A Dis-United Kingdom: Brexit and Theresa May’s Pyrrhic Victory

CounterPunch

The political landscape of the United Kingdom has gone through upheaval in the general election on 8 June 2017, and the country is to begin difficult negotiations to leave the European Union by March 2019. Despite a small majority in the last Parliament, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap general election, asking the country to give her a landslide victory, and strengthen her hand in dealing with EU negotiators. She promised that she would be a “bloody difficult woman” in the negotiation, calculating that she would charm voters by so doing.

The British electorate denied her the mandate she wanted. From a modest but clear majority, the Conservative Party was reduced to a minority party with the largest number of seats in a hung Parliament. It was a pyrrhic victory, if it could be called a victory, causing heavy loss to her reputation and ability to make judgement.

Theresa May had to sacrifice two of her closest aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, described by cabinet ministers and Conservative parliamentarians as abusive and authoritarian. But the problem goes much deeper. Theresa May is a shy and secretive individual, reliant on a few loyal associates. Her spell as Prime Minister, and the seven-week general election campaign, demonstrated that she had difficulty articulating her vision, and how she would make it possible, to large audiences.

She avoided debating with opponents, and was often unable to address points directly. She either followed standard responses prepared in advance, or launched personal attacks on her rivals to deflect attention. For instance, she said that if she were not re-elected, the country would be sending Jeremy Corbyn “naked and alone” to the Brexit negotiation. And Jeremy Corbyn “will sneak into 10 Downing Street”, the Prime Minister’s official residence. Such remarks raised eyebrows.

Her tactical mistakes corroded her support base. The result of the June 2016 referendum on whether to exit the European Union was 52% – 48% in favour of leaving. An EU remainer before the referendum, her conversion into a fervent leaver was rapid. She became an advocate of severing all ties from the EU, the European Single Market and the European Court of Justice. She chose to pressure the EU into negotiating a new free trade agreement which would stop the current freedom of movement between the United Kingdom and the other 27 member-countries.

She threatened the other EU members that if she did not get her way in the negotiation, the United Kingdom could stop sharing intelligence with them. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, warned that British people would stop buying Italian wine. Several members of her cabinet warned that German car manufacturers would suffer if British customers stopped buying their automobiles. There was never a chance of that happening.

Irritated by attacks on the European Union for years, the EU’s patience seemed to be running out. A “divorce bill” as big as 100 billion euros was mentioned within EU circles. In London, some people talked of no payment at all. The status of several million European immigrants in the UK and British citizens living in the rest of the EU became a matter of contention. Threats were issued by both sides. As talks begin, the relationship between the two sides is far from congenial.

Theresa May played an overtly nationalistic card to draw the anti-immigration UK Independence Party’s supporters towards her. She told the British people: “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” This rhetoric repelled many cosmopolitan voters often travelling or living abroad. Young voters were attracted towards the main opposition Labour Party. Under its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour performed much better than expected.

Theresa May’s eagerness to cosy up with the United States President, Donald Trump, also did not help. Keen to show off the United Kingdom’s “special relationship” with America, she was hasty to fly to Washington, to be the “first foreign leader” to meet Trump, where they were seen hand-in-hand in the White House. She gave the clear impression that she was ready to abandon Britain’s EU membership, and accept ever more dependence on an erratic and unreliable American President.

She invited Trump for a state visit to the United Kingdom, generating considerable opposition at home. Trump’s frequent personal attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, and Theresa May’s reluctance to express her disapproval of Trump’s remarks did not go down well in Britain. It all made her look weak. Trump’s state visit has now been put off.

Theresa May will now head a minority government, dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a hard-line protestant group, to sustain her government. DUP backed leaving the European Union in the June 2016 referendum. But it does not want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, an EU member. With her government now reduced to a minority in Parliament, Theresa May has a very weak hand in the coming Brexit negotiation.

How her political calculations failed so spectacularly will be a matter for analysis for months or longer. Many commentators, including this one, had interpreted the narrow result to leave the EU in June 2016 primarily as a vote against immigration, and the perceived burden immigrants put on the public services – immigrants who work legally in the UK to do jobs British people would not do, and pay tax.

The reality was more complex, for it was the government’s obsession to make financial cuts that did not allow more spending to meet the extra demand on the public services. It was thought that the anti-immigration sentiment whipped up by the UKIP drove the vote to leave the EU. Less than a year after, Theresa May’s Conservative Party adopted the same anti-immigrant rhetoric in the general election campaign in the hope of wooing UKIP voters.

It did not happen. Most working class voters, traditional supporters of the Labour Party, returned to their old party. It now looks as though the referendum was actually a protest vote against deep cuts in the government spending year after year, causing hardship for ordinary people. In the general election just held, Labour came out with a manifesto that promised extra spending on public services, abolition of the University tuition fee and protection for senior citizens’ pensions, financed by an increase in the corporation tax, and income tax on high income earners.

Young people, many of whom did not vote in the past, registered in vast numbers and did vote this time. Labour captured almost 65% of all votes under 40 years of age. This turnaround is both about fact and perception. Two months ago, the focus was on the Labour Party’s infighting, the electoral unacceptability of its socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the image perpetuated by the right-wing press of Theresa May as a “strong and stable” leader. The picture now is the exact opposite. The Conservative Party is in disarray, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, is seen as the loser. Governing the country has suddenly become a lot more difficult, and the government is not sure what kind of exit from the European Union to negotiate.

[END]

Is There Rhyme or Reason in Trump’s Approach to Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea?

History News Network

In November 2016, Donald Trump swept to the White House making some bewilderingly simplistic promises, which meant keeping out of foreign wars, and concentrating on dismantling America’s internal power structures to recreate them in his own vision. Three months after taking office, he has ordered two big military attacks on Syria and Afghanistan, both within a week. And he is warning of retaliation against North Korea’s maverick leadership.

The start of the Trump administration has been chaotic. He is having to fight hard to implement his plans, especially health care and immigration. He has found that his dehumanizing anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim rhetoric since his presidential campaign began in June 2015 will be problematic, and slow, to turn into reality.

Hence, Trump has turned his domestic frustration abroad at a dangerously early stage. It took President George W. Bush seven months, and the traumatic events of 9/11, to go on the warpath. Trump has not completed his first hundred days yet.

Donald Trump’s foremost targets are the Muslim world and North Korea. Like al-Qaida during the Bush administration (2001–2009) Trump singles out ISIS, an umbrella for many dispersed violent groups of Sunni fundamentalists, for the ills emanating from the Muslim world, and threatening civilization. He is also consumed by North Korea and its advancing nuclear weapons program. China, North Korea’s ally, has come under fierce criticism from Trump for not restraining the Pyongyang regime, and for manipulating its own currency to steal American jobs.

The Trump administration saw President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian patrons as useful tools in fighting ISIS. The decision to hit the Shayrat airbase with cruise missiles three days after a chemical attack was reported in the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun was a policy reversal by Trump.

One noteworthy aspect of the American attack on Shayrat was that while other Syrian facilities were hit at the airbase, the runways which Russia had expanded in 2015, and which Russian warplanes currently use, were spared. Within hours, bombers were flying new missions against anti-Assad forces. The attack on the Syrian airbase also helped Trump counter domestic criticisms of close ties with Putin and the Kremlin lobby, though it was not enough to stop new revelations.

To say that mutual accusations of recent days between the White House and the Kremlin amount to a phony war would be an exaggeration. For domestic political reasons, some tension with America’s foremost nuclear adversary serves a useful purpose, and the Trump administration is learning about political expediency. Nonetheless, Trump’s personal esteem for Vladimir Putin is obvious, and his language about the Russian leader and government is restrained.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow was full of warnings on both sides, but they were civil to each other. And Tillerson had a two-hour meeting with Putin. The relationship between Washington and Moscow may not be what President Trump would have instinctively wanted. But to say that it is at the lowest point is way over the top. US-Soviet relations were near a catastrophically low point all along from the early 1950s to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The change in Trump’s approach to China is also intriguing. He had predicted a “very difficult” meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping (April 6-7). Yet, after their state dinner and talks, Trump announced that they had made “tremendous progress,” and that they were going to have a “great relationship.” Trump made no mention of China the currency manipulator, causing a massive trade surplus in Beijing’s favor. On North Korea, Trump said that President Xi had explained the situation, and that he was confident that China would do something.

Trump’s manner of telling the Chinese President over chocolate cake that cruise missiles were on their way to hit Syria was strange and amusing. If the idea was to deliver a shock to his guest over sweet dish, it seemed not to have worked. China gave its verdict soon after Xi had returned home, with the state news agency, Xinhua, calling it “the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles.” The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, offering to coordinate with the Kremlin to “cool” the escalating row. Trump had managed to push China and Russia closer.

The United States, meanwhile, sent warships to the region. Not to be left behind, North Korea showed off new missiles in a huge military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. As American warships were sailing in the region, North Korea test-fired another missile. It failed, but there may well be more to follow.

As President Trump deals with Syria and North Korea, the stakes are high because of Russian and Chinese involvement. Afghanistan has no such risks. Nearly ten thousand US troops are already deployed in the country, and the Kabul government is totally dependent on American military protection and economic assistance.

Like the cruise attack on Syria, Trump’s decision to drop a 22000 pound GBU-43 bomb (called the Mother of All Bombs) on a network of caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan filled him with excitement. It also generated considerable enthusiasm among journalists and analysts in the media.

The instant flurry of excitement aside, the bombing deserves a critical examination of facts which are often ignored. The underground caves were built for, and by, the Mujahideen forces, who received massive support from the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – the decade in which the United States fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Those fractious Mujahideen groups disintegrated, and new recruits were attracted, giving rise to the Taliban. They, in turn, found common cause with al-Qaida in opposing the United States. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, elements of al-Qaida morphed into ISIS. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, meant that more fighters were free to join ISIS.

President Trump called the bombing of the cave complex in Afghanistan “another success,” which made him “very proud” of American military. His administration first claimed that 36 ISIS militants had been killed in the attack. Afghan officials later said that more than 90 people had died.

Contrary to Arab countries, ISIS has found it difficult to establish a firm foothold in Afghanistan, where Afghan nationalism comes in direct conflict with pan-Arab Islamism. Consequently, ISIS-Khorasan (Afghanistan’s old name) is a small group compared to the Taliban – estimated to be no more than a few hundred. ISIS fighters include some disgruntled former Taliban, some new recruits, even fewer Arabs.

It prompted the Economist newspaper to say that although President Trump relishes headlines about his success, the significance of bombing in Afghanistan should not be “overstated as a military game-changer.” In 2001, the predecessor of the GBU-43 bomb (BLU-83) was used against the Taliban in the Tora Bora cave network. But the Taliban survived, have since thrived, and would make it very difficult for the present Afghan government to survive without American protection.

Since the early days of the Cold War in the 1950s, we have witnessed plenty of theatrics from rival leaders with narcissistic tendencies. History tells us about Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung. But theatrics can go wrong, and can lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

We have entered a new era of dangerous theatrics in international politics. Donald Trump and Kim Il-sung are the two leading actors. Let us hope that the rest of the cast will exercise a restraining influence.

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The Demagogue and the Rhetoric of Demagoguery

The Citizen

The rise of the far right in America, Europe and Asia is a powerful phenomenon of recent times.

The United States elections in November 2016, and the referendum on Britain’s future as a member of the European Union in June that year, were momentous events with life- changing implications for vast numbers of people.

In each case, extreme language and extraordinary claims shaped the campaign and its outcome. They radicalised popular views and expectations which might last.

Leaders who resort to this type of rhetoric are often described as populist in journalism and normal discourse. However, populist is not a satisfactory term given the context. Closeness to popular gives the term populist a favourable meaning.

Instead, demagogue is a more fitting term, and the type of rhetoric used by such a leader is demagoguery.

A list of demagogues through history would be long even if such a complex exercise were attempted. The history of demagoguery, which appeals to emotions and prejudices rather than reasonable arguments, is old. It goes back two and a half thousand years, when the comic playwright Aristophanes of ancient Athens wrote about Cleon the demagogue – a reckless mob-orator trading upon popular passions to advance his own interests.

The Columbia University professor Reinhard Luthin, in his book American Demagogues (Beacon, 1954), defines the term demagogue as a politician skilled in oratory, flattery and invective, evasive in discussing vital issues, appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public, and arousing racial, religious and class prejudices in order to become a master of the masses.

For a demagogue to arise, particular conditions must exist. There has to be a perception of a weak and corrupt government. One group believes that unfair advantages are going to another group, usually but not always a minority, which is claimed to be at the root of wider problems in society. The in-group is seen as disadvantaged or loser – the out-group the beneficiary.

Accusations, often sweeping and libellous, that the entire community of “others” is disloyal to the country are made. It is a state of nostalgia of ethnic, cultural or religious superiority.

These conditions make a cocktail of social tension and conflict which powerful groups thrive on. They may cause low-level violence and sustained economic warfare in which the dominant group aims to capture a greater share of society’s wealth and more privileges. This trend may trigger retaliation by some in weaker groups.

At the extreme, members of the stronger group may envision a fully homogeneous society without there being other groups. Mild suggestions or direct threats may be issued against weak and vulnerable communities. Uncertainty and upheaval follow. The result is a steady decline in the productive and defensive capacity of the afflicted society.

The state of mind which interprets things in such black and white terms is called naïve realism – a belief that the world is exactly as an individual’s mental image of it. Personal viewpoint, bias, education and training make little or no difference. Problems have simple explanations. The lesser the interpretation, the purer the conclusion.

The work of Professor Patricia Roberts Miller of the University of Texas suggests that naïve realism reinforces a group’s faith in its own purity, and refutes any possibility that the group may be wrong. Dead certainty is a strong characteristic of the demagogue. They are always prone to authoritarianism and bigotry, and their reasoning goes backwards to maintain hierarchies.

Judgments are deduced from “traditional practices, values and beliefs”; from “traditional” interpretations of “authoritative” texts; from reasoning backwards from what must be true to maintain current hierarchies – whether they are religious, cultural, gender or national.

Empirical evidence is not important for the demagogue. The central point of reasoning is what “must” or “should” happen if certain premises are correct, and those premises are protected from falsification. Evidence which might falsify the demagogue’s premises is rejected outright.

Identity is fundamental to demagogues and their rhetoric. Their assumption is that people of a particular identity in a society are better, and entitled to more goods regardless of their behaviour. So members of the dominant group are held to lower standards, and can behave worse than others without social or judicial retribution. When a dominant group, assumed to consist of virtuous people, behaves badly, mistakes by its members are dismissed as not important.

Good behaviour on the dominant group’s part is depicted as a mark of its true identity. On the other hand, good conduct by members of weaker communities is explained by their inner motives (greed or a desire to curry favour), or shaped by external factors present in a virtuous society. It means that the same behaviour in different groups is explained differently. The former group is hard-working, the latter greedy and lustful.

Demagogues are highly skilled in the art of cunning projection, condemning others for the same things their own people do. Such projection distracts and confuses bystanders, who have difficulty in understanding what is the cause and what are its effects. Demagogues seek to project self-defence by others as “bad” whereas their own offensive behaviour becomes a “necessity”. The rhetoric of demagoguery often portrays the demagogue’s group as the victim.

We live in an age of unprecedented expansion of democracy since the end of World War II and dismantling of empires. But democracies can have their own perils. In Book VIII of his work The Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, worries that a “towering despot” will rise to exploit freedoms in any democracy and seize power by harnessing fear of some people. That leader will seek to represent himself as the protector of the people against that fear.

The history of two and a half thousand years since Plato has proved him right many a time, when democracy has ended in tyranny.

[END]

Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley

CounterPunch

Things are rocky on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington, Donald Trump’s presidency, barely a month old, has made a chaotic start, and is getting sucked into ever deeper crisis. In London, Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom which looks deeply split, is about to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Thus she will begin the process of Britain leaving the European Union and its associated institutions.

In the midst of rancor between an infant presidency and its detractors, the White House meeting of May and Trump, seen hand in hand, was an extraordinary and rare demonstration of mutual love only a week after trump’s inauguration. A month on, it seems a long time ago.

Let us remind ourselves about what has happened in the past month. Donald Trump came to Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” The exodus of officials from numerous federal departments and agencies that keep the United States government functioning has been dramatic. Instead, Trump has created his own little swamp, which he has found difficult to fill.

First, the National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced out after revelations that he had held telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, while President Barack Obama was still in office and Flynn was in Trump’s transition team. That in one telephone conversation Flynn discussed the sanctions President Obama had imposed on the same day was bad enough. What sealed Flynn’s fate was that he then lied to Vice President Mike Pence, who then publicly defended Flynn saying that there had been no discussion with the Russian ambassador about the sanctions.

Flynn was also interviewed by the FBI soon after Trump’s inauguration, and had given a similar account to the agency. Following leak after leak, speculation has become relentless that over the past year other Trump associates have had constant and repeated dealings with the Russians. President Trump’s plan to appoint a friendly individual as intelligence supremo to investigate and identify sources responsible for leaks shows how much the working relationship between the White House and the intelligence services has broken down. The consequences of this breakdown for Britain’s formidable intelligence headquarters GCHQ could be serious in the light of the UK’s disengagement from the European Union.

Second, Andrew Puzder, billionaire CEO of a fast-food restaurant chain, withdrew his nomination as Trump’s Labor Secretary because of intense criticism of him in the Senate prior to his confirmation hearings. Third, Trump’s choice to refill the national security adviser’s post, Robert Harward, turned down the offer despite the president’s repeated efforts to persuade him. And then, David Petraeus, once a celebrated army general, dropped out of the race for Trump’s national security adviser.

Petraeus has been on probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge after revelations of an extramarital affair and mishandling of classified material with his lover. It is as clear as daylight that President Trump is beleaguered and faces struggle to establish his authority like few of his predecessors.

For Prime Minister Theresa May to fly to Washington within a week of Trump’s inauguration was both an act of political expediency and perilous haste. He was mercifully courteous before television cameras. She was anxious to say, again and again, that she was there to “renew the special relationship” between the United States and Britain. She boasted in front of cameras that she had secured President Trump’s full commitment to NATO in private talks. Right up to his election, Trump had described NATO as obsolete, and threatened to reduce Washington’s commitment to defending smaller, more vulnerable countries of the alliance if they did not spend more money on defense.

Trump remained silent on the matter while his guest went ahead to announce that the American president had given a firm commitment to NATO. Barely two weeks later, Trump’s Defense Secretary, James Mattis, taking Trump’s original line, said that unless other alliance members spent more, America would “moderate” its commitment to their defense. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s blunt response was that Germany would not accelerate its existing, long-term plan to gradually increase military spending despite America’s demand to do so by the end of 2017.

Vice President Mike Pence immediately picked up where Mattis had left, making clear that he was delivering Donald Trump’s message. Apparently referring to Germany, France and Italy, the American Vice President said, “Some of our largest allies do not have a credible path. The time has come to do more.”

So, we have turmoil in Washington; unprecedented tensions between the United States and NATO; and the European Union. Nonetheless, Britain’s Prime Minister looks determined to make a clean break from the European Union and all its institutions, and follow Trump’s America. It is a dangerous path.

Less than a year ago, Theresa May advocated Britain’s continued membership of the EU that gave the country access to the world’s largest market. Now, she is a passionate leader who will lead Britain out of the European Union and its economic, social, environmental and judicial instruments. She will accept estrangement from immediate European neighbors, but much greater reliance on a superpower governed by an isolationist, unpredictable president more than three thousand miles away across the Atlantic.

She will explore the “brave new world” more than half a century after Britain lost its empire, and ceased to rule the oceans. All with a small army and naval force smaller than those of the United States, Russia, China and Japan, and only slightly bigger than the French navy. Britain has nuclear weapons, but it cannot conceivably use them without America’s consent.

A country is never more vulnerable than when there is just one guarantor and not enough room for manoeuvre.

[END]

Austria Wakes Up and Rejects Far-Right Takeover

The Citizen

The June referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 American presidential election, were massive right-wing political earthquakes.

Those who predicted aftershocks, this time in Austria’s presidential election and Italy’s constitutional referendum, thought that they were on safe ground in assuming that the right would triumph there, too.

Instead, the far right in Austria suffered a shock defeat. Independent candidate and former leader of the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen, beat the Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, by a margin of 53.3% – 46.7%. In May, Bellen had won by a tiny margin of 31000 votes, but the result was annulled by Austria’s highest Constitutional Court. Then, the judges found that although there was no fraud, thousands of absentee votes had been counted too early, influencing the main vote. And the court ordered that the election be held again.

In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had called a constitutional referendum to curtail the powers of devolved regional governments and reduce the size of the Senate, arguing that these measures would reduce bureaucracy. Renzi suffered a heavy defeat and resigned as he had said before the vote. The outcome, however, did not cause the shock to the Italian system that many had predicted.

Britain’s right-wing press had made much about a new crisis for the euro and the stock markets if Renzi lost the referendum. In the event, Italy and the EU took Renzi’s departure in their stride. The truth is that governments in post-war Italy come and go frequently. Prime Minister Renzi’s was the latest. Italy’s economic and industrial decline has been going on since the end of World War II, with no real growth over the last twenty years. What was new and unexpected this time? It was business as usual for Italy.

The United Kingdom sees developments in mainland Europe very differently from Europeans themselves. So deep is the hostility against the European Union and its leading members, Germany and France, that diehard opponents on Britain’s political left and right will go to any extent to try to prove that the EU project is collapsing.

There are two different realities in mainland Europe. The far right, fervidly opposed to the idea of the European Union, has been on the rise for a number of years. But now support for the EU is also rising in many member-states, particularly in the wake of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

That the far right poses a serious challenge for established parties throughout Europe is not in doubt. Nonetheless, Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the anti-Europe rhetoric and the prevailing uncertainty, all appear to have generated a new consciousness across the continent. The European Union may have its faults. But many of those who have been working for its disintegration in the name of nationalism and sovereignty are far from serious politicians who have credible alternatives to offer.

Austria’s newly-elected president, Van de Bellen, fought on the slogan: “Those who love their country do not divide it.” The result of the re-run is evidence that the new post-Brexit reality, and the forethought of what might happen to Austria in the event of a far-right victory, evidently changed the hearts and minds of many voters.

Other worries also concentrated the minds of Austrians in the event Norbert Hofer won the presidency. The post is largely ceremonial, but what if Hofer exercised his constitutional right to appoint a prime minister, and that person was from the fringe? Austria has been a liberal democracy since the devastation in two world wars in the last century. The prospect of upheaval threatening the country’s stability and prosperity was not something Austrians wanted to contemplate again.

Continuing arrival in Europe of great many refugees escaping Middle East wars, in which the West has played its own part, have helped create favourable conditions for the far right. But to many Austrians, a far-right takeover is a frightening prospect for their country which, along with Germany, still grapples with its history of fascism and World War II.

That history reminds us of the rise and fall of a great empire and the destruction wrought by extremist politics. So the Austrian people drew back from that prospect and elected Van der Bellen, a mild-mannered academic, who expressed faith in the country’s liberal parliamentary democracy.

Will the tide now turn against right-wing extremist groups in other countries? France, Germany and the Netherlands are among European Union states due to have elections in 2017. In France, the current Socialist President Francois Hollande, facing a humiliating defeat, has announced that he would not stand for re-election next year. The contest to succeed Hollande will almost certainly be between Francois Fillon, ex-prime minister, who recently won the Republican presidential primary, and Marine Le Penn, leader of the far-right French National Front. Opinion polls suggest that Fillon will easily overcome the challenge from Marine Le Penn.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term. Despite criticisms of her decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees, Merkel remains popular among Germans. And her role is central to the success of the European Union and Germany’s leadership role.

The year 2016 has certainly produced big surprises, and it would be reckless to make predictions about the coming year. The best which can be said at this point is that even though support for the political right is causing alarm among established parties, far right nationalism has probably reached a peak from where it is unlikely to climb up much further.

[END]

The Trump Upheaval

The Citizen

It is important to remember that although Donald Trump was the Republican nominee in the 2016 United States presidential election, in reality he is an independent billionaire who likes to act alone. He demands absolute loyalty from those who depend on him.

Throughout his business career, Trump befriended politicians on both sides, including Bill and Hillary Clinton. He is emotional and picks personal fights easily. In this year’s election, he took on the Republican Party’s machinery and defeated it in the primary campaign to snatch the nomination before winning the presidency against Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent.

Trump’s victory was made possible by a white middle-class backlash in rural America and a ceaseless right-wing campaign of vilification against President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and immigrants of Muslim and non-European heritage. The acronym MMM (Mexican, Muslim, Misogyny) described the core of his campaign. Many leading Republicans dissociated themselves from Trump. But his tactics clearly worked, thus confirming deep-seated prejudices in parts of America.

Much is being made of the fact that the United States will have a Republican-controlled Senate, House of Representatives and the White House for the first time in more than 30 years. To what extent will there be unanimity between the executive and legislative branches after the initial period is by no means certain. Congress takes its constitutional responsibility in the system of checks-and-balances very seriously.

President Trump will face challenges from Capitol Hill and other quarters after he and the Republican-controlled Congress have reversed many of President Obama’s executive orders and begun moves to overturn legislative acts of the Obama presidency.

Senator Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton’s challenger in the Democratic primary campaign and a politician of substantial grassroots following, has already warned. Sanders said: “To the degree that Mr Trump pursues policies that improve the lives of working families, we will work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has threatened to see Trump in court if he tries to implement his policies which the organisation has called not simply un-American and wrong-headed, but unlawful and unconstitutional.

These include Trump’s proposals to forcibly deport about 11 million undocumented immigrants; ban on the entry of Muslims into the United States and heavy surveillance of those in the country; punish women who seek abortion; re-authorise torture, including waterboarding; and change libel laws and restrict freedom of expression.

These, the ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, violate several amendments to the US Constitution. For instance, the First Amendment (free exercise of religion and freedom of speech), Fourth (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures), Fifth (protection against self-incrimination), Eighth (imposition of excessive bail, cruel and unusual punishment) and 14th (equal protection under the law).

Challenges to Trump will also come from ordinary citizens. Within hours of the election result becoming clear, anti-Trump demonstrations had erupted in towns and cities across America.

In the light of his pledges, President-elect Trump is going to have a big agenda. Reversing all of President Obama’s executive orders can be done immediately, but dealing with the consequences will require a lot more. If Trump attempts to start mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, many of them living in America in shockingly poor conditions, there will be court battles for years. Questions will arise about their children born in the United States, with citizenship rights. And there will be long court battles over access to abortion for women.

President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act gave insurance cover to an estimated 20 million American citizens and residents for the first time. Trump has pledged to repeal the law, but that pledge is vague. A hostile Congress, determined to erase the Obama legacy, has already made more than 50 unsuccessful attempts to repeal the law. The coming Trump administration may well succeed. But what will replace the Affordable Healthcare Plan? Failure to find an alternative would cause a social crisis affecting the poorest and most vulnerable sections of American society.

Trump’s promise to rebuild America’s infrastructure will cost an estimated one trillion dollars. The country’s national debt is nearly 20 trillion and Congress has many times blocked President Obama’s spending proposals, raising fiscal objections. How will President Trump manage to borrow more, cut taxes for relatively affluent people, and keep Congress happy, all at the same time? Trump says he is impatient to move quickly. Congress takes its own time.

Changes on the international scene will be dramatic, blunt and palpable. Trump is a climate change denier. He has promised to sweep away the Paris climate accord which came into effect only a few days ago; and Obama’s emission reduction policy, painstakingly put together during his presidency. Trump’s description of global warming as “bullshit” and a “Chinese-invented hoax” explains it all. Leading climate researchers say it may become impossible to stabilize planetary warming below dangerous levels.

Donald Trump’s recent comments on NATO, and his admiration for Vladimir Putin, have sent shock-waves throughout the Western alliance. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says that an attack on any member-state will be treated as an attack on the whole alliance, and will trigger an automatic collective response.

Trump has said that he would defend NATO member-states from invasion only if he deemed that they had “fulfilled their obligations to us”. In another remark, he went further, suggesting that NATO was obsolete, and he would not mind if the alliance broke up.

Trump wants to invest in building the US armed forces in his drive to make America great again. He would leave allies to fend for themselves. He has suggested that it would be fine if Japan and South Korea developed nuclear weapons to deter China and North Korea respectively. Such a policy would be a recipe for uncontrolled nuclear proliferation. Trump has also said that he and Vladimir Putin are stable mates; that “highly respected” Putin has done great things for his country; and he would get along fine with the Russian leader.

Beneath all the diplomatic niceties, worries in Britain and the rest of Europe are mounting, because Europe’s and Trump’s visions are at odds in crucial areas. Trump admires Putin and Russia, Europe fears them; he regards NATO as obsolete, Europe sees the organization as indispensable for defence; Trump is a climate change denier, Europe sees global warming as a threat; he is a protectionist who wants to “bring back jobs” from abroad, but Europe believes in international trade; Trump would impose heavy tariffs on Chinese imports and confront China, Europe wants free trade. The list of disagreements is long.

Successive British governments have laid emphasis, too much at times, on a “special relationship” with the United States. President-elect Donald Trump has just put that relationship in a more realistic context that ought to trigger a serious revaluation in London and in other European capitals. Only when had Trump spoken to 10 foreign leaders (those of Mexico, Ireland, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, India, Australia, Japan and South Korea) did he find time to take a congratulatory call from Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom.

Those who thought that Ronald Reagan’s and George W Bush’s presidencies were periods of great upheaval would be wise to brace themselves against much more in the coming Trump presidency.

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The Final Presidential Debate, 2016

The third and final debate (October 19) is over amid more women coming out with revelations of Donald Trump’s sexual transgressions. The final countdown to the 2016 presidential election on November 8 has begun. The campaign this time is generating an unusual amount of salacious gossip on television, radio, print and social media. Hostility between the two sides is intense. It means passions among the partisans, and entertainment for the more detached observers.

US presidential elections have global significance. Therefore, substance over form matters. The entertainment value of scandalous accounts of Donald Trump’s groping of women over many years, his opaque business affairs, exploitation of workers and childish tantrums aside, the 2016 presidential campaign can be summed up in one sentence. This election is about character, integrity and competence of the two main candidates much more than any election in the last 40 years, for Clinton and Trump are both highly controversial figures.

Each has staunch supporters who think their candidate can do no wrong, and a phenomenon that will change America and the world. Then, there are detractors, convinced that a victory for the other candidate will bring disaster. On balance, Trump’s political liabilities appear to be greater because of the nature of his comments about women, minority groups, foreigners in general, just about anybody. The critical question is whether he can he win after offending so many groups.

Trump and his supporters have also raised old accusations about former President Bill Clinton’s private life; unsubstantiated claims of corruption; “botched political judgments” by the couple. These attacks may have reinforced her opponents’ views. Whether they will attract significant numbers of undecided voters to support Trump is doubtful.

So it is down to how voters see each candidate’s character (mental and moral qualities), integrity (adherence to their moral and ethical code) and competence (knowledge and ability) when they finally make up their minds.

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