He’s hired | Monocle

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Sasha Issenberg

How anti-Trump America fights back

At some point the examples of Donald Trump’s obsequious behaviour towards Moscow became too much to see as isolated slips by a candidate who said his guiding principle was “America First”. There was the persistent flattery of Vladimir Putin, the inexplicable shift in the Republican party’s Ukraine policy and the odd insistence by a candidate who relished conflict that his priority with Russia was to “get along”. The theory among bewildered observers was that the candidate had been turned by the enemy. “In the intelligence business,” wrote former CIA director Michael Morrell, “we would say that Mr Putin had recruited Mr Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”

Now it is time for the American left to do the same. Over a year and a half as a full-time politician, Trump has offered a rich portrait of his psychological and political vulnerabilities. His opponents should use it not to destroy the new president but to put him to work as an asset.

For a would-be strongman, Trump is uncommonly weak. There is the wan political power that he brings into the White House, having won more than one million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton did. Among his own supporters, large numbers cast ballots for him even as they concluded that he was unqualified, dishonest, untrustworthy and temperamentally unfit for the presidency (15 per cent of those who voted for Trump at the time viewed him unfavourably, according to exit polls). On the night that he was elected, Trump was already among the least popular presidents in US history.

He may benefit briefly from low expectations but bad news is inevitable – economic cycles will likely ensure that – and Trump’s inability to live up to his boldest promises will disappoint his supporters. The factories and coal mines will not hum back to life and no wall will ever stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Even the more plausible-sounding commitments, such as his vow to replace Obamacare “with something terrific”, are fraught with political peril. To enact any healthcare reform will require the type of horse-trading with Washington lobbyists that could sully Trump’s image as an untainted outsider. Tensions with house speaker Paul Ryan – a more conventional free-market conservative who disagrees with Trump about immigration, trade and social-welfare programmes – are inevitable.

As a candidate Trump tracked his process in polls and that fixation is unlikely to fade even though he won. Where other politicians are driven by ideological or party priorities, or a sense of their place in history, Trump responds to more urgent imperatives. He wants to be loved and respected in his own time, which he tracks through poll numbers and press clippings. He wants to claim victories – whatever they may be.

Even as he relishes conflict Trump doesn’t respond well to adversity. He is sapped by the insecurities that led Hillary Clinton to mock his “thin skin” during the campaign, to label him “a man you can bait with a tweet”. A critical word may drive Trump to lash out but even modest praise – or even a perfunctory congratulatory phone call from a one-time rival – can easily send him into a swoon. “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump said of Putin.

The Democrats’ most valuable handlers in this respect will be Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. As former presidents they can speak to Trump as an equal and he will be flattered to have them do so. He himself seemed surprised to say at the end of his first meeting in the Oval Office that he would seek his predecessor’s “counsel”. Trump has already done so with Clinton, even consulting his future rival’s spouse by phone before announcing his candidacy in 2015.

On the golf course, Obama and Clinton can earn Trump’s confidence by sharing insights that only they can offer. (The Bushes are likely to stay at a greater remove and Jimmy Carter has never been much for fraternising in what authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy call the Presidents’ Club.) The former presidents can commiserate about the unique task of managing a White House and the secrets of a Camp David lifestyle. They can gossip about other heads of state with whom they interact as peers.

Given their removal from partisan politics, Trump is likely to be less threatened by Obama and Clinton than by other Republicans whose motives he would find suspect. As two-term presidents they can convince him that they, not Ryan, are the real winners – and guide him on the path to high approval ratings. As Trump finds himself at odds with members of his own party, his Democratic handlers should pull him closer, offering him the opportunity to reclaim his identity as a dealmaker. Obama and Clinton can goad the president to see the Democratic senate leader Chuck Schumer – another canny New Yorker who has made a hobby out of constructive haggling – as a more natural partner than Ryan.

After all Trump was, until not very long ago, a Democrat who believed in abortion rights, gun control and even a public national healthcare system. He switched all of those positions out of opportunism and was an unconvincing convert: the language of his old stances came more naturally than the new ones. To the extent that there is a Trump ideology, it is of nationalist economics and great-man accomplishment. The policy about which he speaks most fluently is public infrastructure, where he wants to spend heavily without regard for debt or deficit. It is the ideology of the builder. “I alone can fix it,” Trump said at his convention. Democrats should lead him to their fixes and let him think he did it all alone.

Sasha Issenberg is Monocle’s Washington correspondent


Steve Bloomfield

Why there’s nothing wrong with being liberal

It hasn’t been a good few months for liberals, city-dwellers, experts, gay people who want equal rights, women who don’t want a president who boasts about sexually assaulting them and people of colour who want to be heard. We have been castigated as an elite that’s out of touch with people’s real concerns. Apparently we have been numb to the fact that this is a divided world. We need to give up on our beliefs and leave the stage to the politicians now confident to display in public their isolationist views, their sexism and homophobia, and their belief that all people are not born equal. Well, sorry, but we’re not going anywhere – and we’re not shutting up.

The use of the word “elite” to describe those of us who believe in education, equality and opportunity for all is particularly pernicious. It’s said with a sneer and suggests that those in the “elite” somehow think that they are better than everyone else; it’s intended to divide. More than that, it’s an attempt to suggest that there are fewer of us than there are. A reminder: more than 62 million people voted for Hillary Clinton, while in the UK 16 million voted to remain in the EU. Those voters are not the elite: in the UK they number 48 per cent, in the US just over 50 per cent. We need to remember that we have strength in numbers.

We also need to remember that we’re right. There is nothing wrong with believing in equality: that everyone should be allowed to marry regardless of their sexuality; that women should not be sexually assaulted, verbally abused in the street or discriminated against at work; and that black people should not be racially abused or targeted by the police because of the colour of their skin. There is nothing wrong with being an expert – with getting an education, specialising in a chosen field and then using that knowledge to better understand the world around us. There is nothing wrong with being cosmopolitan, learning a language, understanding another culture and mixing with people who are from different parts of the world. (And here let us pause for a moment and consider the absurdity that we – the ones with passports, the ones with friends, family and colleagues from around the world – are the ones who are accused of living in a bubble.)

But liberals also need to remember this: right now we are losing. Not by much but by enough. We need to fight for our values as vigorously as they do for theirs. We need to be as adept at using language as they are. We need to be as smart at engaging with people who don’t automatically agree with us as they are. Now is not the time to hide away, to lick our wounds and to meekly accept that the battle is lost. Now is the time for liberals to stand proud and fight for what we believe in.

Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s executive editor


David Usborne

What the Democrats need to do – and not do – next

The Democrats in the US are smarting. Of course they are. Not only was their candidate for president macheted by a bilious blowhard they were certain was entirely unfit for office but on election day they saw their hopes of regaining control of the Senate evaporate. It got more painful when they looked at who voted for Hillary Clinton – and who did not – and how that also impacted on candidates for Congress. More than ever the party has been corralled into a few states on the coasts. Even erstwhile Democrat bastions in the industrial Midwest turned from blue to red.

The good news is that diagnosing the errors of 2016 and taking corrective action will put the Democrats back on the offensive; it will also put them back on the map in time for both the midterm elections for Congress and 2020, when Trump will presumably seek re-election. But there are pitfalls that must be avoided: it will be tragic if the party reads its current predicament in simple ideological terms. Within hours of its debacle, some on the liberal wing were making the case that Democrats had spent too long following the centrist co-ordinates first set by Bill Clinton 25 years ago and that the only solution to their troubles was to swing left.

Internecine ideological squabbles of the kind that have convulsed the UK’s Labour party would do nothing to win back the territory that the party has lost. Rather it would further disgust voters who only ask that their representatives listen to them – and put them first. That means listening to the issues that concern them most: their wallets and economic security – or lack of it. How ironic it is that Clinton lost partly because she lost focus on the mantra first coined by James Carville, her husband’s strategist in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

On social policies – abortion, gay and transgender rights, gun control and so forth – the party’s left-progressive credentials are solid. But arguably it was because the party became so preoccupied with proving kinship with the right interest groups in the US’s so-called culture wars that it allowed itself to lose focus on the Carville dictum. Concern with cultural liberalism took precedence over concern with economic solidarity, which in turn fed a sense that the party had become a prisoner of the liberal elite and disconnected from the ordinary worker.

Clinton also allowed her economic message to be drowned out by her determination to message individual constituencies, such as African Americans and Latinos, in her hoped-for coalition. Had she emphasised the former it might have resonated with each of those groups anyway. “The party started looking at people through interest-group coalitions and we thought, ‘If we talk to them all in different ways, that will be enough,’” says Ruben Gallego, a Democrat congressman in Arizona. “I think that there is a common interest in our economic policies between the laid-off white worker in Flint, the African-American and the Latino in Phoenix.”

And in 2018, Democrats will still face inbuilt challenges: they will have to fight Senate races in 10 states that voted Trump and regain the majority in the upper chamber. But consider the other variables, such as how Trump himself will be faring after two years in office: historically the party that has just captured the White House gets walloped in the first mid-term elections because high hopes of a new president have not been met. Just as important will be how Democrats on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate, conduct themselves in those first two years. Their choice is simple: either they try to stymie the Trump agenda at every turn – including his attempts to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court – or they show more constructive, bipartisan colours. They should take the latter course.

Indeed, Democrats may find themselves with more opportunities to make an impact in the next two years than they realise because on a range of key issues they may share more common ground with Trump than their Republican colleagues do. It might be with help from Democrats, for instance, that Trump gets his ballyhooed infrastructure-rebuilding programme though Congress. And his pledge to find ways to maintain full funding of so-called entitlement programmes such as the Medicare insurance system for retired Americans will also get a far more sympathetic hearing from Democrats than from many in his own party.

Though they are suffering from a Trump migraine, Democrats should not behave like Republicans did with Barack Obama and become the party of obstruction. If they help in areas of common interest they will regain relevance. And who knows, if they also retool their economic message, their time in the wilderness may not be so bad – or last so long.

David Usborne is a veteran observer of the US political scene who has just finished following his sixth – and most unpredictable – presidential election.


Megan Gibson

What the world stands to gain

Trying to find a silver lining in Donald Trump’s victory can feel like a fool’s errand. The election of a narcissistic, ill-tempered bigot will have profound consequences not only for the US but also for the world. There is already evidence that some Americans are looking to escape. Two days after the election Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News surveyed more than 1,600 industry professionals and found that nearly half think Trump’s win will trigger a brain drain of foreign-born, US-educated scientists and medical experts.

This will be the likely result of immigration policies and unwelcoming rhetoric that pushes hardworking people out of the country. But with Trump’s disavowal of climate change and disregard for professionals, it’s not hard to imagine that a brain drain could run deeper than just the foreign-born. His unsettling policy suggestions make it easy to believe that liberals in other sectors might wish to find somewhere more welcoming. And here’s the good news: there are lots of great places that would love to have you.

For decades the US has been the recipient of other nations’ brain drains, benefitting from the talent and innovation of the world’s brightest as people were lured by the idea of the American dream. Now it could be Americans who look for more progressive pastures abroad.

For the liberal nations now bound to see a brain gain as recipients of these disenchanted Americans, this is an opportunity. Canada, Australia, much of Europe and parts of Asia will soon have talented people knocking on their doors. First will be their own returning citizens, trained in the US, coming back with a fresh perspective and new ideas. Then there will be the influx of US citizens, whose progressive ideals and stellar education will make them a welcome addition to any workforce. The rest of the world should be seizing this moment to say what Trump has pointedly refused to: “Welcome.”

Megan Gibson is Monocle’s associate editor

Five ways in which liberals can change the conversation

Create a binational city across the USA and Mexico
There is far more that unites Mexicans and Americans than divides them – unless, of course, that wall gets built. But instead of simply campaigning against the wall, liberals on both sides should put their weight behind a more positive project. We would like to see some attention given to the quixotic yet beautiful plan for a binational city spanning the US-Mexico border. The city’s residents would have dual nationality and people and goods would move freely across the border. Dreamed up by Mexican architect Fernando Romero, the admittedly ambitious plan could help foster a new period of coexistence.

Burst the bubble
We are cutting ourselves off from each other, retreating into our own perfectly curated information silos. We read things that reinforce our views, watch comedy programmes that make us feel better about our way of life and increasingly meet and speak to people who are just like us. This isn’t just a liberal problem: many people in former coal-mining centres in Midwest America and northeast England know little about life outside their own towns. Read a newspaper or watch a news channel that you disagree with – or just pick up the phone and talk politics with that relative whose views you find tricky.

Protect real jobs
The past 30 years have seen most mainstream parties, on the centre-left and the right, embrace a form of economic liberalism that has failed to prioritise meaningful jobs. When factories have outsourced or old industries have failed, governments have put too little emphasis on retraining and thought too little about the community. Old jobs can’t be brought home but governments can do more to protect those that remain. They can also provide funding for vocational education, which in too many western nations is still seen as an afterthought. A job isn’t just about an income: it’s about an identity. And no-one has ever proudly told their friends that they work in a call centre.

Invest in infrastructure
This is not a new idea but it is one that needs to be voiced again and again. In both the US and western Europe, infrastructure is crumbling: potholes go unfilled and bridges are not repaired. Infrastructure spending remains one of the best ways in which to stimulate an economy – and even Trump understands this. From a political point of view it’s also the best way of proving that a government is governing for everyone.

Fight for what you believe in
Change doesn’t happen unless people fight for it. That has always been the case but perhaps in recent years some liberals have forgotten it, happy to make their case online with a simple click while neglecting to organise in their community or take to the streets. Progress, as Barack Obama pointed out after Trump’s victory, is not linear. “We zig and zag,” he said. New protest groups have sprung up following Brexit and Trump, while older ones have had new life breathed into them. If 2017 is to be any better than 2016, it will need to be a year of protest.

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