The Art of Politics

The Future?

One of the telling quotes in ‘The Art of the Deal’ (Tony Schwarz and Donald J Trump) goes ‘You don’t reward failure by promoting those responsible for it, because all you get is more failure’.

That might also be the view of the American people, though given the very close-run Presidential election, it is hard to know what is on their minds, and what they define as success or failure. If the COVID-19 outbreak hadn’t happened, we might easily have seen a robust victory for Donald Trump.  

Previously, in the aftermath of contested elections – from 1876 to 2000, a sense of compromise has eventually prevailed. In previous elections, the vanquished candidate respects the ‘majesty of democracy’ as George H Bush put it. They are then praised, and in some cases such as Jimmy Carter to George W Bush, their reputation rises the further out in time they go from their time in office. This time, as they say, might be different.

It is hard to see how Donald Trump’s reputation can acquire a rosy hue, but at the same time he has stamped his mark on American politics, and it is now clear that his election in 2016 was not an aberration.

Trump will not leave the political scene in the way other presidents have – I suspect he will continue his presidency virtually through twitter and a tv show, and his daughter may soon, in the fine tradition of dynastic America politics, run for high office.

The telling factor that supports the case that Trump will not ‘go away’ is that he has established a new political method and has transformed the political landscape in the USA. This is not to be confused with the notion of a ‘school of thought’ or political philosophy, but rather an approach or what we might call ‘art’ of politics.

It has several elements, which may well be adopted by aspiring and incumbent political practitioners across many countries.

One pillar is ‘to break things’. Trump has a gift for zeroing in on derelict institutions, political opponents and viciously undermining them. His international political legacy has largely been to nobble many of the institutions of the twentieth century – NATO, the WTO (World Trade Organisation), WHO (World Health Organisation) and the UN, to name a few. In this respect his place in history will have been to bookend the closing of the period of globalization by attacking and neutering the institutions of the ‘globalists’.

While Trump is not a builder of institutions, I feel that lily livered, liberal politicians of the centre should more actively question the relevance of bodies like the WTO, and at very least repurpose them. NATO and the EU both need to review whether the composition of their membership makes sense in the light of the behavior of countries like Turkey and Hungary, respectively. German politicians in particular need to put on the ‘Trump hat’, even momentarily, and question the world around them.

One lesson from the Democrat showing in the election is that there is a strong appetite for change, and in some cases reform, across America and that this needs to be met by what politicians offer to the public. This is just as much true for Europe as it is the USA.

This is about as far as I would go in demanding that mainstream politicians emulate Donald Trump.

He has other gifts though – like Herbert Hoover with radio, Reagan and Kennedy with tv, Trump has a gift for (social) media. That social media is setting the rhythm of political cycles is not a new thought, but Trump’s successful banalization of the political world through it is.

In a recent note (‘Democracy’s Depression’, 24 Oct) I wondered if better policing of social media content, more reliable internet user identity checks and improved filtering of facts should make social media richer, and a better platform for discussion. Europe and a Biden administration might even work together on this. The cohabitation of a Democratic President and Republican Senate make policy avenue an unlikely one however.

Trump also it seems has the ability to set people free – from laws, common sense, decency and reality. In this regard he is a masterful populist.

The great danger for politics in general and democracy in particular, is that other ‘sorcerer’s/sorceresses’ apply Trump’s tricks, without his profane charm. This will lead to a degradation of society, and commensurately places a high bar on what Joe Biden and Kamala Harris need to do to repair America. What has troubled me most in recent years, is the ease with which democracy and the rule of law has been eroded in the US and other countries.

The risk now is that it may require even deeper divisions and then younger generations (I am thinking of ‘Ivanka ‘24’, ‘Pete ‘24’ and ‘AOC ’24’) to banish the spectre of Donald Trump.

Have a great week ahead

Mike

The Restoration

Team Restoration

The middle of the 17th century was an extraordinary period, especially for political and institutional innovation. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 gave us the nation-state, books like Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ were produced and in England the first expressions of popular constitutional democracy were aired. The tumult of the period was dampened with the return of King Charles II to England, in what was called ‘The Restoration’, which is a phrase that comes to mind when I think of Joe Biden’s Presidential hopes.

To start with, I won’t try to map the US in 2020 on to Europe in the late 17th century, save to say that both periods are marked by a sense of a ‘world turned upside down’.

However, the notion of an American Restoration is appealing in the sense that a Joe Biden Presidency would restore the thread of Democratic policy (through Obama to Bill Clinton), and very importantly would restore the competent workings and full staffing of institutions like the State Department. The idea is that the American machine of state (I wrote about the French one last week) would once again purr into action, and American credibility would be restored. The question for Biden, the Democrats and America, is whether he can accomplish more than ‘a Restoration’.

With Biden now well ahead of the President in most opinion polls on national and state by state levels, and Donald Trump sacking his campaign manager last week, the prospect of a Biden Presidency is now very real, though financial markets it seems are not yet pricing this in.

The success of Biden’s campaign and the tenor of his potential presidency will rest in good part on the extent of the economic damage ahead. If high unemployment and bankruptcies are a reality into the presidential debates in September and October, the tone of policy will tilt much more towards social justice (a topic where both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are very comfortable).  

A Biden White House would likely focus much of its stimulus effort on infrastructure, particularly so in the ‘green’ economy. What is much less clear is the extent to which they would consider rejigging the tax system to place a greater tax burden on wealthier Americans and corporations. This may well be teased out in coming months. I also expect that foreign policy under Biden will be much more assertive, especially so towards Russia and China.

Biden’s next step is to choose a running mate. My judgement is that Biden will choose Kamala Harris as his VP, not least because she has a track record in policing and justice, which is one policy area which the Trump campaign is likely to amplify. Other VP candidates like Susan Rice may suffer from the fact that the Biden team already has a very well stocked foreign policy and security bench.

For his part (and provided he doesn’t drop out of the race!) Donald Trump will inevitably contest the election in a divisive way. Trump’s key weapon over Biden is his social media and network TV reach, and here he can do plenty of damage (to himself also).

There is plenty that he can agitate on – such as contesting the logistics of the election (i.e. postal voting), to stoking tension of topics that resonate with some voters – China, defunding police forces and the prospect of more economic stimulus. He may even claim credit for a COVID-19 vaccine, should it materialize before November.

However, such an approach may not win him a second term as it may merely serve to reinforce the views of the 40% of Americans who think ‘he is doing a good job’. Moreover, with a record number of women now contesting elections for Congress, and more states reacting in a constructive way to racial and other inequalities, the broad socio-political tide may be turning against Trump.

It is now widely recognized that Trump has vastly diminished America – it is financially weaker, its soft power is squandered and its institutions are less admired. He may now also wreck the Republican Party.

Should the Democrats take control of the Senate, it is not impossible that the rump of the Republican Party might split into those who share Trump’s political convictions, and those for whom he was a convenient political force. The ‘convictionists’ could form a harder right wing party, while the ‘conventionists’ might repent and try to rejoin the mainstream in the fashion of the country club Republicans of the Reagan era, led potentially by someone like Liz Cheney.

For their part, the dilemma is what tone to strike across states so that they take back the Senate. A mild ‘re-unite’ America approach is the most likely one, at the expense of the muzzling of the likes of Bernie Sanders. Once in power, the Democrats will be more interesting in that they feel more comfortable following the tack of the likes of Elizabeth Warren, and more emboldened in reinforcing regulation in areas like corporate governance and environmental protection.

A scenario that (according to polls today) brings about an end of Trump politically, cripples the Republican Party and reinstates the Democrats may well restore stability to America, but my worry is that it won’t change it, and much less so may postpone some of the radical policy that is needed to truly revitalize America.

The manifest social tensions, political stasis, and extremes in wealth/inequality as well as declines in human development indicators point to the need for more than a simple restoration.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike