The Madness of King Donald

Even by the wild standards of what may well be the most deranged individual ever to inhabit the White House, the man who calls himself Donald Trump has had a prolific and remarkable week.  Just to recapitulate.  In the space of five working days Trump has:

a) publicly humiliated the admittedly creepy attorney general he himself appointed

b) suggested that immigrants are criminals who cut up the bodies of beautiful young women

c) turned a Boy Scout Jamboree into an anti- Obama hatefest

d) given the police permission to smash arrestees’ heads against the wall even though many police chiefs have stated that they don’t want this ‘right’

e) tried and failed to take medical care away from millions of  Americans

f) threatened Congressmen who didn’t do what he wanted

g) fired his chief of staff because his chief of staff didn’t ‘return fire’ after one of the most blisteringly foul-mouthed rants that any press secretary has ever made

h) kept said press secretary in post instead of firing him – as any president with even the faintest glimmer of decency and political nous would have done

i) banned transgender people from the armed forces even though his own generals don’t want this

No one can say that Trump isn’t productive, even if what he produces is chaos, confusion and mayhem. But what one can also say is that this must the worst anti-establishment rebellion ever.   After all, this is a man who came to Washington to ‘drain the swamp’, and who positively reeks of the swamp itself, a man whose stupidity, narcissism,  incompetence and downright malice are so spectacularly grotesque and egregious that it is difficult to believe he is actually a real character and not some fictional monster from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Preacher.

After all, if you were going to make some kind of sci fi fantasy film about Satan getting himself elected to the presidency of the United States, you could do a lot worse than pick Donald Trump for the role.   Watching this insanity unfold would be entertaining, in a blackly comical kind of way, were it not so dispiriting and so dangerous.

First of all, one cannot contemplate Donald Trump without being constantly reminded that this was the man who millions of Americans used their democratic right and voted for, supposedly in order to give ‘the establishment’ a bloody nose.

That is difficult enough to swallow.  But then there is the very real possibility that an administration in crash and burn, that is painfully headed for historical ignominy on an epic scale, might just do something really, really bad – far worse than the lunacy that we have seen so far – in order to silence its critics and prevent the inevitable meltdown from occurring, or at least ensure that we all meltdown with him.

That’s right folks, I’m talking about a war, because if there is any one thing that can pull a failing president out of the fire and give him credibility, or even a political halo, it’s a war, the bigger the better.  You know the kind.  The one you have to fight because national security is at stake.  The one you fight because if we don’t get them they will get us. The one where you can’t stand idly by.

Who could that war be fought against?  As Trump might say, whatever.  It could be North Korea, because apparently the Trump mafia have decided ‘the time for talk is over’.   It could be Iran, of course.  After all so many people have been itching to whack Iran for years, and if Trump did it, who would care?  It could even be Russia, despite (because of?) the ongoing Russia investigation.   And why not throw China in for good measure, because as Trump keeps saying, they haven’t done everything they can to stop North Korea.

Wait! I hear you sceptics say.  Would Trump be prepared to start a war that might destroy much of South as well as North Korea, and possibly drag in China as well? Would he, perhaps with his Saudi buddies,really  start a major war with Iran and possibly Syria that would set the Middle East on fire, just to protect his presidency and his reputation?   Come on!

Well that is exactly what I’m saying.  After all, do you really believe that Trump’s son-in-law sold the Saudis $110 billion worth of weaponry just to bomb Yemen into a state of near-famine?  Consider that the only time Trump has been popular since taking office was when he fired a brace of missiles at Syria.  That’s all it took to make him ‘presidential’, according to  CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.   Yep, it really is that simple.

And consider this also.  For all Trump’s lunatic freakshow, he has yet to inflict the levels of mayhem and destruction that his far more sensible and ‘presidential’ predecessors left behind them in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and many other places.  George W. Bush turned a crime against humanity – the 9/11 attacks – into an excuse for endless war against an array of targets that had nothing to do with the attacks.  I

His administration was stacked with political schemers who were far more ‘sensible’ and intelligent than Trump’s insane clown posse.  They were ruthless, cunning and utterly amoral, and had absolutely no hesitation about manipulating intelligence in order to justify the wars they had always wanted and pave the way for the ‘new American century.’

They lied openly and blatantly, and they were aided and abetted by the very sensibly British Tony ‘ I did the right thing’ Blair.  Between them they unleashed a swathe of violence of which the ‘liberation/destruction of Mosul is just the latest chapter.

All of us are paying the price for their decisions, and many many people have paid that price in blood.   Yet oddly, none of those responsible have ever paid a serious price for it.  On the contrary, some of them have become respected elder statesmen – in certain circles at least.  Their crimes and mistakes are largely forgotten or glossed over. They write memoirs, cut sagebrush on their ranches, get jobs with the World Bank, pontificate about Brexit.

No one really cares about what they did, at least no one who matters.   No one spurns them.  No one holds them to account.   True, their reputations have been tarnished, but a bad reputation needs people to identity and recognize the disgrace in the first place and then to remember it afterwards.  Fortunately for them, we have too many politicians and too many journalists who are experts at forgetting, who are all too willing to put aside a few bothersome facts like the destabilisation of the Middle East and the destruction of entire countries in exchange for some sage advice on our contemporary predicament.

So no one should discount the possibility that this could happen even to the orange-haired freak howling, bawling and spewing demented tweets at the White House. Because as freakish as he is, he is the product of systemic failure and systemic impunity that goes beyond the vagaries of personality.  It’s a system in which you can inflict limitless ‘creative destruction’ on the rest of the world, start wars in which tens of thousands of your own countrymen and women are killed and maimed, and a few years later Bono will pop on your ranch for a selfie.

In such a system, even an administration that has gone completely off the rails can still find its way to greatness or at least to some kind of rehabiliation, still find a way to ensure loyalty, compliance and even approval. All it takes is a blaze of cruise missiles at dawn, the steely glint of fighter planes on the runway, the appearance of yet another evil enemy who we have no choice but to fight before it’s too late.

We discount that possibility at our peril, and we should watch the madness of Donald Trump very closely, and be prepared to do anything we can to prevent him from dragging us down into the swamp that he crawled out from.

The World According to Bono

I’ve got  nothing against famous people getting involved in politics or embracing political causes.  On the contrary, there’s no reason why the accident of fame and the weird cult of celebrity-worship that comes with it should place anyone above politics  or preclude celebrities from taking moral and political positions on issues that they feel strongly about.

My reservations about celebrity politics are essentially four-fold: 1) when an issue becomes important or interesting simply because someone famous is associated with it 2) when celebrity-politics becomes an exercise in narcissism and self-aggrandizement 3) when celebrities think that being famous entitles them to say things that are idiotic and banal, and 4) when celebrities use their fame to confer political credibility and legitimacy on governments, individuals and institutions that actually deserve to be criticized .

The rock-star politician known as Bono sums up most of these reservations.   Many years ago, back in the early 1980s, I saw U2’s first gig in New York and thrilled to the Edge’s chiming guitar sound and the soaring anthemic songs that lifted the roof off a packed club in the Lower East Side.

I wasn’t quite as keen on Bono’s histrionic and somewhat messianic stage persona. In the years that followed it became obvious Bono was a rock star whose exaggerated but not disreputable belief in the power of music to change the world was coupled with an extremely grandiose conception of his own ability to change it, or simply to be seen to change it. .

Since then Bono has gone on to become the perfect embodiment of 21st century hip capitalism, combining philantrophy with tax avoidance, while hanging out with NGOs,  US generals, George Bush and Tony Blair, and now Lindsey Graham.  In his polemic The Frontman: Bono (in the Name of Power), writer Harry Browne has accused Bono of “amplifying elite discourses, advocating ineffective solutions, patronising the poor and kissing the arses of the rich and powerful”.

He’s not wrong, In Bono the now quaint notion that rock n’ roll is inherently subversive force or a challenge to the status quo has become an advertisement for the status quo, in which even the most right wing politicians seek to acquire a veneer of cool humanitarianism and rock star chic by having themselves photographed alongside the man in the leather jacket and shades.

Bono’s appeal to politicians like Blair, Bush and Lindsey Graham resides in his willingness to tell certain governments and politicians what they want to hear about themselves, and leave out the things they don’t.  As a cool variant on missionary benevolence and Western good intentions, he makes them feel good, and he also makes them feel that they could be cool themselves.

This has been going on for a long time.   Nevertheless it was a novelty to hear that Bono has been summoned by the US Congress to give testimony to a Senate committee on the ’causes and consequences of violent extremism and the role of foreign assistance.’

It’s difficult to understand why the Senate felt it necessary to consult Bono on these matters. It’s true that the US doesn’t exactly have a stellar record when it comes to dealing with ‘violent extremism’.  In fact  this phenomenon has grown exponentially across the world since 9/11, partly as a consequence of the insane and reckless militarism which the Bush administration embarked upon so disastrously, and which has been continued less overtly by his successor.  But is the US Senate really so desperate that it needs to seek advice on these matters from a man who believes that   ‘comedy should be deployed’ in the struggle against groups like Boko Haram and ISIS?

It seems so, and his audience at the Senate might chuckle at this fetching example of rock star naivete, but  one can’t help suspecting that Bono was serious when he observed that: 

‘The first people that Adolf Hitler threw out of Germany were the dadaists and surrealists. It’s like, you speak violence, you speak their language. But you laugh at them when they are goose-stepping down the street and it takes away their power. So I am suggesting that the Senate send in Amy Schumer and Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen, thank you.’

Yep, if only Hitler hadn’t ‘thrown out’ those dadaists and surrealists, why the whole German population would have quickly fallen about laughing at the sight of those goose-steppers, and their belly laughter would have ‘taken away their power.’   If you believe that, it’s perfectly possible to believe that ‘sending in’ Sacha Baron Cohen and Chris Rock into occupied Mosul or northern Nigeria would help defeat ISIS or Boko Haram.  Because it’s like, as Bono says,  ISIS is showbiz,  and if you can just get people to laugh at all those floggings, executions, rapes and murders, it takes away their power.

No wonder Bono’s pronouncements have been working their way through the Internet, accompanied by the clacking of a thousand dropping jaws at what is surely one of the most idiotic pronouncements that any celebrity-politician has ever made.

But no one should be surprised that Bono would say such a thing.  What is really surprising – and alarming – is that  the government of the most powerful country should feel the need to call upon this posturing narcissist in the first place.

If the US Senate really wanted to understand its own contribution to violent extremism, it might have done better to invite Malik Jalal, the tribal elder from Waziristan who has just come to the UK to ask why the US has been trying to kill him by drone on various occasions over the last few years.  Jalal is a member of the North Waziristan Peace Committee (NWPC), which has been trying to broker peace with local Taliban groups in Waziristan.  In denouncing the American and British governments for his unwarranted inclusion on a US ‘kill list’ and the deaths of entirely innocent people that has resulted from the attempts to kill him, Jalal argued:

‘Singling out people to assassinate, and killing nine of our innocent children for each person they target, is a crime of unspeakable proportions. Their policy is as foolish as it is criminal, as it radicalises the very people we are trying to calm down.’

Too right.  And perhaps if the Senate invited people like Malik Jalal to its committees, the US government might have a better understanding of the roots of extremism than it has shown so far.

Unfortunately, it seems to prefer Bono.



Through a Davos Darkly

The world looks different from Davos.  Its lofty snow-covered peaks invite reflection and contemplation,  as Hans Castorp, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain once found, when he went to a clinic there to recuperate from tuberculosis and found himself part of a spiritual elite serenely contemplating a European civilization that was drifting towards disaster.

Looking down from  those high altitudes, Castorp and his companions inhabited a seductive and rarefied world of high culture and ideas far above the ongoing trainwreck taking place down below.   Today that experience is still possible in concentrated form for the politicians, CEOs, millionaires and billionaires, bankers and showbiz types who assembled for four days of debate and discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Instead of Castorp’s clinic, delegates at the Golden Egg hotel can pay an average ticket price of only $40,000 and $500,000 for particular fringe conferences to discuss the great problems and challenges of our time, washed down with meditation classes from Goldie Hawn.  Here you can experience some real Joseph Heller-ish moments, whether it’s  David Cameron defending his viciously anti-immigrant policies against a poster that reads ‘Committed to Improving the State of the World’; or that indefatigible ‘anti-poverty campaigner’ and tax evader Bono criticizing the rich for tax evasion.

As well as lots of high-level chunter you can also attend the Napster party or an event called ‘ A Day in the Life of a Refugee: Exploring Solutions for Syria, billed as ‘ a powerful simulation…of the struggles and choices that refugees are making to survive.’ .

Simulations are about as close as many of the people here are ever likely to come to the world that you and I inhabit.   Because it probably hasn’t escaped the attention of you less well-heeled folk out there that millions of people across the world have not been doing well during these bleak years of financial crisis and deficit-fueled austerity.

Enforced pauperisation, savage cutbacks in welfare services, the destruction of social programs, layoffs and mass unemployment, wage cuts and wage stagnation, zero hour contracts and other forms of precarity and insecurity – these have been some of the remedies that national governments and global economic institutions have forced down the throats of so many countries during these bleak five years.

In that same period the banks and financial institutions that brought the financial system to the brink of collapse were first ‘saved’ through taxpayer-funded  recapitalization programs, and have since gone to recover everything they lost and more.  In 2012 the richest ten percent of earners in the United States earned more than half the country’s total income – the highest total since records began.  That same year the 1,000 wealthiest people in the UK also saw their combined wealth rise by £414 billion, according to the Sunday Times.

This happy outcome may explain we have begun to hear more optimistic pronouncements from the IMF, the World Bank, the EU and national governments about ‘green shoots’, and ‘corners turned’ and the ‘worst is behind us’   The tone at Davos has also been cautiously upbeat.   Growth is once again in sight.   Recoveries are in the air and CEOs are once again confident enough to invest.

But the wise men and women of Davos cannot be accused of looking at the world entirely through rose-tinted spectacles.  For the conference is also an occasion for the publication of the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Risks report, which outline possible reasons for caution and even pessimism.

The report lists a number of possible ‘systemic risks’ that include water shortages, liquidity and fiscal crises, rising youth unemployment, geopolitical conflict, global pandemics, major escalation in organized crime, ‘lack of trust’, and ‘ideological polarization.’

The new Oxfam report Working for the Few has just reported that the wealth of the one percent of richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion, 65 times more than the bottom half of the world’s population, and that 85 individuals own the same as 3.5 billion people.  In the US, the report notes that 95 percent of financial growth since the crisis went to the top one percent of the population, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

These staggeringly skewed statistics are a grotesque obscenity, and they didn’t just happen by chance.  Oxfam notes a process of ‘political capture’ in which wealth has persistently shifted towards the rich since 1980, with the collusion of governments who have ensured that ‘laws and regulations are now designed to benefit the rich’ through  ‘financial deregulation, skewed tax systems and rules facilitating evasion, austerity economics.’

In other words we are talking about a deliberate transfer of wealth towards the already wealthy, at the expense of everything that might come under the broad rubric of the common good.   Yet proving once again that satire will always lag behind the 21st century, this gathering of some of the richest people and companies on the planet – most of whom have been beneficiaries of these developments – is also concerned about the effects ‘severe income disparity,’ which has supposedly become a major theme of the conference.

The Davos ‘global risks’ report notes that ‘anti-austerity movements and other protests give voice to an increasing distrust in current socio-economic and political systems’ and that ‘ widening gaps between the richest and poorest citizens threaten social and political stability as well as economic development.’

This threat to ‘social and political stability’ is clearly more worrying to the Davos delegates than inequality itself.   Can we expect the summit to support income redistribution? Social programs funded through higher taxation?   Perhaps the complete reorganization of the economic system to favour the least well-off?   An organized transfer of wealth towards the poor rather than the rich? Raising the minimum wage?

Not exactly.   In fact Bill Gates actively opposes raising the minimum wage, on the grounds that it is bad for (his) business.   But as Thomas Mann once observed ‘There are so many different kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst’, and the Davos summit contains many clever people who even if they are not too bothered by the impact of inequality on those at the sharp end of it, nevertheless sense that it might actually threaten the system that they have all done so well out of.

The report worries that rising populism and a general disenchantment with politicians might lead to  ‘ an era of greater economic pragmatism and national self-protection’ that would ‘increase inter-state friction and aggravate a global governance vacuum.’

They’re right.   But that vacuum has been evident for some time, and watching Blair, Gates and the astonishingly self-regarding Bono linking arms  in a kumbaya moment, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Davos is a symbol of such vacuity rather than an antidote or a cure for it.

But behind the posturing and the self-regard, perhaps these glassy-eyed  saviors can sense the dangerous tremors beneath the surface of this scandalously unjust and mismanaged world that they helped create,  and worry that one day they will have to descend like Hans Castorp from the magic mountain, and fly away in their private jets to find that there is nowhere safe for them to land.