• Is There No Limit to Trump’s Awfulness?

    Is there no limit to the awfulness of Donald Trump?  It is hard now to imagine that there is anything further he could do or say that would truly shock us, in the sense of taking us by surprise.  He seems surely to have exhausted his repertoire of shortcomings, his playlist of buffoonery, narcissism, and readiness to offend his fellow citizens.

    Whether it be his all-too-evident racism, his propensity to demean and bad-mouth those whom he does not understand or who are outside his usual social circle, his disregard for the truth, his truly monumental ignorance about what his job entails, his readiness to defy the normal conventions concerning nepotism, the continuing priority he continues to give to the promotion of his own business interests, the threat he poses to a free press, his recklessness in foreign affairs, his boasting about the nuclear weaponry at his disposal – to say nothing of the manifest failings in his personal life – he has surely done everything possible to convince us of his uniqueness.  He is, of all those who have held the office of President, unique in his embodiment of a complete lack of personal or professional fitness for the role.

    The debate about what has caused his shortcomings is largely beside the point.  It may be that he is mentally ill, suffering from an inherited personality defect or from the onset of dementia.  It may be that his defiance of the normal standards of decency is the product of his upbringing as the son of a wealthy and domineering father or of the limitations of a billionaire’s lifestyle.  It may be that he is simply what we see – an embryonic fascist, a self-absorbed bully and narcissist, persuaded of his own “genius”, and harbouring a range of really unpleasant views about race, women and the plight of those in society who need help.

    But whatever the explanation, we are lumbered with him.  The only question now is what can be done about that.  Sadly, the only people with the power to take action show no sign of willingness to do so.

    The Republican majority in Congress could impeach him – a number of grounds offer themselves and the Mueller inquiry into Russian involvement in Trump’s election might add to that number – or  simply remove him on account of his inability to fulfil the role.  But the Republicans are in hock to billionaire donors who are the ones who really pull the strings.

    The one ground for optimism is that Trump has already delivered to those billionaires the benefit they were willing to pay for – massive tax cuts for the wealthy, achieved at the cost of cutting the help and health care available to the poor and sick.

    It may be that, with the tax cuts in their pockets, those wealthy Republican donors will see Trump as disposable, and will therefore drop their threat to Republican Congressmen of reduced funding if they don’t support Trump.

    There is one further possibility which I hope is not too fanciful.  Trump himself may decide to review the question of whether the game is worth the candle.  By all accounts, he is not enjoying the role and gets away from the White House whenever he can.

    It may be starting to dawn on him that being President may deliver the fame and recognition he craves, but that the spotlight on him also means that his every misstep and failing is magnified.  There is no escape for him – the longer he stays in the White House, the more certain it is that his public image and reputation will be trashed; his plight is rather like that of an actor in a leading role who, having forgotten his lines, is nevertheless compelled to make his entrance on the stage.

    He may now realise that he is destined to go down in history as a disaster, as the worst ever President, as an embarrassment to his country and to America’s allies.  Why, he might ask himself, prolong the agony?  Why run the risk of being impeached, or removed for incompetence, or (if the polls are accurate) being voted out of office?  Why not choose the moment, and the pretext, for stepping down?  We can but hope.

    Bryan Gould

    13 January 2018

     

  • Recession? Surely Not!

    I confess I did a double-take when I saw the headline “Recession Likely Under Ardern” this week.   I wondered what new development or brilliant piece of analysis could have led to such a rush to judgment.

    All became clear, however, when I looked further.  The piece that was headlined in this way was written, it seems, by one Jared Dillian – described as a “US-based Lehman Brothers trader” – and, since it was the collapse of Lehman Brothers that triggered the Global Financial Crisis, one must accept that Mr Dillian might know a bit about what causes recessions.

    Furthermore, the piece was published on the Forbes Magazine website; Forbes magazine, of course, is the house journal of the richest people in the world and famous for ranking them in terms of who is the richest, so one can expect that their readership might be easily disconcerted by any thought that a new government might prove to be somewhat interventionist.

    My initial reaction was one of amusement at the transparency of the motivations of those involved in concocting such a piece, but my amusement quickly turned to exasperation.  A further perusal of the article revealed that it was based on literally nothing of substance.  The best Mr Dillian could come up with was that a government that sought to make it more difficult for foreigners to buy existing housing and that limited the numbers entering the country would be seen as putting up the shutters – and that could then have a depressing effect on economic activity.

    An obvious rejoinder is that our new government is grappling with a deep-seated problem inherited from its predecessor – and that problem is one of a raging asset inflation that has made decent housing both unavailable and unaffordable for many of our young families.  The limits placed on foreign purchasers are merely a sensible attempt to damp down the demand that is fuelling an unstable asset inflation, the dangers of which and the risks to economic stability they pose should surely be apparent to Mr Dillian, given his experience with Lehman Brothers.

    Interestingly, while Mr Dillian professed to see the threat of recession implicit in the new government’s policy stance, other commentators hostile to a left-of-centre government are quick to point up what they see as the supposedly inflationary consequences of measures like raising the minimum wage and more spending on health and education.  The two sets of right-wing commentators might have more credibility if they could only get their acts together – they can’t have it both ways.

    I then further noted that the Forbes magazine piece had been seized on by the National Party and given wide circulation in social media – and all this before the new government has had time to draw breath.  Then the penny dropped (don’t ask me whether that is likely to be recessionary or inflationary!)

    It struck me that the episode tells us something important about the neo-liberal hegemony which has dominated politics and economics in the west for the past decade or two.  The favourite tactic of those who would defend the inevitable tendency of “free-market” policies to concentrate wealth in just a few hands is to warn that any attempt to frustrate those market forces will threaten the prosperity and living standards of ordinary people.

    So, a huge effort is made to deter any such attempt and that means that we are constantly assured that a government that tries to intervene to produce fairer and better outcomes will inevitably produce adverse outcomes.  That effort is not limited by national boundaries – the attempt to stop government from intervening in the operations of the “free market” is made these days on a global scale.

    To be successful, any such attempt to persuade people of the unlikely proposition that governments that try to produce fairer outcomes are the problem rather than the solution must be coordinated – and the only way of doing that on the required scale is to engage the support of international media.

    The essence of the attempt is not to win the argument – hence the lack of any substance in Mr Dillian’s piece – but to dominate the headlines.  A headline that links “recession’ and “Ardern”, even if there is nothing to support it, is a victory of a sort because it confirms in the public mind that there is always something risky about electing a left-of-centre government.

    The Forbes magazine article was not in other words really aimed at a New Zealand readership, although that did not stop New Zealand politicians and their supporters from trying to take some advantage from it.  It was aimed instead at an international readership, and was intended to offset the news that a left-of-centre government had taken office in New Zealand.

    In the absence of any facts or persuasive argument to support it, the Dillian hatchet job is best seen as just another manifestation of the constant campaign to discredit anything at all that might encourage voters to use their power to say to the fat cats, in whatever country, “enough is enough!”

    Bryan Gould

    23 November 2017

     

     

  • Why Is Mike Hosking So Hard to Watch?

    I feel sorry for Mike Hosking.  Fronting a show on television may seem like a doddle but it’s not as easy as it seems.

    My fellow-feeling for the beleaguered presenter of Seven Sharp does not arise because I have overlooked or have become inured to his obvious political bias.  It is still there and cannot be entirely suppressed, though I suspect he has made real efforts to conceal, or at least reduce it.

    These days, he reserves his overt biases for release in his other media outlets, and it is his good, or rather bad luck, that his true views are as a result well-known to most of his viewers who are accordingly alert to detect the occasions when they make their expected appearance in Seven Sharp.  It is, still the case, though, that it is the sense that he cannot help but slant the day’s news to suit his social and political prejudices that no doubt explains the large numbers who have signed petitions to have him removed.

    No, the problem he really faces is not an obvious political bias.  I know from my own experience as a presenter of a weekly, nationally networked current affairs show on UK television, that television is a curious medium.  It rewards a hard to define and unusual ability and one that has no other obvious use – the ability to appear natural and relaxed while actually performing a highly unnatural function.  The skilled television presenter has to appear as though he is the man next door, or your drinking partner at the local pub, while at the same time making intelligible and conveying in simple terms items of news and current affairs that are far from easily understood.

    A skilled television presenter will of course always be aware that the cameras are rolling and that every expression and grimace will be revealed to the viewer.  There is no hiding place.  So an experienced presenter will be aware that he – or she – cannot get away with picking his nose or looking sceptical at something said by a guest or fellow presenter.

    But knowing that the cameras pick up everything only exacerbates the problem.   It can so easily translate into an impossibility to escape awareness that everything – good or bad – is being transmitted to the viewer, and it is that constant awareness – or perhaps self-awareness – that, of course, is absolute death to any sense that the presenter is acting naturally.

    Mike Hosking, sadly for him, is a sufferer from a disease from which it is impossible to escape.  Try as he might, he cannot give the impression that he is unaware that the cameras are on him.  The more he tries to appear natural, the more evident it is that he is painfully trying to appear so – and that of course destroys any pretence that he is merely a value-free reporter and transmitter of the stories of the day.

    The more he tries to behave as though he is just an ordinary bloke, sharing with us the normal reactions to the items he is reporting, the more he has to act the part – hence the constant changes of facial expression, the shrugs and grimaces, the engagement with the viewer constantly maintained by always looking into – and looking for –  the camera lens.

    And the problem is that, once a presenter is afflicted with the disease, there is no cure.  Acting being relaxed and naturally rapidly develops into over-acting, so that the viewer is increasingly delivered the message that it is not the message that matters but rather the reactions, expressions and subliminally expressed views of the presenter that are the real point of the exercise.  And obvious over-acting is easily equated with pretending, so that the viewer feels he cannot believe the message that is being delivered to him and his trust is therefore forfeited.

    Once the viewer twigs that it is the performer, and not the substance of the story, that is the message, the performance becomes increasingly hard to watch.  In Mike Hosking’s case, it is not so much that his audience finds it difficult to accept the views he tries to promulgate, as that they want to see the story told professionally and accurately, rather than having to watch a performance by Mike Hosking whose primary purpose is to tell us what he thinks about the issue.

    What can he do to remedy the situation?  Sadly for him, not a lot.  Once a presenter is constantly thinking only of how he appears to his audience, the damage is done and cannot be repaired.  He, or his employers, could take a break and see if that could help him.  In the meantime, the rest of us will find it increasingly difficult to watch Seven Sharp.

     

     

     

  • The Choice Before Us

    With just days to go till polling day, the rival parties have now presumably set out their stalls.

    There may still be the odd attempt to lure the floating voter, (or cynically misrepresent what others are saying), but we now have a pretty good idea as to what we will get – or, at least, as to what they are promising – if they get elected.

    It may be that these promises will do the trick. But for many voters, ploys such as these relate to issues that do not concern them individually, or involve sums of money that are so large and incomprehensible and dates that are so distant from today as to be meaningless.

    Offering policy goodies, in other words, may not be as effective in attracting votes as some politicians seem to think.

    My perception is that voters are more likely to vote according to whether or not they think that the country is in good hands and heading in the right direction.

    That may be so, say experienced (not to say cynical) politicians, but in the end questions such as these will always boil down to “what’s in it for me?”

    I choose to believe, however, that people (or enough of them) are more thoughtful than that, and that there is a genuine and fundamental choice to be made – a choice which many voters are willing to consider as they vote.

    It was Mrs Thatcher who famously said that “there is no such thing as society”.  She apparently thought that we are all just an agglomeration of individuals, who happen to be living in the same place at the same time, but that we each pursue our individual interests with no regard for anyone else.

    In expressing this opinion, she was reflecting the views of some very influential thinkers – people like the philosophers Hayek and Nozick, economists like James Buchanan and even (not very good) novelists like Ayn Rand.

    They argued that not only do we all act in our own individual interests but that this is how it should be.  They took this view on two grounds – that to restrain individuals from doing what they want and grabbing what they can would be unjustifiably to limit their freedom, and that society as a whole would be better off and everyone would benefit if individuals – particularly powerful individuals – were able to do whatever they liked, without any restraint imposed on them by “society”.

    Those who disagree prefer to look to what they see as the adverse economic, social and environmental consequences of a free-for-all, not only for those individuals and families who lose out in the rat race, but also for the health and happiness of our society as a whole and for the sustainability of the natural world we share and the planet on which we live.

    These philosophical arguments may mean little to many voters.  But the issues can easily be translated into practical terms that are closer to everyday life.

    We can all recognise, in our day-to-day dealings with our fellow citizens, different kinds of attitudes and behaviours.  We understand selfishess, greed and lack of compassion on the one hand, and kindness and willingness to share on the other – and we know which we like better.

    When we project these behaviours on to the wider social or political scale, we can see those who recognise no shared interest with their fellow citizens but see them instead (perhaps as employees or tenants) as simply there to be exploited.  These are the people who resent paying taxes to help those they regard as “losers” and who then complain about the social consequences of the fractured society they have helped to create.

    On the other hand, we can see a kinder, gentler society, where we recognise that we are all in this together – and that we all benefit if everyone gets a fair deal.

    In the end, we can ask ourselves whether or not we place any value on our democracy.  Our forefathers, after all, fought for our democracy because they saw it as essential if power was not to concentrate in just a few hands.

    I like the sound of “kinder” and “gentler”.

    Bryan Gould

    6 August 2017

     

  • Lies and Lies and Lies

    When Shepard Smith of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News lambasted Donald Trump on-screen this week for ‘lie after lie after lie’, it was a hugely significant turning point for the Trump presidency.  The President has hitherto been able to rely on the uncritical support of the right-wing media, so – when he cannot easily dismiss Smith’s condemnation as “fake news” – he is left to explain to his equally uncritical supporters why even his friends in the media have had enough of his cavalier treatment of the truth.

    His critics, of course, will ask why it has taken so long for supposedly responsible news reporters to call him out on his more egregious flirtations with falsehood.  And, for students of the political process, it raises the question of whether Donald Trump has any longer even a rudimentary understanding of what the truth is.

    It seems clear to me that the President long ago ceased to recognise that there is such a thing as an objective truth.  He has after all built a whole career on a simple proposition – that the truth is what people believe, and that it can therefore be established, whatever the objectively determined facts might suggest, by the degree of confidence and persuasiveness with which it can be declared.  If people believe what you say, that is enough – the truth is thereby established for all practical purposes.

    He discovered in his business career, and in building his public image, that force of personality and the credibility that comes from celebrity were much more important than the facts; and, as the boss of his own commercial empire, he surrounded himself with toadies who knew that their jobs depended on believing whatever he told them.  He has carried that experience with him into politics where it has again proved its worth in persuading people to vote for him.

    He saw no need to abandon this tried and true approach to the truth when he reached the White House.  Indeed, as early as his inauguration, we saw the technique at work.  He was quite happy to declare, in the face of the established facts, that the margin of his victory was one of the greatest on record and – even more ambitiously, given the visual recordings of both events – that the turnout for his inauguration was greater than that for his predecessor.  The gullibility of his supporters, he thought, would be enough to win the day.

    Despite some reverses, and the degree of scrutiny to which he is now subject, he has not lost confidence in his ability to declare that black is white.  As long as he is believed, by his supporters in particular, the “truth” is thereby established.  We can expect much more of the same – unless there are more Shepard Smiths prepared to do their jobs properly.

    The issue that prompted Smith’s exasperated declaration was the meeting held during the campaign by members of the Trump campaign team, including Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jnr, with a range of Russian figures, including representatives of the Russian government and security services.

    The meeting was kept secret and its existence denied – and even when news of it broke, the purpose of the meeting and the identity of those attending was misrepresented.  The person doing the misrepresenting was none other than the President’s son – truly a “chip off the old block” if the extent of his lies is anything to go by.  He seems to have well and truly learnt the lesson provided by observing his father’s example over many years – that it matters little what really happened as long as the preferred, even if false, version is presented with sufficient confidence and certainty.

    It is always distressing to realise that a person one has dealings with is unable to tell the truth – and is, not to point too fine a point on it, a congenital liar.  It is not just distressing, but alarming, when that person is the President of the United States.

    We cannot expect Donald Trump to recant or to change the habits of a lifetime, so what is to be done?  The one glimmer of hope is that Trump’s poll ratings have slumped dramatically to record low levels.  Perhaps ordinary people have at last had enough and have enough self-respect to demand that their elected leaders are worthy of their trust.  Perhaps some of that self-respect will rub off on Trump’s political colleagues, and they will act before bad gets worse .

    Bryan Gould

    17 July 2017