Thursday, 25 February 2016

Donald Trump As President? Not Very Likely.

Donald Trump makes wonderful headlines as he trashes the Republican party primaries in the United States. He says he’s angry at everyone and doesn’t care who gets offended by his tirades. To hell with policies, it’s show time! Despite the reality TV theatrics, however, his path to a general election victory in November is as difficult as climbing Mount Everest in flip-flops.

Very, very long odds of him becoming president
History and the numbers are against him. First the history. Americans have never, ever elected an extremist of the left or right as president. Ignoramuses, fools, crooks yes. Some of them have managed to find their way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But candidates representing only fringe elements, no. Strom Thurmond in 1948, Henry Wallace in 1948, Barry Goldwater in 1964, George Wallace in 1968, Ralph Nader in several campaigns, and Ross Perot in 1992. Goldwater helped dig his own grave in 1964 by famously declaring “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” The Democrats had a field day with that statement, forcing Goldwater onto his back foot for the entire campaign by making extremism sound like a very dangerous word. The famous Daisy ad complete with an atomic explosion highlighted the campaign against extremism. In that election the American voters showed what they thought of extremism by electing Goldwater’s opponent, Lyndon Johnson, in a land slide.

People are angry now. But believe me they were even angrier in 1968 when the twin assassinations (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King), Vietnam, the Weathermen, Black Panthers, Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, riots in Paris that ultimately forced Charles de Gaulle from power were threatening to tear societies apart. In that American election year George Wallace, former governor of Alabama, ran a fiery campaign appealing to much of the same demographics as Donald Trump – angry white men who felt left behind by the march of minorities and the so-called ‘Big Government’. Wallace wound up getting 13% of the popular vote and 45 electoral votes. Richard Nixon, who had been around for ever as a right wing California congressman, vice president, failed presidential candidate, wound up getting elected.
George Wallace was angry in 1968
 The numbers are also stacked against a Trump presidency. A candidate has to win 270 of 535 electoral votes to become president. In theory the electoral college serves to protect the interests of smaller states. It is possible, but difficult, to lose the popular vote, as George W. Bush did in 2000, and still win. Each state is awarded two electoral votes representing the equal number of senators each state has. The rest of a state’s electoral votes are apportioned according to the number of congressmen it has in the House of Representatives. The District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) was given three electoral votes. All but two states have a first-past-the-post system whereby a candidate who wins the popular vote in a given state wins all that state’s electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine use proportional representation.
2012 electoral map shows the difficult road for a Trump candidacy

Despite the efforts to keep small states in the game, the system clearly favors large states. California, for example has 55 electoral votes, one for each of its 53 members of the House of Representatives and two for its two senators. My home state of Vermont, on the other hand, gets only three electoral votes because we have but one congressman and two senators. This puts Vermont on a par with the likes of Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Delaware. You can see why candidates don’t spend a lot of time campaigning in those states.

The problem for Trump and other screamers from either side is that the big states tend to vote for main line candidates. Right now these states with the exception of Texas, tend to vote Democratic. Even states that were solidly Republican like Virginia and North Carolina are turning from solid red to purple.  That means any Democratic candidate starts with the huge advantage of California plus most, if not, all of the heavily populated Northeast, and key Midwest states like Michigan and Illinois. It is also extremely difficult to see any of the current Republican candidates winning Oregon or Washington state. By my count this gives any Democratic candidate almost 200 electoral votes of the required 270 before the counting has even begun. Obviously, some Republicans have broken this strong hold, but only by appealing to the broad center of the electorate. And there is not a Republican in sight who appeals to this key group – represented by what I call the extremely sensible and smart ‘Ohio soccer mom.’ She may well vote Republican from time to time, but there is no way in hell she will cast a vote for either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

So sit back, enjoy the theater as Trump flails around the country destroying the traditional Republican party. But he might want to hold off on his plans to re-decorate the White House. In this environment, it is easy to understand why former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is considering a run. While the odds are strongly against him, he is the only one of Hillary Clinton's potential opponents who has even a slim chance of blocking her trip to White House.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Try Something Different. Go North -- Very Far North -- For A Winter Break.

Forget the Caribbean! For a real break from the urban winter blues of damp cold, slush, and a transport system that fails with the merest hint of a snow flake do something completely different. Head even further north, above the Arctic Circle. 

OK, I have to admit that my wife’s initial enthusiasm for a trip to northern Norway in February was a bit muted – especially as we had been talking about Florence. But she began to warm to the idea – as it were -  after studying the attractions of Oslo and learning that Tromso –north of the Arctic Circle – offered more than igloos and dog sleds.

Oslo turned out to a real treat - full of great museums like the Viking ship museum, good restaurants, good public transportation, and a stunning opera house where we went to see the ballet Giselle. Ticket prices were moderate, and the opera house is intelligently organized for a relaxed meal before the performance. Furthermore, the temperature in Oslo was not bad at all – nowhere near as cold as my home town in New England where the thermostat dropped to -20◦C. I know it’s a cliché, but everyone we encountered in Norway spoke beautiful English. That’s useful because nothing you studied in school even remotely resembles Norwegian. Maybe the Swedes and Danes can understand it, but I seriously doubt that anyone else will have a clue what they’re talking about.
Royal palace in Oslo
The Gokstad ship in the Viking Ship Museum
The Oslo opera house

The 1 ½ hour flight from Oslo to Tromso, a small city at 69◦N latitude on an island in one of Norway’s innumerable fiords, was uneventful. However, as we descended over frozen, snow covered mountains and a frigid fiord instead of the graceful domes and Arno River of the long-promised Florence my wife’s face took on a certain ‘You owe me – big time’ expression. However, things began to look up as soon as we landed.
"This doesn't look like Florence!"
The first surprise after a short bus trip from the airport to our hotel was the number of tourists – including large groups of Chinese -- in town. Locals said that tourism was up at least 50% this year and they were having trouble finding staff to deal with the crush of visitors. When you consider that Norway has a population of only five million people – less than half the population of the city of Istanbul alone – it is not surprising that much of the staff in hotels and restaurants comes from nearby Sweden. Maybe tourists have decided to forgo the ‘charms’ of the current political climate in the Mediterranean region and flock to a place where the most frightening event might be a couple of reindeer ambling down the street.

In addition to tourism, Tromso’s economy benefits from the presence of a university, a polar research center, and good fishing throughout the surrounding fiords. Tromso also has become somewhat of a conference center. Several of the hotels were hosting conferences of companies and non-profit groups from all over Norway. While the conference attractions may not rival Las Vegas, there is plenty for the attendees to do outside the meetings.

 Like Oslo, this surprisingly sophisticated arctic town has very good restaurants, fascinating museums, and at least one good modern art gallery. As you might imagine the restaurants feature a lot of fish – cod in all possible permutations, haddock, halibut, multiple varieties of herring, and enormous crabs. Meat is mostly local lamb and reindeer. Decent wine lists are supplemented with good whiskeys from relatively nearby Scotland.

Daytime activities include whale-watching, snow mobile journeys, cross-country skiing, dog sleds, visiting the native Sami people and feeding reindeer, or hiring a car to see the dramatic scenery that dominates the region. During the night you can also choose to drive to a distant base camp where the Northern Lights are more visible. This requires a bit of patience because the lights seldom appear before 10:30 – 11 pm.
The Sami reindeer herders
Mariella opted for feeding the reindeer, meeting the Sami, and sampling some of their reindeer stew. I chose the more sedentary whale watching, and after a couple of hours of a beautiful boat trip along the fiords we arrived near the picturesque island of Sommaroy where numerous humpback and fin whales were lazily searching for food. Occasionally they would reward us with a flourish of their huge tails and dive beneath the surface. Other times I was conscious of being in a fairly small boat as they circled us sometimes blowing geysers high into the frozen air.
Whale diving for food near Sommaroy
Northern Lights brighten the night sky
On the way back to Tromso we passed a Norwegian submarine slipping out to sea, and I was reminded of the life-and-death struggles on these icy waters during World War II as allied convoys struggled to bring vital supplies around the northern tip of Norway to beleaguered Russian ports. As if the natural elements of violent storms, wild seas and ice weren’t bad enough the convoys faced constant threats of German U-boat attacks and bombers flying from fields in occupied Norway. Standing on the slippery deck of our small boat early in February even in the calm water of the fiord, it didn’t take a great deal of imagination to appreciate the bravery and endurance of the mariners who made that perilous trip.
Ice forming on WW II convoys around northern Norway
The austere beauty of the arctic may not initially appeal to everyone whose idea of a winter holiday is a Caribbean beach and drinks with umbrellas. But those willing to leave flip-flops and bikinis at home and venture north of the 66th parallel will – to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein – find that there is a there there, some place special, some place you won’t quickly forget as soon as the plane brings you home.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

One Day, What Goes Around Comes Around -- Even In Turkey

Turkey seems to be sleep walking into one of the most important political decisions in the history of the republic, almost as if the country has had a national lobotomy.  President Tayyip Erdoğan and his henchmen are pressing hard to change the constitution in such a way that the president will have almost unfettered powers, but the debate is strangely muted.

            It would be one thing if Erdoğan had guided Turkey from success to success and the country was now claiming its rightful place at the high table of stable, democratic, economically sound countries of the world. But it is not. It remains far down below the salt. His list of failures is extensive:

1.     Economy – once the envy of the emerging world. Now struggling with rising inflation, rising unemployment, decreasing exports, and very limited foreign investment. The only good news is that the collapse of the price of oil has narrowed Turkey’s current account deficit.
2.     Foreign policy – how to turn ‘zero problems’ into ‘zero friends’ in 10 easy steps. It is now a real challenge to name even two countries that consider themselves close friends of Turkey --- and Kyrgyzstan doesn’t count. Turkey’s so-called Red Lines in Syria seem to be quickly fading to light pink as the realities of major power involvement become clear – realities that pretty much ignore Turkey.
3.      Domestic peace – never in recent history has Turkish society been more dangerously polarized. The so-called Peace Process with the Kurds has turned into open warfare. The split between fanatic, thuggish Erdoğan supporters and the rest of society has become increasingly violent.

If this is what he can accomplish with limited powers just think what he can do with unlimited  power. Surely the people can recognize the danger signs on the road to autocratic power. Wrong. Erdoğan’s almost complete suppression of the media -- jailing obstreperous journalists or intimidating hapless owners -- means that any opposing views are drowned at birth or classified as the lunatic rantings of disloyal segments of society under the perfidious influence of unnamed foreign powers. A deep freeze has descended on Turkey’s once vibrant, if not always accurate, media. Worst of all, it has become boring to read and watch the same nonsense day in and day out. Maybe that’s Erdoğan’s goal – bore everyone to sleep and then pass critical legislation without a murmur.

            Obviously this has worked with Turkey’s feeble opposition. While Erdoğan dominates the daily news with fervent statements about the supposed benefits of a new constitution the opposition sits on its hands. An outside observer is not quite sure if he’s watching a key national debate or a re-run of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

            So far I have not heard or seen one single person defending the current parliamentary system. All they can do is protest that Erdoğan is becoming dictatorial. Not a startling or original claim!  Merely focusing on the man’s hunger for more power will never generate enough votes to defeat the coming constitutional referendum. This strategy of focusing on the negative has failed time and time again to dent his voter base, yet no one seems to have accepted this rather basic reality.

            It would be nice to see the opposition start making the positive case for the current parliamentary system – namely that the long suffering people are better represented with a parliament than with the narrow views and prejudices of one person. If the opposition really believes in the value of a broad-based parliamentary system why don’t they duplicate some of Erdoğan’s tactics and stage as many rallies as he does? They could, if they have the energy, explain loudly why the people are better off with a parliament. They may still lose, but surely losing with a fight is far better than waiting passively in the middle of road for the truck to run over you. It’s also a waste of time hoping that former founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who split with Erdoğan will ride to the rescue. People like Bulent Arinç or former president Abdullah Gül may disagree with Erdoğan, but they have no stomach for a public fight or for creating a new party based on disgruntled former AKP members. 

            On the other hand, Erdoğan should be careful what he wishes for. He may well get his new sultanate, and he may well turn the country into something found in the pages of George Orwell's 1984 or Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. This will work for him, but I’m not sure about the rest of the Turkish population.

            But what happens when one day someone with strongly opposing views takes over? That new president, and there will be new presidents some day, could easily use the same powers to undo everything that Erdoğan has done. One need look no further than the late unlamented Soviet Union to see how fast policies can change with new leaders. Ottoman history itself is filled with fluctuating domestic and foreign policies of different leaders. If he’s not careful Erdoğan will go down in history as the man who created and then destroyed the AKP movement.