Monday, 25 January 2021

Donald Trump Is Merely The Symptom Of Serious Underlying Issues In America

 From time to time this blog invites contributions from readers who often bring a fresh approach to the issues we discuss. Peter E. Gumpel is an American management consultant and lawyer who has been based in Vienna for several years. Here he encourages us to focus more on the underlying problems that created Donald Trump rather than on the behavior of the man himself.


I always expected that Donald Trump would have the character arc (to use screenplay terminology) of a Greek tragedy, reaching for the utmost heights and then flaming out to utter ignominy, both by reason of his own hubris and helped by the opponents who wanted him to fail from the start. But I hadn’t expected that the tragedy would turn into farce – with the U.S. Congress being invaded by a mob of hooligans looking straight out of the Star Wars stage set or a gay Halloween gala.

Upfront I should make the obligatory disclaimer that I didn't vote for Mr. Trump, given his tubthumping against Mexicans and Muslims and lack of qualifications for the job, remembering him from the 1980s New York media scene and having flown on the Trump Shuttle. 

On the other hand, it is important to understand why many Americans - not necessarily "deplorable" - voted for him. They were not sharing in the expanding national wealth, their children or brothers or sisters were being sent to fight in never-ending wars, and the powers that be"  were demonstrably not serving the people's interest but rather those of their donors.

Indeed, many people who put their faith in Trump were acting on similar motivations to those who had voted for Obama - looking for "hope and change" and a different direction for the country - including voters disappointed by Obama for having followed much of the same policies as the G.W. Bush administration, not only in foreign policy but also domestically.  Trump didn't actually help these people much, but as a skillful populist he had a visceral understanding of their desires and gave them hope.

In many ways Trump can be regarded as a symptom of those underlying problems rather than the problem itself. If the Biden Administration simply restores the ancien régime without trying to solve those underlying issues issues facing the broad American population a new and more virulent Trump could emerge in several years.

This includes addressing the wealth disparities that have been reaching almost Ancient Egyptian proportions, mainly by reason of the massive quantitative easing and loose monetary policy under Jerome Powell (and earlier Janet Yellen), which are boosting asset prices (stocks, real estate) to stratospheric heights, combined with the Covid relief programs which are funneling huge sums to the largest corporations while handing out chump change to the broad population, at the same time as small businesses are being forced to shut down.

Two of the main problems are, of course, the inordinately expensive medical and higher education systems, which have spiraled out of control in the last decades.  For young people starting out today, entering the workforce saddled with student debt, not being able to buy a house and start a family, the situation is especially tough – no longer is the young generation expecting to be more successful than the prior one.

The two solutions are either on the right - going back to the purer market economy of the Herbert Hoover era - or on the left - adopting social support systems as in Europe. The latter appears more feasible as no one wants to lose entitlements. Indeed, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck – certainly no left-winger - realized already 150 years ago that such programs can be essential to preserve social cohesion. But, unfortunately, it doesn't look like today’s mainstream Democrats or Republicans have the will to tackle – let alone solve -- these problems. They would much rather take political pot-shots at each other rather than do some real work.

One of these urgent national issues is the increasing power of Big Tech, which has just proved it can even shut down an American president, albeit an unpopular one in his last days, with attendant risks to free speech and democracy. Not content to hoover up virtually all private data of citizens, who insouciantly permit this to happen, Big Tech is setting itself up as the final inquisitor and arbiter of “truth” and permitted speech.  Controlling Big Tech will be a Herculean task and needs someone with the forceful personality and trust-busting inclinations of a Theodore Roosevelt.

After the fall of the populist disrupter Napoleon Bonaparte and restoration of the French ancien régime in 1815, the Bourbons were accused of “learning nothing and forgetting nothing,” putting the old bureaucrats back in charge while not addressing the root causes of the revolution that had overthrown them. It is imperative that the restored Biden team not fall into this trap but rather deal directly with the issues that created Trump in the first place. 

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Why Would Anyone Really Want This Job?


I had a terrible nightmare last night that I was going to be inaugurated president of the United States today.  My wife was terrified when I woke up screaming, ‘No, No, No. I demand a recount! There’s no way I could have won!’

            My breathing gradually returned to normal and I calmed down with the ‘nice cup of tea’ that my wife insists is the cure for everything – probably even Covid-19. ‘There, there. Don’t worry. You’re nowhere near Washington. That nice Mr. Biden is set to take the oath of office.’

Now he will take the oath as President, not VP

            ‘What did he do to deserve this,’ I ask. ‘It’s the worst job in the world. There he was in comfortable retirement - minding his own business, making a few speeches, playing with the grandchildren. Probably asking himself exactly who the hell it was that suggested he run for president in the first place. Now look at the poor guy. He can’t even go out and get a decent hamburger without locking down half of Washington. God forbid he is ever seen happily licking the spoon after an ice cream Sundae with three scoops of vanilla ice cream, hot chocolate, whipped cream and bananas! The media from California to New York and beyond will be yelling about the bad example he is setting and how he should be happy with roasted lettuce leaves and quinoa. If I were him I would quickly make a deal with the White House chef to keep his mouth shut and leave the camera home. The chef could take Air Force 1 wherever he wants. Pretty soon Biden will probably want to  substitute Can’t Get No Satisfaction for Hail To The Chief.

Poor Biden. This is now likely to be forbidden fruit.

            Keep plenty of aspirin handy, Mr. President. The world and its mother keeps yelling at you about what you must do or should do. You absolutely must sign this piece of paper, that piece of paper or the world is going to go to hell. There’s very little in the job description about what you might actually want to do. Oh, and while you're not saving the world from multiple crises you must make time to meet groups like the peach farmers from Georgia – now a very important state with 16 key electoral votes. You can be sure that Mrs. Biden will guarantee that every White House breakfast, lunch and dinner is well stocked with peaches and peanuts. After all, Georgia is known as the Peach State and former President Jimmy Carter was peanut farmer there.

            Instead of tossing soft toys to the grandchildren now you have to deal with a snarling congress whose members threaten to derail everything your administration wants to accomplish unless you throw a few billion dollars into their favorite projects – like the hotly contested Miss Soybean contest. Sadly, it’s probably true that the right outcome for this contest has more vote potential than any public health, education or infrastructure program.

            In many ways the president has the ultimate Home Office. All he has to do is walk downstairs, and on top of that the internet probably works – once his grandchildren set it up. The downside is that everybody wants to crowd into that fairly small Oval Office and take up his time with this problem or that problem when all he really wants to do is put his feet up and catch a good film on Netflix.

At least the office is close to home

            And those are just the domestic aggravations. Most foreign leaders have your phone number on speed dial and seem to forget about time differences when they want to reach you. Or there can be a development in some far-off land that an official at the State Department thinks demands your immediate attention at 3 am. You can just see a weary Biden wiping the sleep from his eyes and telling the hyper-ventilating official, ‘Tell me again where this place is and just how to pronounce the prime minister’s name. What do you want me to do – send the 101st Airborne or invite him to the White House?’

            If you have ever moved house you know it’s a real pain cleaning up after the former owners have left. There’s always a huge amount of accumulated junk left over that you have to throw away or take to the local charity shop. The White House staff have worked hard these last few days but there is bound to be something left behind. Just what, for example, is Biden going to do with a hair-dying machine set permanently to orange? And what is he going to do with a warehouse full of MAGA hats and pins?

            All things considered it seems like a terrible job with nothing but serious problems that you are supposed to solve. And you don’t even make that much money. Any half-way decent bond trader at Goldman Sachs makes multiples of what you take home every month. The perks are admittedly pretty good, but when do you have time to enjoy them? But someone has got to do it, and we should be grateful that at least this president will spend more time on the job than on Twitter.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Where Do We Go From Here?


By now we’ve all seen the horrific pictures of mobs charging into the US Capitol building in a vain attempt to stop the final nail in their hero’s political coffin – congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory over the Toddler-In-Chief Donald Trump.

            The question is what happens now? How do the Democrats react to this unexpected gift from their favorite hate figure? Where do the Republicans, in particular the Republican Party, go from here? How far can the party disassociate itself from its disgraced leader? Does it even want to disassociate itself from him? And what of Trump himself and the rest of his family? Do they fade into the darkness of swamp they brought to Washington? Or do they carry on with their delusions of power and popularity?

This is Trump's so-called base?!

            First things first. The country will heal and prosper as it always has after major shocks like Pearl Harbor, the assassinations and convulsions of the 1960s, 9/11, and now this mayhem. In this task Biden is the perfect Anti-Trump non-drama leader. No ranting, no raving. Just a calm, experienced voice telling us all to take a deep breath and calm down.

The perfect antidote to the lunatics

            The Democrats, of course, are jubilant at the prospect of jamming through their favorite legislation now that they control the White House and both branches of Congress – albeit by the narrowest of margins. After Wednesday’s riot many congressional Republicans – not all by any means – are in shock and in no mood to vigorously oppose Biden. He could probably get Che Guevara confirmed as Secretary of Defence at this point. But the Democrats need to be careful not to make the same mistake the Republicans made by overplaying their partisan dominance. They could play a much stronger long game by showing a little of Biden’s most popular word – bipartisanship. Giving a little now will gain them the moral high ground for a long time as unifiers and healers instead of mere partisan warriors out for blood. That gets old very fast.

            As for the Republican Party itself, well, one has to ask what Republican Party? Will it continue to be party of Trump and his acolytes or will it rebuild itself along the Reagan/Bush axis? Will Trump try to form his own party? I doubt that very much. For one thing it is a very expensive process and Trump has an aversion to spending his own money. Second, and more important, third parties have a very difficult time in the American election system. All he would do is split the Republican vote and ensure Democratic domination for a long time. The only reason I could see him doing it is to spite the Republicans for failing to go along with his lies about the election.

            His family is now so politically toxic it’s extremely doubtful that his two loudmouthed sons have much of a future in democratic (small ‘d’) politics. Maybe in places like Belarus or North Korea but not so much in the United States. His daughter Ivanka may have had visions of representing major luxury brands but now she has about as much chance of doing that as I do of becoming the next James Bond. It’s amazing to see how fast corporations that once fawned over Trump and his family are now back-peddling. ‘Trump? Trump who? Never heard of the guy.’

Rapid trip from First Family to Forgotten Family

            The same goes for the two senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, who led the anti-certification charge. These are by no means stupid men. Cruz went to Harvard Law School and Hawley went to Yale Law School. Both served as clerks to Supreme Court justices. But both are – or were – consumed by presidential ambitions and probably practiced Hail To The Chief  in front of the bathroom mirror. They hoped to capture Trump’s ‘base’ by challenging congressional certification of Biden’s victory in the name of ‘protecting the integrity of elections’ – as if numerous judicial decisions and recounts had not already accomplished this. They watched their presidential ambitions crumble as the mobs assaulted the Capitol. They may get elected again in their respective states but their national aspirations are over.

            And what about the media organizations who lavished such praise on Trump for the past four years? Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and the New York Post – to their credit – repudiated Trump’s election fantasies and are now calling for him to resign. Even Fox News is no longer merely a Trump mouthpiece. Many conservative websites like City Journal have columns that sound like third-rate Mafioso in their back-handed criticism of Trump. ‘The schmuck was worse than criminal. He was stupid.’ They are furious at Trump’s meddling in Georgia – not because it verged on the criminal but because it backfired and resulted in two Democrats winning and giving Democrats control of the Senate. According to these columns this opens the floodgates for hated ‘liberal’ legislation like tax hikes, health care, and – God forbid! – easier immigration. The hysteria of these, and other conservative commentators, is misplaced. With a 50/50 Senate split it would be extremely difficult for the far left to push through much of its desired legislation. More important is that Biden has not expressed the slightest interest in the extreme legislation favored by the far left wing of the party. And he has chosen a cabinet that reflects his own moderate views. Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary. Merrick Garland as Attorney General. Pete Buttigieg at Transportation. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as Labor Secretary. The extremely capable Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo as Commerce Secretary. Anthony Blinken as Secretary of State. No flame throwers there.

            Maybe the upside of the mess that Trump left behind is that the grown-ups now have a chance to get down to the business of actually legislating and getting something done without the Master of Disaster bombarding everyone with his school-yard tirades all day, every day.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Biden Was The Only Candidate Who Could Hold The Center


Before the self-righteous, and usually wrong, pundits start telling President-elect Joe Biden what he ‘must’ or ‘should’ do let us take a moment to honour what he has already done.

Time to honour him for what he has achieved

 First, he was the only Democratic candidate who could have beaten Donald Trump. Of course he benefitted from the strong negative feelings about Trump, but without Biden’s positive message reconciliation, calm, evolution instead of revolution I doubt the Democrats would have won.

 Second, he flipped at least four if not five states. This is an incredible achievement against an incumbent president. Most startling of all was the transformation in Georgia where the count continues. Currently Biden is leading by a slender margin. If this holds he will be the first Democrat since 1992 to carry Georgia.

 Third, while Biden’s margins in some states were slim so were Donald Trump’s in 2016. In some states the difference was large. In 2016 Trump beat Hillary Clinton by almost 11,000 votes in Michigan. In this election Biden beat Trump by almost 148,000 votes. The difference in Pennsylvania was the mirror image of 2016 when Trump won by 44,000 votes. So far, Biden is ahead by about 40,000. Could be more when the count is finished. But Georgia was the standout. Trump won this state by 211,000 votes in 2016. This year Biden holds a slim 10,000 vote lead and the state is headed for a recount. However that turns out the result is a dramatic move toward the Democrats.

 Biden flipped four if not five states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and maybe Georgia

Some of the hand-wringing pundits on both sides of the Atlantic are already whinging that the relatively close results of this election show how America is ‘irreconcilably’ divided. Instead of the giant Blue Wave of tsunami proportions they had hoped for what they got were gentle blue waves lapping on the shore. These twittering pundits are making the fundamental political error of blaming the voters for a less-than-desirable outcome. They need to stop considering all Trump voters as nothing more than inbred extras from the film Deliverance. In fact, there were a great many people who accepted that Trump is a deeply flawed person but held their noses and voted for him because they intensely disliked some of the loonier ideas such as defunding the police, packing the Supreme Court, or sharply higher taxes proposed by many of the so-called progressives in the Democratic Party. Even though Biden steered well away from these ideas Trump was successful in scaring a lot of people into voting for him by screaming about the looming cataclysm of a Democratic victory.

 Rather than irreconcilable divisions this election could show a massive move toward the center, away from extremes on both sides. I think Biden’s real strength is that he, above all else, represents this center. He is in a position to capitalize on this massive, shifting center and build a strong movement around it – a movement that can withstand the inevitable splits by the far left and the far right.

 There is also a lot of Democratic hand-wringing (A suggestion for these people. Stop agonizing. You won.) over the less-than-expected gains with America’s very large Hispanic community. They should read Fareed Zakaria’s excellent essay in theWashington Post, Once Again, Democrats Have Misunderstood Minorities. Unlike the Blacks, the Hispanics didn’t come to America against their will bound in chains destined for a life of slavery and repression. They, like most of the other immigrant groups, chose to make the often very difficult move away from poverty and political brutality to a place that offered a chance, however, slim for a better life. They worked hard and by now millions of these immigrants have attained a share of that good life. They love capitalism with its chance to make some money and move up in the world. They hate the very idea of socialism which, for many of them, means nothing more than the state stealing everything they have earned. And they tend to be extremely patriotic Americans who appreciate law and order as much as the farmer in Iowa. It is time to drop the patronizing, condescending attitude of so many urban liberals with their ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach toward the incredibly diverse universe of immigrants.

Biden will obviously face real challenges dealing with Republicans in Congress, but he will also face challenges from the ‘progressives’ in his own party who are already screaming for radical change. They will be disappointed. After nearly 50 years in Washington Biden understands that the key to political success is compromise, accepting the country as it is and focusing on evolution not revolution. His incremental moves will infuriate extremes on both sides for whom compromise is a four-letter word. Very likely they will retreat in a huff to their respective citadels and spend the next four years loudly proclaiming the virtue of their causes. Meanwhile, if Biden can keep the center intact, the country will do just fine.

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Relax, People. America Is Not 'Tearing Itself Apart'.


I have to shake my head in wonder every time I read another British or European headline about the alleged threat of ‘America tearing itself apart’ or a mind-numbing essay about the ‘Two Americas’. I’ve got news for the author of that particular tome. There are far more than two Americas. Calm down people. Stop hyperventilating. America is – always has been and God willing always will be -- a big, sprawling country filled with contradictions.

 Even without the loud, gaudy showmanship of someone like Donald Trump America presents the polar opposite to the relatively small, relatively well controlled, relatively discrete countries of Europe where one never, ever brags about his own wealth and certainly never drives around in a pick-up truck with deadly weapons carried on a rack behind the driver.

 Of course there are deep cultural differences between various parts of the country. Not too many New Yorkers familiar with the canyons of Manhattan want to swap them for the real canyons and mountains of the wild west. Fortunately there’s enough room for everyone to find a place suitable for the life-style of his or her choosing. You want to live the life of a mountain man high in the Rockies? Be my guest. The thought of venturing west of the Hudson River causes you to break out in a cold sweat? Stay home. Be my guest. No one is going to stop you.

Scary. But how representative?

 What most European commentators seem to miss about the coming ‘cataclysm’ in America is just how superficial most of the noise really is. Yes, pictures of wild demonstrations and  guys with guns and motorcycles make scary pictures. God knows, you can find them in America – just like you can find just about every sort of clan, tribe, cult, freak show you can imagine. But, and this is a big but, just how much of the total society of more than 360 million people do they represent? Not much. Occasionally some of these groups do break out in violent, bloody actions like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 where members of a militia group bombed a federal building killing 168 people. What was overlooked in the aftermath was the universal condemnation from all segments of the allegedly fractured society. The show of unity was far greater and longer lasting than that one deranged incident.

 My advice to foreign commentators looking for evidence to support their pre-formed opinions is to look deeper. Go beyond the blaring headlines and political follies of Washington and see how the country works and why it will most likely stay together. One of the immediate observations will be just how de-centralized the system really is. Unlike most of Europe decisions of the central government do not control or even heavily impact what is important in most people’s daily lives.

 It is precisely everyday issues like schools, roads, local taxes that people in the thousands of communities across the country – not the central government – decide. Just look at the difference in how communities in Europe and the United States are funded. In Europe well over 90% of funding for local communities comes from the central government. With that funding comes central control over what is done in local communities. In the United States the situation is reversed. More than 90% of any town’s budget comes from that town, from property taxes on homes and businesses. When I was starting as a rookie journalist I covered these towns and I can assure you the locals were determined to keep control. Offers of state or federal funding were often rejected because of the strings attached. Town councils spent days agonizing over budgets and how much property taxes would have to be increased to pay for schools, police, fire departments, libraries, health care etc. This also explains the huge differences and inequalities in education systems. Wealthy communities like Greenwich, Connecticut can afford the best schools money can buy. Rural communities have trouble scraping up money for math teachers let alone fancy after-school programs.  I often witnessed unlikely scenes where a bearded, heavily tattooed, Hell’s Angels member and a country club matron would join forces to argue for increased school funding. After all, Hell’s Angels have kids too.

Town meetings decide critical local issues

 The point is that in these communities where issues critical to people’s everyday lives are decided there is very little room for political identification as a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Moon Worshipper or anything else. People are forced to work together. Pot holes aren’t Republican or Democrat. They’re just pot holes that need to be fixed – by the people of that town not some distant figure in Washington.

 So whatever happens on Election Day this week just relax. Put your feet up, have a glass of wine confident that one day – post-Covid of course – you can visit America and not have to worry about getting caught in the cross fire of a civil war.