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Donald Trump

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Populism: It’s the Automation, Stupid

Five of the world’s largest democracies now have populist governments, claimed The Guardian last week, and proceeded to name four: The United States, India, Brazil and the Philippines. Which is the fifth? At various points it name-checks Turkey, Italy and the United Kingdom, but it never becomes clear which. (And by the way, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is not a populist. He’s just a nationalist.)

It’s embarrassing when a respected global newspaper launches a major investigative series and can’t really nail the subject down. Neither can the people it interviews: Hillary Clinton, for example, admits the she was “absolutely dumbfounded” by how Donald Trump ate her lunch every day during the 2016 presidential campaign. She still doesn’t get it.

“We got caught in a kind of transition period so what I had seen work in the past…was no longer as appealing or digestible to the people or the press. I was trying to be in a position where I could answer all the hard questions, but…I never got them. I was waiting for them; I never got them. Yet I was running against a guy who did not even pretend to care about policy.”

Yes, Trump is a classic populist, but why did he beat her two years ago when he wouldn’t even have got the nomination ten years ago? She doesn’t seem to have a clue about that, and neither do other recent leaders of centre-left parties interviewed by The Guardian like Britain’s Tony Blair and Italy’s Matteo Renzi. So let us try to enlighten them.

Populism is not an ideology. It’s just a political technique, equally available to right-wingers, left-wingers, and those (like Trump) with no coherent ideology at all.

In this era, populism seems to partner best with right-wing nationalist ideologies like those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Brexiteers in England, but even now there are populist left-wing parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

How does this tool work? It claims to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’ and against a ‘corrupt elite’ that exploits and despises them. It’s light on policy and heavy on emotion, particularly the emotions of fear and hatred. It usually scapegoats minorities and/or foreigners, and it only works really well when people are angry about something.

We know that a politically significant number of people are angry now, because populism is working very well indeed, but people like Donald Trump can’t take the credit.

In politics, as in ecology, every niche is always filled. There are always dictator-in-waiting, would-be martyrs, and everything in between, but they only get a chance to shine if the political situation creates an opening for their particular kind of politics. So what is creating that opening now?

The anger is about the fact that the jobs are disappearing, and what’s killing them is automation. The assembly-line jobs went first, because they are so easy to automate. That’s what turned the old industrial heartland of the United States into the ‘Rust Belt’. What’s going fast now are the retail jobs, killed by Amazon and its rivals: computers again.

The next big chunk to go will probably be the driving jobs, just as soon as self-driving vehicles are approved for public use. And so on, one or two sectors at a time, until by 2033 (according to the famous 2013 prediction by Oxford economist Carl Benedikt Frey) 47% of US jobs will be lost to automation. And of course it won’t stop there.

Why don’t clever politicians like Hillary Clinton get that? Perhaps because they half-believe the fantasy statistics on employment put out by governments, like the official 3.7% unemployment rate in the United States. A more plausible figure is American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt’s finding in 2016 that 17.5% of American men of prime working age were not working.

That’s three-quarters of the way to peak US unemployment in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it goes unnoticed because today’s unemployed are not starving and they are not rioting. You can thank the welfare states that were built in every developed country after the Second World War for that, but they are still very angry people – and they do vote. A lot of them vote for populists.

Populism thrives when a lot of people are angry or desperate or both. Donald Trump and people like him are not the problem. They are symptoms (and beneficiaries) of the problem – yet they dare not name it, because they have no idea what to do about automation.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“We know…now”)

US Mid-Term Elections

Barack Obama said of the US mid-term elections that “the character of our country is on the ballot,” and the outcome proved him right. The United States is a psychological basket case, more deeply and angrily divided than at any time since the Vietnam War.

It’s not evenly divided, of course. The popular vote saw the Democrats lead the Republicans nationwide by an 8 percent margin, but that translated into only a modest gain in seats in the House of Representatives and in state elections because of the extensive gerrymandering of electoral districts in Republican-ruled states.

The more important truth is that the Republican Party is now almost entirely in the hands of ‘white nationalists’, and totally controlled by Donald Trump. It’s no longer ‘conservative’. It’s radical right, with an anti-immigrant, racist agenda and an authoritarian style – and about 90 percent of the Republicans in Congress are white males.

The Democratic Party is multi-cultural, feminist (84 of the 100 women elected to the new House of Representatives are Democrats), and even socialist. Only one-third of the Democrats in the new Congress will be white men – and almost half the Democrats in the House of Representatives can be classed as Democratic Socialists.

Donald Trump will get little further legislation through Congress, and a Democratic-controlled House will be able to subpoena his tax returns and investigate his ties to Russia, but he didn’t lose spectacularly on Tuesday. Indeed, he proclaimed that it was “a great victory” (because that’s what he always does, win or lose).

But Trump didn’t lose all that badly, either. The Republicans’ losses were within the normal range for a governing party in mid-term elections, so the political civil war continues unabated.

The divisions will continue and even deepen because neither of the major American parties understands what is making Americans so angry and unhappy. Donald Trump knows that it is fundamentally about jobs, but he is barking up the wrong tree when he blames it on ‘off-shoring’ and free trade and promises to make the foreigners give the jobs back.

Many Democrats suspect what the real problem is, but they won’t discuss it openly because they have no idea how to deal with it. What is really destroying American jobs is automation.

It’s destroying jobs in other developed countries too, with similar political consequences. The ‘Leave’ side won the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom because of strong support in the post-industrial wastelands of northern and central England. The neo-fascist candidate in the last French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, got one-third of the vote because of her popularity in the French equivalent of the US ‘Rust Belt’.

But the process is farthest advanced in the United States, which has lost one-third of its manufacturing jobs – 8 million jobs – in the past 25 years. Only 2 million of those jobs were lost because the factories were ‘off-shored’ to Mexico or China, and that happened mostly in the 1990s. The rest were simply abolished by automation.

The Rust Belt went first, because assembly-line manufacturing is the easiest thing in the world to automate. The retail jobs are going now, because of Amazon and its ilk. The next big chunk to disappear will be the 4.5 million driving jobs in the United States, lost to self-driving vehicles. Et cetera.

The ‘official’ US unemployment rate of 3.7 percent is a fantasy. The proportion of American males of prime working age (25-54) who are actually not working, according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, is 17.5 percent. Or at least that’s what it was when he did his big study two years ago.

Maybe the allegedly ‘booming’ economy of the past couple of years has brought that number down a bit, but it’s a safe bet that it’s still around 14-15 percent. This is a rate of unemployment last seen in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Why isn’t there blood in the streets? There certainly was in the 1930s.

The Great Depression led to the rise of populism, the triumph of fascism and the catastrophe of the Second World War, so almost all developed Western countries created welfare states in the 1950s and 1960s in order to avoid going down that road again. The economy might tank again, but at least people would not be so desperate and so vulnerable to populist appeals.

It kind of worked: there is plenty of anger among the unemployed (and the under-employed), but they do not turn to violence. They do vote, however, and their votes are driven by anger.

Until the major parties can acknowledge that it is the computers that are killing the jobs (and that it probably can’t be stopped), the anger will continue to grow. You can’t begin to fix the problem until you understand it.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 134, 14 and 15. (“Maybe…anger”)

Khashoggi: Worse Than a Crime

If Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), really did sent a hit team to Turkey to murder dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul ten days ago, what will happen next? Perhaps history can help us here.

A little over two centuries ago, in 1804, the armies of the French Revolution had won all the key battles and the wars seemed to be over. The rest of Europe had decided in 1801 that it would have to live with the French Revolution and made peace with Napoleon. Everything was going so well – and then he made a little mistake.

Many members of the French nobility had gone into exile and fought against the armies of the Revolution, and the Duke of Enghien was one of them. In 1804 he was living across the Rhine river on German territory.

Napoleon heard an (untrue) report that Enghien was part of a conspiracy to assassinate him, and sent a hit team – sorry, a cavalry squadron – across the Rhine to kidnap him. They brought him back to Paris, gave him a perfunctory military trial, and shot him. After that things did not go well for Napoleon.

The idea that Napoleon would violate foreign territory in peacetime in order to murder an opponent was so horrifying, so repellent that opinion turned against peace with France everywhere. As his own chief of police, Joseph Fouché, said, “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.”

By the end of the year every major power in Europe was back at war with Napoleon. After a decade of war he was defeated at Waterloo and sent into exile on St. Helena for the rest of his life. So is something like that going to happen to MbS too?

Nobody’s going to invade Saudi Arabia, of course. (Not even Iran, despite MbS’s paranoia on the subject.) But will they stop investing in the country, stop selling it weapons and buying its oil, maybe even slap trade embargoes on it.

Since it seems almost certain that Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi government – Turkish government officials have even told journalists off the record that they have audio and partial video recordings of Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture and killing – all of Saudi Arabia’s ‘friends’ and trading partners have some choices to make.

Donald Trump immediately rose to the occasion, declaring that he would be “very upset and angry” if Saudi Arabia was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, and that there would be “severe punishment” for the crime.

He even boasted that Saudi Arabia “would not last two weeks” without American military support. Presumably Trump was talking about the survival of the Saudi regime, not the country’s independence, but he was still wrong. He is as prone to overestimate his power as MbS himself.

The Saudis struck right back, saying that “The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats or attempts to undermine it whether through threats to impose economic sanctions or the use of political pressure. The kingdom also affirms that it will respond to any (punitive) action with a bigger one.”

But Trump was only bluffing. He really had no intention of cancelling the $110 billion of contracts that Saudi Arabia has signed to buy American-made weapons, because “we’d be punishing ourselves if we did that. If they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or… China.”

People have been turning a blind eye to the weekly hundreds of civilian deaths caused by Saudi bombing in Yemen for three years now. Why would they respond any differently to murder of one pesky Saudi journalist in Istanbul, even if he did write for the ‘Washington Post’?

The difference is that it’s intensely personal – this is an absolute monarch ordering the killing of a critic who annoyed him but posed no threat to his power – and it’s brazenly, breathtakingly arrogant. MbS really thinks he can do something like this and make everybody shut up about it.

He is probably right, so far as the craven, money-grubbing foreigners are concerned – like former British prime minister Tony Blair, who could barely even bring himself to say that Saudi Arabia should investigate and explain the issue, because “otherwise it runs completely contrary to the process of modernisation.”

But if the foreigners will not or cannot bring Mohammed bin Salman down, his own family (all seven thousand princes, or however many there are now) probably will. It is a family business, and his amateurish strategies, his impulsiveness and his regular resort to violence are ruining the firm’s already not very good name.

He rose rapidly out of the multitudinous ranks of anonymous princes through the favour of his failing father, King Salman, but he could fall as fast as he rose. Killing Khashoggi was definitely a blunder.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“The difference…modernisation”)

Palestinian Despair

When all is lost, entire communities sometimes engage in suicidal gestures. It happened as recently as 1906 in Bali, when the local royal family and thousands of their followers, knowing they could not defeat the Dutch conquerors, dressed in their best finery and walked straight into the Dutch gunfire. Thousands were killed.

It has been happening again in the past six weeks in the area in front of the border fence that divides the Gaza Strip from Israel. It reached at least a temporary climax on Monday, when some 2,000 Palestinians were wounded, around half by gunfire, and 60 were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

That’s at least a thousand unarmed Palestinian civilians struck by Israeli bullets in a single day. One Israeli soldier was lightly injured by a rock or a piece of shrapnel.

Even before the ‘March of Return’ began in late March, the Israeli government said that the march was just a cover for terrorists to cross into its territory and carry out terrorist attacks. Soldiers would therefore be allowed to fire live ammunition against anybody trying to damage the border fence, which included anybody coming within 300 metres of it.

There have been unconfirmed reports that the army was later told to shoot only people coming within 100 metres of the fence, which would involve maybe only half the people in the crowd. But the basic story was unchanged: those clever Hamas terrorists had figured out that the best way to sneak into Israel is to break through the border in broad daylight and make their way past thousands of heavily armed Israeli soldiers on full alert.

So anybody in the crowd could be shot if identified as a ‘key agitator’, even if he or she posed no immediate threat to the soldiers. Indeed, the army, presumably using top-secret equipment that let them identify the dead while other Palestinians carried them away, claimed that 24 of the 60 Palestinians killed on Monday were “terrorists with documented terror background.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defends the slaughter on the grounds that Hamas “intends to destroy Israel and sends thousands to breach the border fence in order to achieve this goal.” If he truly believes they could destroy Israel that way, then the country must be far weaker than anybody thought. But he’s getting away with this nonsense because Israel’s allies refuse to call him on it.

The French government has called on Israel to “exercise discernment and restraint in the use of force that must be strictly proportionate.” The British government said that “the large volume of live fire is extremely concerning. We continue to implore Israel to show greater restraint.”

The comments of Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was in Israel to celebrate the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, were even more anodyne. He just ignored the carnage happening at the border and restricted himself to saying that “The United States stands with Israeli because we both believe in freedom.”

But the prize for Most Revealing Remark must go to Khalil al-Hayya, a senior official in the Hamas party that rules the Gaza Strip: “We say clearly today to all the world that the peaceful march of our people lured the enemy into shedding more blood.” Note the word ‘lured’. At the leadership level, both sides see this ghastly event mainly in terms of political theatre.

Hamas WANTED the Israelis to commit a massacre of innocent civilians for its propaganda value. The Israeli army, well aware that this was Hamas’s goal, ordered its soldiers to shoot to injure, not to kill, whenever possible. The final score shows that they largely obeyed: if they had just randomly fired into the crowd, around one in five of the victims would have been killed, not one in forty.

Nevertheless it WAS a massacre, but the Palestinian civilians who were being maimed or killed were willing victims. The mostly young men and women in the crowd milling around in front of the border fence, which peaked at an estimated 40,000 people, knew they stood a fair chance of being killed or crippled, but they just didn’t care any more.

It’s 70 years now since the grand-parents of these young Palestinians were driven from what is now Israel, and they know that they are never going back to their ancestral homes. International law says that refugees have that right, whether they fled voluntarily (as Israel insists) or were expelled by force or the threat of force (as most other people believe), but in practice it’s just not going to happen. Israel is far too strong.

Most of the current generation know that they are never going ‘home’, and will have to live out their lives in what amounts to a not-very-large open-air prison: the Gaza Strip. It’s only natural that they are in despair, and inviting death or injury at the hands of Israeli troops seems like an honourable way out.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“So…it”)