americans are following or leading their politicians but they are going in that direction too. The proportion of American voters who can be classified as consistently liberal or conservative has doubled in two decades. Research evidence now shows that Americans have stronger prejudices against people of different parties than they do people of different races. Thus the thing that has enabled America’s presidential democracy to endure is gone.

The potential crisis

Polarisation has already taken its toll on the functioning of the American government. To prevent Barack Obama enacting his agenda the Republicans and the conservative movement more generally have deployed every tool of obstruction conceivable: down the line voting against legislation, fillibusters, placing blocks on nominees, refusing to hold a vote on a nomination to the Supreme Court, legal challenges, governors refusing to implement pieces of legislation, government shutdowns and trying to use debt ceiling increases to leverage concessions.

Up to now Democrats have made less extensive use of these techniques than Republicans. That is presumably partly because they are more ideologically invested in the continued functioning of government than small-state conservatives are. But it must also surely be a factor that whilst Republican (primary) voters have come to see compromise as a betrayal, a majority of their Democrat counterparts still tell pollsters that they value it. A Trump presidency would likely negate both of those reasons.

Even assuming the Democrats are in a minority in Congress they can still do plenty to jam up the machinery of the Federal Government. The Republicans have shown them how to do it. And given the antipathy to Trump of many elected Republicans, he might also face resistance from his own party.

The resulting deadlocks might initially take a similar form to that seen during the Obama years, but things would be likely to escalate quickly because Trump is not like Obama.

Sullivan asks us to consider what would happen:

….if Trump’s policies are checked by other branches of government, how might he react? Just look at his response to the rules of the GOP nomination process. He’s not interested in rules. And he barely understands the Constitution. In one revealing moment earlier this year, when asked what he would do if the military refused to obey an illegal order to torture a prisoner, Trump simply insisted that the man would obey: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse, believe me.”

I do not actually believe that Trump’s demagogic instincts would be enough to allow him to become the authoritarian leader he would like to be. I formed that conclusion reading an excellent long form piece for the Guardian by Christopher de Bellaigue on how Erdogan has bent Turkey to his will. Doing so required a great deal of skill, patience and discipline on his part. A political novice like Trump would almost certainly lack these. His flamboyance may serve him well on the glorified reality show that is an election campaign. However, the fact that he has neither built a proper ground organisation for his presidential campaign, nor yet found a way to avoid rising to every provocation the Clinton campaign devises, indicates he is very unlikely to be able to do the bureaucratic work to turn a democracy of a 200 year vintage into a dictatorship.

But being unable to construct an authoritarian state does not mean he cannot demolish a constitutional one. The real danger of a Trump victory is that he would be the catalyst for the kind of stalemate that Linz pinpoints as being so often fatal for presidential democracies. Trump might not entrench himself as a despot but instead  create the conditions that allow someone else to become one. Much as how in Russia, the crafty Putin followed the shambolic Yeltsin. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which the government is gridlocked or potentially even shutdown, and a President Trump is using his gift for drama to inflame the resulting divisions to the point they turn into social unrest. We can assume that if such instability came to pass it would exact a high economic price too. In such conditions, an American people who are poorer, less secure and less trusting in their institutions might conceivably do what many other people have done in such situations and turn to an authoritarian ruler who offers a modicum of stability – at least in the short term.

It is hard to say where this strongman might come from. Linz’s research highlighted the military as a source. The American armed forces have strong norms against enlisted men intervening in politics. However, a retired figure might find that path easier to walk. Especially as America has been led by former generals before. If you are worried about this possibility then it is disturbing that in an era of declining trust in American institutions, just about the only one gaining trust is the military. However, I suspect the more likely situation is the one represented by Hungary’s Viktor Orban: a previously democratic politician making the shift to being an autocrat.

Do I think this would be the inevitable result of a Trump presidency? No I do not. Maybe Trump would be a better president than this campaign has suggested. Maybe the constitution’s checks and balances would kick in and he would be prevented from doing lasting damage. But there is no guarantee that they would, or if they do that they will work as they are supposed to. Like the white blood cells of someone suffering from an autoimmune disease they may start to destroy the very thing they are supposed to protect.

We should not mistake the longevity of America’s presidential democracy for its immortality. Linz’s research indicates that it is an anomaly sustained by a factor that no longer exists. It would be a mistake to assume its survival and folly to gamble it by making Trump president. Already a:

…quarter of Americans born since 1980 believe that democracy is a bad form of government, many more than did so 20 years ago.

That could be a disaster not only for the US but the world. For better or worse, for much of the world America personifies democracy. If it turns its back on it, then the post 2006 retreat of democracy could turn into a rout. A man who does not believe in freedom should not under any circumstances become leader of the free world.


When saying ‘not all men’ might actually be constructive


‘Not all men’ is one of those phrases that has become a shorthand for something wider. In this case it is the tendency of discussions of women’s experiences to be derailed by men wating them to be about their response to it:

…the people saying [‘not all men’] aren’t furthering the conversation, they’re sidetracking it. The discussion isn’t about the men who aren’t a problem….Instead of being defensive and distracting from the topic at hand, try staying quiet for a while and actually listening to what the thousands upon thousands of women discussing this are saying.

However, I do feel that with regards to the tape of Donald Trump more or less admitting to sexually assaulting women, it might help to get to the point rather than deflecting from it.

A key part of Trump and his surrogates attempts to justify these comments has been to essentially say ‘he’s a guy. What did you expect?’

Trump himself characterised it as ‘locker room talk‘. One of his sons said it was “what happens when alpha personalities are in the same presence.” And actor Scott Baio said “Ladies out there, this is what guys talk about when you’re not around. So if you’re offended by it, grow up. Okay?”

At which point it becomes a rather salient to note that ‘not all men’ say the kind of things Trump did or do the kind of things he described. The most eloquent itteration of this point came from American football Chris Kluwe, who wrote an open letter to Trump:

I was in an NFL locker room for eight years, the very definition of the macho, alpha male environment you’re so feebly trying to evoke to protect yourself, and not once did anyone approach your breathtaking depths of arrogant imbecility. Oh, sure, we had some dumb guys, and some guys I wouldn’t want to hang out with on any sort of regular basis, but we never had anyone say anything as foul and demeaning as you did on that tape, and, hell, I played a couple years with a guy who later turned out to be a serial rapist. Even he never talked like that.

We are not talking about the difficult stuff here. Clearly heterosexual men are going to notice how attractive or otherwise a woman is. Evolution has hardwired us to do that. And it is hard to stop that awareness subconsciously bleeding through into our decision making. Indeed, it is so hard that there’s a school of thought backed up by strong academic research that rather than trying to avoid it, we should design systems that negate the impact of the resulting prejudices. The archetypal example is having musicians audition behind a screen.

But what Trump is exhibiting isn’t the hard stuff. In the video, he says that he “can’t help” kissing beautiful women he sees but unless he has a psychiatric disorder he in fact can. Doing so requires a conscious decision on his part, as does recounting it later.

In his response to the video, Trump noted that he is not perfect. Well no one is. But plenty of men manage to imperfect without committing sexual assault. It’s not not something being a man compels you to do. Gender is not destiny. Being a man does not compel you to behave that way. The existence of men who don’t proves that. Trump had a choice and he made a terrible one.

Not all men attack women and then brag about it. If you do, that’s your fault and your gender is no excuse.

Face it Sanders fans: your guy is on the mat


I spent much of the early stages of the Democratic Primary blogging about how Sanders was a much less formidable opponent for Hilary Clinton than much of the media coverage suggested. I confidently predicted that he had basically no chance of winning the nomination and would be lucky to win anywhere other than than small states in New England with lots of white liberals.

As it turned out he has got lucky. He’s now bested Clinton in 9 states, the majority of them outside New England. Equally importantly, he’s expanded his base to include the low-income white voters who were resolute Clinton supporters in 2008. I clearly underestimated him and I think for that reason I stopped writing posts dismissing his chances.

But the time to begin again has arrived. I do this as a service to my Sanders supporting friends.* Every good result he achieves seems to send them rushing to Facebook to announce that this showed the momentum was with Sanders and that the only reason the media…sorry the corporate media…couldn’t see that his victory was a realistic prospect was their willful blindness. Are they really saying that he’s doomed when he’s winning Maine by a 30% margin or triumphing in big swing states like Michigan?

To which I reply: indeed I am. Far from the gaining momentum, he’s fallen behind and is running out of ground over which to make up the distance.

He may have won 9 states but Clinton has won 19. And while he has won in big states and won by big margins, he’s never won by a big margin in a big state. Clinton has done so repeatedly. Clinton’s lead amongst Texan delegates is almost three times larger than the total number of delegates from Maine. That means Clinton is currently is not only ahead, she’s ahead by a lot – like 300 delegates worth.

And because a chunk of states have voted already, things are actually worse for Sanders than you many would assume. He not only needs to start winning more delegates than Clinton, he needs win enough to erase the delegate lead she’s amassed in the states that have already voted. Vox’s Andrew Prokop sized up the mountain he has to climb thus:

Here’s how rough the math is for Sanders going forward: to win a majority in pledged delegates, he needs to win 58 percent of those remaining.

That might not sound so bad. But because all the Democratic contests allot their delegates proportionally, it’s actually punishingly difficult.

It means Sanders has to beat Clinton by around 58 percent to 42 percent pretty muchconstantly. And that’s just incredibly implausible given what’s happened so far, and especially given what’s happened tonight.

Even unexpected wins for Sanders in big states like California, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey — already unlikely — wouldn’t be enough. Sanders has to win those states by enormous margins.

And there are still a great deal of delegates left in states and territories with large nonwhite populations — states with demographics similar to those that have favored Clinton so far. These include Maryland, Arizona, New Mexico, and even Puerto Rico (which Clinton won in a blowout in 2008).

Which is not to say it’s impossible. Stranger things have happened. Like say Donald Trump being the Republican frontrunner. And even if Sanders doesn’t win, he will have palpably altered the terms of the debate within the Democratic Party. And given that his young supporters are likely to be voting for a long time to come, they may well reshape the party in his image.

But back here in the present, Sanders is  clearly not beating Clinton, nor is he gaining on her, his chances are fading fast.

I underestimated the man but I wasn’t wrong about him. Part of the reason I was so sure in my initial assessment was that I had a huge margin of error. Sanders could substantially outperform my expectations and still lose. That’s what we are seeing come to pass.


*What you don’t believe me? You dreadful cynic!

Make China great again!


Why Xi Jinping would vote for a president Trump

America’s political culture can be befuddling even for someone like me who hails from another English speaking democracy. Imagine how baffling it must seem to someone who’s reference point is China. A twitter account called the Relevant Organs, which parodies the Communist Party’s English language propoganda, had fun with this notion during one of the Republican debates. The fictional official running the account supposedly struggled to understand the proceedings:

One can only imagine what this official would have made of the ‘Orange defendant’ saying in an earlier debate that:

“The TPP is a horrible deal, It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It’s a deal that’s designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.”

The Trans Pacific Partnership, to give it its full name, is a free trade deal recently signed by the US and 11 other countries. Trump’s assertion was strange because as Senator Rand Paul promptly pointed out, China wasn’t one of those 11 countries and is unlikely ever to qualify to join. Indeed, and this is what would have made Trump’s point so confusing for Chinese viewer, the deal is supposed to exclude rather than include rather China. Believing that is not Chinese paranoia. When TPP was signed Bloomberg reported:

A 12-nation Pacific trade deal strengthens President Barack Obama’s hand in his strategic pivot toward Asia and challenges China to accept U.S.-backed rules for doing business. A trading bloc stretching from Chile to Japan, with the U.S. at the economic center, bolsters Obama’s effort to counter growing Chinese military and economic influence in the Pacific.

TPP’s failure – which would be assured if Trump ever became president – would actually be a big win for China both economically and geo-politically.

I point up this incident to highlight a major problem with Trump’s policy proposals. He presents them as a sign of his toughness and his determination that America should ‘win’. Yet they’d almost certainly weaken America’s position.

To see why place yourself in the position of a Chinese observer of America considerably more sophisticated than our fictional debate watching official: Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Foreign policy is important to you. Once upon a time, the rule of the Party was legitimised by Maoist ideology but you gave up on that decades ago; then it was the astonishing improvements in living standards the people were seeing and for which the Party took credit but now those seem to be tapering off; so now he will be hoping that nationalism might do the job. If you can show them the Party has – to coin a phrase – ‘made China great again’ then they’ll feel good about that and won’t start asking for any pesky democracy.

You’re well on its way to achieving that objective. Gone are the days of Western powers waging wars to make the Chinese buy opium or of Japanese soldiers marauding round the country commiting every human rights abuse imaginable. And in the near future – recent troubles notwithstanding – China should become the world’s largest economy  and that will eventually pay for the most powerful military.

Nonetheless, you still worry about the US. Not that you have anything against the place; your daughter went to Harvard! But history has taught you not to trust them. All the way back to the 19th century despite their anti-imperial rhetoric they followed the lead of the European nations and took part in the exploitative unequal treaties. They’ve been arming the rebel holdouts in Taiwan for decades. And moves like TPP give you every indication that they intend to continue undermining your country for a while longer.

Given the shifting balance of power, you know they can no longer achieve that alone. They need the co-operation of your neighbours. Unfortunately, they have a lot of scope to do that. Despite all that spending on Confucius Institutes, most people in the world still have more admiration and trust for American liberalism than Chinese autocracy. That’s especially true of your neighbours who regard you as an overbearing bully. So what you really need is an undiplomatic oaf to come along and torpedo America’s relations with these potential allies. Well cometh the hour, cometh the man!

The aforementioned oaf is not an unknown quantity in the People’s Republic. He was an executive producer for a Chinese version of the Apprentice and the original American version has fans in China. And his books have been translated into Chinese. And in a country with such a rapidly growing economy entrepreneurs are a revered group. To quote one of Xi’s most important predecessors: “to get rich is glorious“.

Nonetheless, Xi Jinping is unlikely to be impressed by Trump. His boorish sexism and racism probably won’t bother Xi as much as it does most westerners; despite the CCP’s supposed commitment to equality and brotherhood, the niceties of political correctness have never really caught on in China. Still even for the head of a regime that regularly equates Islam and terrorism, banning all Muslims will seem a bit much. But what will be really shocking to someone like Xi is that an individual without a background in public administration might be considered a fit person to be president. The Chinese system, in theory at least, is a meritocracy that owes more to Confucianism than communism. Entrance to the civil service is by competitive exam and promotion is – in theory at least -based on performance. In order to be allowed to run a big city you must first prove yourself running a small one. Hence in order to reach a position like Xi’s you need to have a great deal of experience. The possibility that a newcomer with a flair for showmanship could be made president just he gets the most votes, confirms all your prejudices about democracy.

And Xi can already see the mistakes Trump is likely to make. The rejection of TPP would undermine US credibility with regards to the territorial disputes over the South China Sea. All of the countries that claim islands within that space – Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia – were signatories to TPP. If Washington proves unreliable on trade, then why would these countries expect it to back them up militarily? Without a superpower in their corner they are going to be much less assertive in challenging Beijing, which would conversely then feel able to be more assertive. It might well begin building more artificial islands and deploy larger forces to the islands it already has. The US would then be faced with a China able to lock them out of the South China Sea altogether, which is precisely what American policy up to this point has been geared towards avoiding.

That turn of events would certainly perturb Tokyo and Seoul. However, what would really concern them are the noises Trump is making about America’s treaty commitments to defend their countries. Essentially, Trump wants them to contribute to the cost of keeping American forces in the region – which they already do – and to have a reciprocal requirement to defend the US. Now given his self-image as the master deal maker, he would contend that he’d make Japan and Korea agree to his demands. But there are practical difficulties he may not be able to bluster past. There are lobbies in both countries that dislike the presense of American soldiers and would make it hard for their governments to make concessions. And Japan’s pacifist constitution – which was written by the US – would make things complicated. And even if Trump could bring this shift about, Japan and Korea would be left smarting and resentful and less likely to co-operate on other matters.

Even on the other side of Asia, Trump would likely push countries towards China. He subscribes to the conventional Republic stance on Iran: that he would back out of the nuclear deal. That would suit China fine. If it is the US turns its back on a perfectly viable deal then China will feel no need to reimpose sanctions. That will allow it to form trade links with Iran and thereby gain second hand influence in the Middle East.


Trump might well respond that this wouldn’t matter because as president he would put China in its place and leave these allies and potential allies with nowhere to turn but the US. The meat of this appears to be his intention to slap tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the US in retaliation for China’s manipulation of its currency. Essentially what Trump and others allege is that China has artificially lowered the value of the Renminbi to make its exports cheaper than they otherwise would be. There are a number of problems with this. For starters, it’s not true. China has been actively trying to stop the Renminbi depreciating and its one of the few currencies of emerging markets not to have fallen in value recently. And tariffs are a weapon that launches backwards as well as forward. Slapping them on Chinese goods would hurt American consumers as well as Chinese producers. Indeed, while reducing Chinese exports to the US would have a negative impact on firms that exports it wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster for their economy overall. One of its major problems, which Xi appears to be trying to rectify, is that the economy relies too heavily on selling goods abroad rather than at home. American tariffs that depressed exports might actually help achieve this objective. So what Trump is proposing is essentially to threaten Beijing into stopping something it’s not doing in the first place with a policy which if enacted would cause more harm to the US than China. And by utilising that weapon to combat a phantom threat, he does not have it available to retaliate against say a cyberattack.

Trump’s misreading of the situation vis a vis America’s relationship with China arises from two fundamental problems. Both of them can be gleamed in his claim that:

America doesn’t win anymore… nothing works in our country. If I am elected president we will win again.


Such a sweeping claim is unlikely to right in all circumstances and buying into it will obscure the cases where it isn’t. Clearly there are aspects of US foreign policy in Asia that aren’t working. For example, North Korea is resolutely not being denuclearised, quite the opposite in fact. But plenty of what the US is doing to maintain a geopolitical balance with China seems to be working. In particular, it does seem to be preserving and expanding its network of allies in the region. Consider the following for evidence of this:

Screenshot (10)

That’s not enough to stop a shift in power from the US to China but remember that power is a relative concept. America can lose it not through its own failure but as a result of the success of others. Indeed, it would be surprising if China did not become more powerful in the wake of shirking off the self-imposed handicap of a centrally planned economy. Washington can find better or worse ways to deal with China’s rise but that ascent does not necessarily indicate that American policy isn’t working.

Among the worst ways of dealing with the situation would be to alienate allies. Trump’s focus on relentless ‘winning’ seems misplaced with regards to geopolitics. Is it desirable to ‘defeat’ your friends? If President Trump was to make losers out of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philipines, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and even Iran that wouldn’t make America the winner. The beneficiary would be China. Rather than facing a co-ordinated effort to prevent it asserting it dominating its neighbours, it would face a variety of actors none of whom would be strong enough to challenge it and many of whom would doubt it was worth it anymore. That would substantially increase China’s options and reduce America’s. So if Xi Jinping had a vote in the Republican primaries, he’d probably cast it for Trump.


Caveat: The post above has taken it as an axiomatic that the US should see China’s rise as a threat and seek to counter it. There’s a real debate to be had about that. Nonetheless, Trump seems to percieve China as a menace and I have chosen to critique his proposals on their own terms.

Counsel for Dr Kissinger

A review of Kissinger (1923-1968): The Idealist by Niall Ferguson


I am willing to venture that you couldn’t tell me much about Lawrence Eagleburger, Edmund Muskie or Warren Christopher. I didn’t know who they were till I looked them up on Wikipedia. Yet they have all been America’s Secretary of State more recently than Henry Kissinger. Who you probably know a fair amount about and have a strong opinion on.

It’s striking that a man who has not held a significant public office for nearly 40 years remains so politically potent. In last night’s debate between the Democrat candidates for president, Bernie Sanders charged that:

[Clinton] talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger. Now I find it kind of amazing: Because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.

I’m proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.

I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, when the united States bombed that country, over — through Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in who then butchered some 3 million innocent people – One of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.

Of course this argument is really about foreign policy in the present rather than in the 1970s. But even if Kissinger is serving as a symbol, he’s a remarkably strong one.

It would be an understatement to say that their are divergent views regarding him. He is praised by many as a kind of a diplomatic genius and branded a criminal by others. The title of Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger is not meant entirely metaphorically: he really was hoping that it would lead to Kissinger’s prosecution.

If Hitchens presented a bill of indictment, then Niall Ferguson is providing the defence. This biographer clearly likes his subject. He reveals in the preface that he knew Kissinger socially before becoming his biographer and seems to identify with his subject. There’s also, dare I say it, a whiff of wishful thinking to Ferguson writing about how a Harvard historian with conservative political views and a taste for the public eye goes on to become a major figure in global politics.


That identification does have its problems. Ferguson often presents Kissinger’s account as rebutting some point made against him by a contemporary, without giving a good rationale why Kissinger is the more reliable witness. To be fair, Fergusson only really does this when it comes to personal matters or office politics. He’s more rigorous when it comes to affairs of state. Nonetheless, it still creates an air of deference, that borders on cloying.

The flip side is that because Ferguson likes Kissinger as a person, he readily finds the human behind the media image. The early sections on how Kissinger and his family were forced to flee the Nazis and make a new life in the US are genuinely moving. And his service as a military intelligence officer in Belgium and Germany is an effective window into quite how messed up the middle decades of the Twentieth Century were. He was part of the force that liberated a concentration camp and Ferguson ably conveys what a horrifying experience this was – especially for someone who could potentially have found himself in one.

Humanising Kissinger serves to rebut not just the allegations of those on the left but also the backhanded complements of the right. When it comes to Kissinger, hagiographies share a remarkable number of premises with critiques. Both tend to take it as a given that he was a calculating machine weighing up what was in America’s interest without concern for niceties like international law, political freedom and human life. They both make him into the exemplar of a particularly ruthless kind of realism.

Ferguson contends – somewhat convincingly – that Kissinger is actually an ‘idealist’. The Idealist lays to rest the common assumption that Machiavelli was one of Kissinger’s intellectual influences. In fact, he seems to have been unusually disinterested in the Florentine. Instead, he wrote his undergraduate dissertation – which was so long it was directly responsible for Harvard introducing word limits on such documents – on Kant: the theorist of perpetual peace. Nor does it appear that Kissinger felt any special affinity with Bismarck or Metternich. He wrote a book on the later figure but that was supposed to be the first in a series that was never completed. And Ferguson notes that time and again, Kissinger’s explanations of diplomacy privilege explanations based around ideas over those rooted in material factors like economics.


But ‘idealism’ and ‘realism’ have a different meanings when used by an academic historian than they do in general political discussion. If this period of history demonstrates anything it’s that the most ruthless people are often those in pursuit of grand ideas. And so it is with Kissinger. His earliest forays into public service see him clash with the Kennedys over West Berlin. He wants to take a tough line, they opt for conciliation. His position is certainly grounded in principle: West Berlin has a right to self-determination and if it proves necessary force should be used to defend it. But it requires a great deal of cold and calculated determination to place the application of this ideal to half a city above the desire to protect the whole world from nuclear incineration. JFK’s compromise in the face of this possibility was not only more pragmatic, it seems a more human response to such a terrifying possibility.

This tension is only likely to become more acute in the 2nd volume of this biography. That will include Kissinger’s time as the architect of Nixon’s foreign policy and if Ferguson wishes to continue praising rather burying Kissinger then there’s a lot he will need to explain. In the Idealist, Ferguson claims that by 1968 Kissinger had already decided the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. Why then did the administration he was part of fight it for another 5 years? And most problematically he will have to contend with the accusation made by Sanders and many others: that the teenager who saw first hand Europe’s Holocaust first hand would decades later precipitate a genocide in Cambodia.

So New Hampshire was interesting!


Here are my immediate reactions to both the Democratic and Republican side. I’m writing this on my phone so apologises for any problems with spelling and grammar.

Sanders’ position regarding the results of the New Hampshire primary was a lot like mine waiting for my A-level results.* I knew I wanted to apply to Oxford, so I needed 3 As. This was before the A* was introduced. So there was no way for me to overachieve. I could either get what I needed or I could fall short.

With a 20% win Bernie got what he needed from New Hampshire. He needs to be wracking up big wins in the handful of states full of the white liberals that make up his base. Not doing so would have been a disaster, so he can be grateful to have avoided that. But is it really a positive indication for his chances of becoming nominee? Not really. For example, in 2008 Clinton leveraged her support amongst white blue collar democrats to crush Obama by more than 2 to 1 in West Virginia. He still won because his lead with demographics underrepresented in West Virginia allowed him to surpass her nationally.

To demonstrate he is not playing Clinton to Clinton’s Obama, he will need to perform credibly in Nevada and South Carolina.

You would not expect Norwegian or Farsi to have all that much in common. However, both use the word ‘Texas’ to mean crazy. As in ‘it was when the gatecrashers turned up that the party went all Texas’. Norwegians and Iranians observing the Republican race are, therefore, likely to be commenting that it’s ‘completely Texas’.

After Trump underperformed his poll ratings in Iowa, it seemed that a chunk of his support existed only in polls. Indeed many had long assumed this was the case. His decisive win in New Hampshire confirms that in fact, at least in primary states his voters will turn up. In short, this Trump thing is really happening.

Trump is of course a force for chaos all by  himself. But the candidates supposed to represent order within the GOP are themselves in a mess. New Hampshire had looked like being the point where Rubio emerged as the sole standard bearer for the ‘establishment’. Instead he seems to be languishing not only behind Trump, Kasich and Cruz but also the guy begging his audiences to clap.

Despite this I still feel that Rubio is the only candidate who is acceptable to Republican primary voters, party elites and the broader American public. So in my judgement he remains the candidate best placed to become the establishment standard bearer. The question is if that happens fast enough to prevent the race coalescing into a fight between Trump and Cruz from which other participants are squeezed out.

In any event this isn’t going to be boring for a while.

For the benefit of non-Brits: A-levels are the exam you sit in your final year of Uni and on the basis of which you apply to universities.

My Iowa caucus predictions


I have two.

Firstly, the press will overreact to the result on the Democratic side. The indications are that Clinton will either be run close by Sanders or even be defeated by him. If that happens expect journalists and pundits to start talking as if that indicates she is in real danger of not winning the nomination.

In reality, anything less than a crushing victory for Sanders is a strong indicator that he won’t be triumphant. As the chart below – which I’ve stolen from FiveThirtyEight – shows that Iowa is prime Sanders territory. There are only two states that have more of the white liberals that constitute his base: his home state of Vermont and the next event in the primary calendar New Hampshire.


After Iowa and New Hampshire, he will then have to compete in the much less favourable territory. If he does well in Nevada or South Carolina then that would be significant. Sanders doing well in a state tailor made for him to do well in would not be.

On the Republican side, my prediction is that whatever the outcome in Iowa the race will remain turbulent.

If Rubio were to win or come close in a state where ‘anti-establishment’ candidates like Trump, Cruz and Carson have dominated the polls, that would set him up with a clear path to the nomination. But that possibility seems remote.

If either Trump or Cruz can win decisively then they may be able to put an effective halt to the other’s bid. But the ‘establishment’ candidates already expect to do badly in Iowa and won’t be in any hurry to begin rallying behind a candidate they think will take the party to electoral disaster. I would therefore expect at least one of them to go on fighting even if they appear to be losing badly.

I therefore predict that come Tuesday the Democrat contest will look more exciting than it really is, while both the perception and the actuality of the Republican race will be of a brutal fight with plenty of time still on the clock.


Bernie Sanders: he’s not the messiah, he’s a very muddled guy


Bernie Sanders has the aspect of an old testament prophet. Most politicians make great play of showing that they have a life outside politics. But Sanders’s furious insistence that the nation has become corrupt and must amend its ways is largely unleavened by such frivolities.  The messenger is the message and he apparently intends that it be taken most earnestly, for if he is not heeded pestilence awaits.

The response from the Clinton campaign is essentially that Sanders is a false prophet. They’ve taken his dramatic sounding proposals and begun to unpick them. Suggesting, for example, that his plan to break up the big banks neglects issues like shadow banking.

Their scepticism is lent support by a report from Kenneth Thorpe, an economist at Emory University. As Dylan Matthews reports for Vox, Thorpe advocates the US introducing a single payer healthcare system. That would mean Americans paying for their healthcare through taxes rather than insurance premiums. His preference for such a system is in part due to the fact he believes it would be much cheaper than the current mixed system.

Bernie Sanders also supports a single payer system and argues it would save America a substantial amount. Yet Thorpe appears sceptical about this proposal. He has released a paper suggesting that Sanders has overstated the savings he can find by $1.1 trillion.

That’s politically significant because while a single payer system might be expected to reduce total healthcare spending, it nonetheless requires an increase in government spending. That spending has to be paid for through extra taxes. So if someone says Sanders is overestimating the savings of a single payer system by $1.1 trillion, then by extension they are also saying he is underestimating the tax rises he’d need to introduce $1.1 trillion.

The efforts to introduce such a system in Sanders’ home state of Vermont floundered on the political infeasibility of raising taxes enough to make it work. Thorpe’s report indicates that Sanders has yet to find a way to avoid the recurrence of this problem.

Now at this point you might be wondering who to believe Sanders or Thorpe? Let me answer that question with a quote from Matthews’ reporting:

Sanders assumes $324 billion more per year in prescription drug savings than Thorpe does. Thorpe argues that this is wildly implausible. “In 2014 private health plans paid a TOTAL of $132 billion on prescription drugs and nationally we spent $305 billion,” he writes in an email. “With their savings drug spending nationally would be negative.” (Emphasis mine.) The Sanders camp revised the number down to $241 billion when I pointed this out.

That reflects terribly on Sanders’ team and their policy making. It’s hard to decide what is worse:

a) that they included an assumption that’s arithmetically impossible. It’s like an individual budgeting to save $324 a year by cancelling a gym membership that only cost $241.


b) that by their own implicit admission they  were wrong by an amount that was – at least – the equivalent of the GDP of Belarus.


c) that the budgeting for a central policy proposal was so flimsy that they are making corrections amounting to tens of billions of dollars because of a single email from a journalist.

Now there’s nothing wrong per se with amending policies. For example, Barack Obama opposed an individual mandate during the 2008 primary but then included one in Obamacare. Apparently the negative response to his plans from experts convinced him to change stance. But what Sanders is doing is rather different. Most obviously, it’s amateurish. More important, however, is that it’s not so easily rectified. Obama’s path was clear: include an individual mandate in the law after all. Sanders by contrast would a large amount of additional tax revenue in addition to plans that are already .

I submit that this is a telling error, which points to a broader problem with Sanders’ candidacy.

He is asking Democrats to believe that American voters who generally punish parties for choosing a candidate far from the mainstream, will this time reward them with such enthusiasm that it will trigger a “political revolution”. And that he will then achieve radical change within a system of government specifically designed to prevent it. This is not implausible in the way the US having negative spending on medicine is. Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary claim demanding extraordinary evidence.

An appropriately compelling case has not been forthcoming. His strategy seems to be predicated on winning back low income white voters, the Democrats haven’t actually lostIt also seems to wish away the high probability that Republicans will retain control of the House and therefore be able to sink his legislative as they have Obama’s. Nor does his single minded focus on income inequality seem well suited to an election where voters appear less concerned about economic security than the regular kind of security.

Perhaps he would be better off running for Governor of Vermont rather than President. In the laboratory of America’s most liberal he might be able to concrete results that other states and the Federal government could replicate. But the prophet Bernie wants to be America’s saviour rather its John the Baptist. He would need to perform miracles to fulfil his chosen role and he’s not shown that he can. Therefore, the appropriate response is doubt rather than faith.