• Presidential L-Plates

    Donald Trump is by no means the first US President to take office without any previous experience of holding political office.  Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower, for example, became President after a stellar career in the military, though his military service no doubt gave him some familiarity with the concept of public service.

    Trump, however, is unusual in taking office with only the experience of pursuing his own self-interest to guide him – “and a very good thing too” many of his supporters will no doubt say.

    But, however appealing may be the prospect of a President unencumbered by political baggage, the lack of any political or governmental experience can be just as much a handicap for a new President as would be a similar absence of relevant experience in any other field of endeavour that requires judgment, knowledge and understanding.

    Politics in a democracy is essentially about carrying people with you.  It requires – in addition to the usual qualities – an ability to persuade and compromise, to respect the other person’s point of view, to recognise that “the public interest” is more than the simple aggregation of individual interests – yet these are precisely the qualities that the President-elect has yet to demonstrate.

    The absence of relevant experience, though, is one thing – the continuing impact of inappropriate and unhelpful experience quite another.  It is the fact that Trump’s life has been dedicated to his own self-advancement that leads to concern that he is not just lacking the necessary qualities but that he is actually handicapped, as he takes office, by allowing his experience to have taught him the wrong lessons.

    The early indications, even before his inauguration, are not encouraging.  He has already been exposed, by some immediate and pressing issues, as being ill-prepared for the major responsibilities that will soon become his.

    It was surely unwise, and unlikely to build confidence, to have parted company so publicly from his providers of intelligence.  His rejection of the briefing he has been given by the FBI, and the breakdown of relations between them, means that the US no longer has an accepted and reliable source of information about the activities of hostile interests – and the fact that the rejected briefings involve President Putin and Russia can only increase anxieties about the role they may have played in Trump’s election.

    And his child-like susceptibility to flattery, so expertly exploited by Putin, is hardly what one would expect from the man to whom the free world entrusts its future.

    The nature of the allegations made against him – that the Russians have “compromising” material of either a sexual or financial nature or both that could be used to blackmail him – and his difficulty in shaking himself free of this story, show how much his public image has already been damaged by what he revealed about himself during his election campaign.  There can be few who have ascended to high office under such a cloud of their own making.

    In domestic politics, too, he has already shown himself to be less than sure-footed.  He seems to have struggled to comprehend that running the country is different from running his own businesses and that the two must be separated – indeed, it isn’t clear that he sees any difference between them.

    There is also, of course, the persistent impression – not helped by his continued refusal to publish his tax returns – that those businesses are in trouble and that they owe vast sums of money; indeed, it is believed in some quarters that his prime motivation in running for President was to rescue his businesses from failure.  The fact that such a belief has taken hold is further evidence of the low regard in which he is held.

    His record in business does not help.  It is one marked by risky borrowing, followed by repeated bankruptcies, leaving the burden of unpaid debt to be borne by the lenders – hardly likely to inspire confidence if (as he advocates) the same practices are applied to the management of the public finances.

    And, in the appointments he has made to some of the most important offices in his administration, he seems to have followed the principle that the essential qualification is that the appointee should have a record of opposition to the interests (such as climate change or an end to racial discrimination) to be overseen.

    Most worryingly, Trump’s life experience appears to have taught him that celebrity and headlines are all that matter and will cure all.  It seems that we are about to enter an era of government by Twitter.  A snap overnight response to some perceived slight is apparently to replace careful analysis and considered policy – and opponents and those who disagree with him are to be countered by insults and scant regard for the truth.

    It is hard to see that such an impetuous and narcissistic approach to government can possibly succeed.  It is even harder to discern the likely end point.  No American President, surely, has ever entered the White House so much behind the eight ball before he has even begun.  Oh, American voters, what have you done?

    Bryan Gould

    13 January 2017

     

     

     

     

  • Brexiteers Should Be Treated with Respect

    I have been a devoted reader of the Guardian for more than fifty years, and an occasional contributor to its pages over the same period.  It has been my preferred guide to understanding the complexities of the modern world and has helped to shape my view of how solutions to some of those complexities can best be arrived at.

    But – even as the pleas to readers to help the paper overcome its own current problems become more pressing – I am in despair.  I can hardly bear to look at each new edition because I know what I will find there – a front page largely taken up with more accounts of how disastrous Brexit is and will be, how disreputable are the motives of those who brought it about, how essential it is that the Brexit decision is reversed.

    Even the merest scintilla of an anti-Brexit opinion – and often from the merest nonentity – is given headline treatment.  The slightest suggestion of a development that can be given an anti-Brexit twist is leaped upon.  The thinnest causal connection between Brexit and some undesirable outcome is magnified.  I expect to see any day now a headline along the lines of “My ingrowing toenails have got worse since Brexit”.

    Any attempt at balanced coverage seems to have been abandoned – and all this, it seems, in pursuit of the paper’s self-appointed role as the scourge of Brexiteers and as the St. George who will slay the Brexit dragon.

    Well, some will say, “thank heavens for the Guardian – someone has to counter the pro-Brexit propaganda sedulously peddled by the right-wing press.”  But I don’t usually read the Sun or the Daily Mail.  It is to the Guardian that I turn for a reasonably objective and thoughtful account of the great issues of the day.  But when I do, I simply do not recognise the kind of debate in which I have been engaged for decades about Britain’s role in Europe.

    Instead, I am told that those who voted for Brexit are ignoramuses and malcontents, motivated by racism and bigotry, and that those who claim to act for more worthy reasons are nevertheless ready to peddle falsehoods in order to bolster their cause.

    Most woundingly, the parallel between the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump is enthusiastically drawn.  Like the Americans, it seems, we have become the victims of fellow-citizens who are easily conned and are all too ready to blame their troubles on scapegoats conveniently and unscrupulously offered to them by dishonest and manipulative politicians.

    There is no recognition that there is a range of perfectly legitimate considerations that might have weighed with Brexit voters.  I have spoken to ma y Brexit voters who voted because they wanted to restore the self-government they have always valued and the democracy which is self-government’s most important manifestation and instrument.

    They voted to protect their jobs and the country’s dwindling manufacturing against a tidal wave of manufactured goods that has contributed mightily to our perennial trade deficit, and our non-existent net investment in new productive capacity.  And they voted for the power to moderate at least, if not actually turn off, a tap that is open at full bore, that at present cannot be turned off, and that brings into their local economies and communities a never-ending flow of cheap labour from Eastern Europe.

    These reasons might not be seen as being of any account by those who approach such issues with a quasi-religious certainty that the “European ideal” must prevail at all costs.  The unstoppable inflow of cheap labour means for ma y of them, after all, no more than improved service in shops and restaurants, and affordable home helps and gardeners.

    These co-religionists bewail the loss of access to European food, art, architecture, music.  Yet the EU is not Europe, but a particular trade arrangement – and more than that, is an arrangement constructed so that the practitioners of a “free market” economy can deal exclusively with unelected bureaucrats and no longer have to bother with the requirements imposed by elected governments.

    And, members or not, we cannot be debarred by those bureaucrats from our European heritage, earned by many centuries of European involvement – an involvement usually welcomed by our Continental friends.

    The oddity of all this is that the Guardian and all those of similar persuasion, having lambasted pro-Brexit voters as the equivalent of Trump’s supporters, then conclude sententiously that these benighted souls in both cases have fallen into error because “no one listened to them”.  If we are to avoid other Trumps springing up, they opine, we must ensure that those who feel “left behind” should share in the success of the better-off and of those who “know better”.

    It is not immediately apparent to me that trashing their views, refusing to take seriously the serious concerns they have, labelling them as hopelessly ignorant and bigoted, is the best way of doing just that.

    Bryan Gould

    1 December 2016

     

  • The Implications of Trump

    Americans are a funny lot.  For them, it seems, celebrity trumps all.  They have elected as President someone whose personal qualities and attitudes would disqualify him, in most democracies, from membership of a school board.

    But that is too simple a message.  The Trump victory conveys a wider and deeper message – because Donald Trump got at least one thing right.

    When we peel back all the posturing and blustering, designed to shock and claim attention, Trump’s basic message was addressed to those who felt that they had been left behind and ignored by the political establishment.  He pitched himself quite specifically as the anti-establishment candidate.  He attacked in terms – ironically enough, given his own circumstances – the fat cats, big business, and their friends in Washington.

    He claimed that he would represent all those who did not have university degrees and high-paid jobs, shares and bonuses, and who did not own their own nice homes.  He said that the globalised economy had looked after the people with those advantages, but had neglected those who were struggling to make ends meet, small businessmen and farmers, those whose jobs had been lost or were under threat, who were poorly paid and housed and paying high rents.

    He would address their grievances, he said, by challenging the principles on which the global economy operated, and by ensuring that the interests of working people were placed centre stage. These sentiments might sound odd to us, coming from the mouth of someone who revelled in his status as a multi-billionaire – and even odder from someone who boasted about not paying tax and who proposed massive tax cuts for the super-wealthy.

    But they struck a chord for those lives were microcosms of what the statistics tell us about how the goodies produced by the global economy have been shared out.  That part of his message might have been more naturally expected to come from someone on the left of politics.

    But Trump fleshed out his message by playing on the fears and resentments of those who found it easy to identify scapegoats to blame for their woes.  He thereby diverted attention from the real causes and was able to exploit that anger by peddling disreputable views on race, gender and sexuality – views that are anathema to most of us and to those on the left in particular.

    There are those who have been quick – particularly in Britain – to draw parallels between the Brexit vote and Trump’s triumph.  Those parallels are certainly there – and Trump was keen to identify them in advance – but it is adding insult to injury for those in the media and elsewhere who have refused to listen to the growing dissatisfactions of working people about the way their economy and society are developing to claim now that Brexit and Trump voters have been motivated by racism and other hatreds born of ignorance.

    The pro-EU press in Britain, for example, continue to insist that there was no rational basis for the Brexit vote and are able to maintain this stance only because of their own refusal to acknowledge that most Brexit voters were motivated, not by racism, but by perfectly legitimate concerns about the loss of self-government, about a trade deficit that has decimated much of British manufacturing industry, and about a tidal wave of cheap labour from Eastern Europe which has destroyed jobs and wage levels and put great pressure on housing and health services.

    It is a similar lofty dismissal of understandable concerns, and uncritical assurance that the current operations of the global economy can be relied on to deliver the best of all possible worlds, that have left the way open for a Donald Trump to manipulate and misdirect – to posture as the saviour of working people while promoting policies that serve the interests of the super-rich, and to use a message of hatred, disrespect and division as his ticket to the White House.

    The Trump election is an alarm signal for western democracies across the globe.  If we will not listen, those who are ignored will be equally deaf to claims that democracy is the best guarantor of their interests.

    There is a special opportunity and responsibility for parties of the left.  They are the political voices, after all, that claim to have an analysis and a prescription to remedy our current ills.  If they do not have the courage of their convictions, to tell it like it is, to identify the real reasons for the malfunctioning of, and divisions in, our society, and to propose an effective programme of reform, then many voters will feel disenfranchised and will turn to other options.  We would then have to expect a growing dissatisfaction with the democratic system, and a growing number of Trumps taking office.

    Bryan Gould

    10 November 2016

     

  • An Open Letter

    An Open Letter to American Voters

     

    When Barack Obama was elected to the US Presidency in 2008, millions of Americans celebrated, and there were millions of others – mainly in the countries comprising what used to be called in Cold War times the ‘free world’ – who cheered as well.

    Americans – or most of them – were thrilled at what promised to be the threshold of a new era of inter-racial harmony.  But those millions in other lands – in a dimension to American politics that may not always be understood in the US itself – were delighted that the leadership of “their” world had passed to someone who would fill the role with distinction.

    And so it has proved.  The inter-racial harmony within the US itself may still be a work in progress but President Obama has proved himself a worthy champion of the democratic ideal.  At home, he has worked hard to ensure that the glories of the American dream have been more fairly shared, that an effective response to the Global Financial Crisis has meant that those able to work have jobs to go to, and that families struck down by ill-health are not left by the wayside.

    The international dimension has been more challenging.  He has shown himself to be a staunch ally and strong upholder of democratic values, and has provided effective leadership on critical issues such as climate change.  But issues such as the Syrian conflict have proved very difficult to resolve and his judgment has on occasion been called into question.

    But it is on the wider issues that he has shown his true worth.  If we look at the world as a whole, and the choice that faces all of us as being between a democratic form of government on the one hand and tyrannies of one sort or another on the other, then we can be in no doubt where President Obama stands.  He is not only an advocate for democracy but an embodiment of it.

    The world is not short of critics of democracy, or of leaders who represent its antithesis.  Nothing would suit anti-democrats better than to point to the world’s most important democracy and to sneer at what the democratic process had thrown up.

    They have not been able to do that with President Obama at the helm.  Here is a man of obvious ability, judgment, and good sense.  His election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 were the best possible evidence of the great and irreplaceable strengths of democracy, not just as political process but as a form of government – and self-government at that.  It delivers to us leadership that can truly claim to take account of the interests of all the people.

    The whole democratic world, in other words, has a vested interest in the good health of American democracy.  In New Zealand – as in every other part of the free world – we are safer and stronger if American democracy can provide the US with leadership of a quality that the rest of the world might aspire to.

    If, for any reason, President Obama is succeeded by someone who does not meet that high standard, and who does not embody in his or her own person the qualities that are required for leadership in a democratic country, we are all weakened.  There are regimes in Beijing and Moscow and in many lesser capitals who would be quick to advise their own people and anyone else who would listen that democracy cannot be relied on to deliver effective government, and that claims that democracies are somehow better at serving the interests of their people cannot be sustained.

    In that situation, those of us fortunate enough to be living in a democracy would feel less confident, those struggling to achieve democracy would be disheartened, and those at present oppressed would lose hope.

    It matters greatly, in other words, that the 2016 presidential election produces a President who, at home, can bring people together and treat every section of society – in racial, gender and economic terms – with respect and consideration and, in the international sphere, can exercise calm and considered judgment, and can be relied on to provide help and friendship to all those across the globe who share democratic values.

    And, as President Obama has shown, if the US President is to be treated as the de facto leader of the free world, he or she must embody in his or her own life the values that a great democracy holds dear.  The holder of that office must be seen as worthy of our trust, must act with dignity and respect for others, must represent the interests of all the people and not just the rich, famous and powerful.

    We – and by “we” I mean democrats across the globe – need a President we can respect.  When the American voter casts a vote for the Presidency, it is a vote that has consequences far beyond American shores.  It is a decision for the American voter alone but it matters to all of us.  We need to get it right.

    Bryan Gould

    3 November 2016

     

  • “Real” Men

    Being the son of a famous person, and as a consequence finding oneself in the limelight, cannot be easy – especially if that famous person is the Prime Minister, who will inevitably attract approval and dissent in roughly equal measure and whose family and other relationships will always attract close scrutiny.

    What are we to make, then, of the crass and coarse remarks made this week by Max Key?  His father – himself no stranger to controversy when it comes to the treatment of women – (“pony tailgate” is still fresh in the memory) might have been expected to ensure that his son was especially careful when it comes to language and behaviour concerning the fairer sex.

    It is not just the remarks themselves that have raised eyebrows but the fact that he was so keen to let us know that he had made them.

    He went to considerable lengths, after all, to bring them to our attention.  He not only took the trouble to wind down his window as he drove so as to shout what was no doubt intended as a gratuitous insult at some cyclists he was overtaking; he had also taken care to record what he did and said and then to post it in the social media.

    His intention, in choosing his supposed bon mot, was presumably to impugn the masculinity of the cyclists.  He seems to have been unaware that it takes a good deal more grit and effort to push yourself round town on a bicycle than it does to drive round town in a fast car – and it is a good deal more socially and environmentally responsible as well.

    And, if he had cared to make those same remarks to the same people while on foot, rather than from the safety of his car, he might have found his own manhood subjected to a rather unwelcome and daunting challenge.

    But the real question is, why does a young man of Max Key’s age and upbringing think it appropriate, not only to shout insults at strangers but to refer to women in such demeaning terms?   What is it about our society that spawns such offensive attitudes?  It seems clear that the expensive schools responsible for the education of young Mr Key and his like have some way to go in preparing their pupils for adult membership of a decent and equal society.

    Even his father acknowledged that Max Key’s remarks were “inappropriate” – probably the mildest word he could find to express his true feelings.  It is certainly depressing to think that we might be bringing up a whole new generation of Donald Trumps.

    As Trump himself demonstrates, those who cross the boundaries of decent behaviour in these respects seem blissfully unaware of how damaging is their lack of respect for that half of humanity that produces their wives, mothers and daughters. And they seem not to know that the “locker-room talk” that they regard as so natural, normal and common to all red-blooded (or, in Max Key’s terms “real”) men is a piece of pathetic macho posturing abjured by most decent men.

    We are not short of evidence of the damage that is done by such attitudes.  The high incidence of domestic violence and of sexual assaults, and instances such as the boastful exploits of the so-called roastbusters, are bad enough, but they take no account of the psychological damage that is suffered in our society by so many girls and women who find themselves treated without respect, and as sex objects and pieces of property rather than as people.

    We have no chance of achieving a society in which women are treated with proper respect and can take their full and proper place for as long as a Max Key can hurl such a thoughtless and offensive comment at strangers and expect to be applauded for it.

    I can, on the basis of long experience, offer a tip that might help Max Key in his search for what it means to be a “real” man.  If you treat your female friends and partners as real people, you will be part of a stronger society, your relationships will improve – and you will have a better understanding of the joys that your “love life” can offer.

    Bryan Gould

    29 October 2016