In France Emmanuel Marcon, spouting a pro-EU, neo-liberal praise of globalization defied the apparent populist trends to easily win the French Presidency and a large majority in the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, in Great Britain Theresa May’s gamble to call a snap election failed miserably. She put her 17 seat majority on the line, believing the polls that said she could win by 20% and gain 100 seats. Instead the Conservatives beat Labour 42-40%, and she lost her parliamentary majority. She looks to remain Prime Minister by forming a partnership with the conservative northern Irish DUP. It will be precarious, at the first big controversy her government could fail, meaning new elections.
She campaigned on the argument that she needed a strong majority to negotiate a good Brexit deal for the UK. Well, so much for that! Indeed, some are quietly discussing the possibility that Brexit may be avoided after all.
Taken together, the two stories point to a rough Brexit for Great Britain. The French want to prove that leaving the EU is painful. The Germans and French may play “good cop/bad cop” with the British, perhaps dangling out the idea of remaining inside the Union after all. Stranger things have happened.
Earlier this year Gerd Wilder’s Party for Freedom was expected to do very well in the Dutch elections, perhaps winning a plurality. While he did gain some votes since the election before, his numbers dropped precipitously from polls in 2016, with the establishment parties hanging on in the Netherlands. Beyond that, the nationalist UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) failed miserably in the British elections, while polls show the anti-EU “Alternative fuer Deutschland” (AfD) having its worst numbers in years ahead of the German election in September. Angela Merkel’s CDU looks strong, bouncing back after predictions that her liberal refugee policy would threaten her re-election.
What to make of all this?
In 2016 it looked like Europe was going the route of nationalist populism. With Marine Le Pen on the rise in France, Wilders polling very well, and Merkel in trouble, the nationalists were on the rise, the establishment on the run. With the Brexit vote to “leave” surprising everyone mid-year, predictions were made that perhaps even France would vote to leave, especially if Le Pen became President.
So what happened? What did everything turn around, almost on a dime?
A possible answer: Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent, Brexit.
To many Europeans, nationalist populism was an effective way to protest a feared loss of control as more power shifts to the EU. When the Syrian refugee crisis hit a peak, fear of terrorism and worries about the cultural identity of Europe grew.
But when the Brits passed Brexit and the Americans elected nationalist populist Donald Trump, most Europeans were shocked into reality. Moving away from the EU towards some kind of nationalist vision was not just a protest, it could have real world implications! Europeans asked themselves if they were really ready to give up the benefits of the European Union, which is the major reason for peace and economic vibrancy in Europe. Indeed, the EU’s willingness to expand eastward helped stabilize democracy and markets in East European states, a real success story.
As the Trump Presidency wobbles, the geo-political balance appears to be shifting away from the US, as the Europeans cultivate ties with China and other states. The Anglo-American core of the western alliance is weakened, as Angela Merkel more often is dubbed “the leader of the free world.”
Yet politics is fickle. The US still is the major military force of the West, and has the world’s largest economy. Americans are already turning against Trump, and the prospect that the next President will be a committed Atlanticist is quite real. If that were to happen, the Europeans would welcome the US back (though the French might be a tad disappointed).
Still, one wonders what would have happened if Trump had not been elected. Would the Europeans have shifted away from populism so quickly if the real world implications weren’t put on display with Trump’s America? Ironically Trump’s election may have played a role in turning European politics away from the populist right, towards an acceptance of the establishment ideals that have worked so well since the end of WWII.
Yet the political world remains in flux. In Great Britain the resurgence of the Left shows the criticism of the neo-liberal establishment remains popular on the both sides of the spectrum. Macron’s French victory could sour should he not deliver on his promises. Trump remains a wild card – unpredictable and unconventional.
Still, for now European politics appears more stable than it did a year ago, even as flux and uncertainty remain. When the Germans vote in September that will complete elections in the “big three” this year – France, the UK, and Germany. Things appear to be stabilizing, but the 21st Century has so far demonstrated that the political world has become unpredictable in these days of systemic change.
On Sunday April 23rd the French go to the polls for the first round of the 2017 Presidential election. Current President Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party is not standing for re-election, thanks to extremely low approval ratings. Whoever wins this election will become the eighth President in the French Third Republic, which began in 1959.
The election Sunday will not produce a winner. To become President after the first round of voting requires a candidate receive a majority of the vote – at a minimum 50% + one vote. That has never happened in the Fifth Republic, and won’t happen Sunday.
On May 7th, two weeks after the first round of voting, the top two vote getters will face off to see which will become President. Historically that meant the leader of the Gaullist right against the Socialist party candidate. That would mean Francois Fillon of the Republican (right of center) party against Socialist Benoit Hamon. Fillon, dogged by scandal accusations, still has an outside chance at making the cut (he polls about 19%), but Hamon is way back and it would be a shock if he survived the Sunday vote.
The leader in the polls is Emmanuel Macron, a young (39 years old), brilliant investment banker and former economics advisor, he espouses a pro-EU, pro-globalization free market approach he hopes will revitalize the French economy. He supports the French social welfare system and believes in accepting refugees, a hot button issue in France. Following a close second is Marine Le Pen, at 22% to Macron’s 23.5%. She is the daughter of racist right wing nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, and leads the National Front party he dominated for so long. Unlike her father she tries to espouse a softer, gentler nationalism that avoids overt racism. Yet she is anti-EU, anti-immigrant, and argues that France should stand up for the interests of the French people first, and reject globalization.
Right now the smart money is on these two keeping their lead and competing head to head in the run off. However, with 11 people running in the first round, and the polls bunched up, it’s impossible to know for sure. The two who appear within striking distance of the top two are Fillon and far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Nightmare scenario: If it’s Le Pen vs. Melenchon, France will be in panic mode. It would be far right against far left, two anti-EU candidates who attack France’s core post-war identity. This would be the most likely case for a Le Pen win. As controversial as the far right has been, it has become more acceptable in recent years. The far left seems a Zombie – risen from the dead but without new ideas. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – which poison to choose? If this is the match up, all bets are off. The EU may be jeopardy, France may be taking a scary and unprecedented turn, and it’ll be a helluva show.
Most likely scenario: If however it’s Le Pen vs. Macron after Sunday, breath a sigh of relief. This is the match up most expect, and currently the smart money would be overwhelmingly with Macron. Yes, Brexit and Trump over performed polls and expectations. Le Pen could as well. Still, at least this gives the French a choice between a hard turn left or right, or maintaining the post war identity that has worked well.
Odd scenario: If it’s Melenchon vs. Macron, it’s the reverse of the above, only surprisingly it would be the far left rather than nationalist right that becomes the primary alternative. This can only happen if Melenchon lures votes away from Marine Le Pen by crafting his leftist nationalism in a way that appeals to working class Le Pen voters. Macron would almost certainly win such a match up, but it would be interesting to see how the pundits and politicians react.
Right wing scenario: On the other hand, if Fillon moves ahead of Macron, it could be Le Pen vs. Fillon. In such a case Fillon is almost certain to win. He keeps many conservative votes, and voters from the left will do anything to stop Le Pen. Still…Fillon has been dogged by scandals and it’s conceivable that his appeal would be short of expected. Le Pen may have a better chance against Fillon than she would against Macron.
Other possible matchups would be: Fillon vs. Macron (interesting, though Macron would again be the favorite), and Fillon vs. Melenchon (Fillon favored, but Melenchon’s populist leftism could play surprisingly well).
Here’s the problem – in a race with 11 candidates and four of them polling just above or below 20%, there can be volatility. Any one of those scenarios is possible, even if Macron vs. Le Pen is most likely. What we’ll learn on Sunday is who the two candidates in the run off will be. That’s when the fun begins!
Nearly 100 days into the Trump Presidency it appears as if the Donald is over his head. Sure, he shot a few missiles into Syria, and met with some foreign leaders. Yet for all the talk of “making America great again,” and “draining the swamp,” this administration has been at best quiet, at worst ineffective or incompetent.
This should not be a surprise. During the campaign I used the metaphor of a car salesman. The salesman can make lots of claims, talk up the car, and his job is done once the buyer signs the dotted line. Trump is a good salesman. But when you actually need to service the car, the salesman is irrelevant. The mechanic in the service department has no desire to talk up the car; she’ll tell you what’s wrong, and even note if a particular model has problems the salesman didn’t mention. You would never want her replaced by the salesman – you need her to keep the car in working order.
Yet Trump made the sale and now he’s in charge of the service department and doesn’t really know what to do. He’s used to giving orders and having his staff follow through (ready to fire them if they fail), but that’s not how the Presidency works. Business leaders in general have problems moving to executive positions in government; this seems especially so with Trump.
The health care fiasco is this in a microcosm. With all the bravado of a salesman Trump declared that the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare would yield a better system that would “benefit everyone.” Yet reality was messy. People would be thrown off insurance, the public was worried about losing aspects of what they liked about the ACA, and Republicans were split on just how to “repeal and replace.”
At that point, the President had to become a master of detail, someone who could sit down with the stakeholders, negotiate, cajole, and make the deal. The trouble is, Trump has never really been a good deal maker. He’s a salesman; his deals have historically been poor, which is why he has so many failed businesses and has often flirted with bankruptcy. He assumed his staff would do the hard work, he didn’t realize he actually had to do more than just talk and posture. The result: an embarrassing failure that left Washington insiders amazed at the apparent incompetence of GOP leaders and especially the President.
Now as the Republicans turn to his promise of tax reform, people are pessimistic that anything can be done. With Trump’s approval ratings down around 40%, he lacks political capital to pressure people to comply, and he appears to lack the patience to learn the details and work through the issues.
The missile strike on Syria is another example. While a few people said that this represented “toughness” on the part of the President, it’s easy to order attacks. Obama, Bush, Clinton, and really every President in recent history have ordered strikes. The Syrian strikes were especially impotent – the US warned Russia, who assured Syria was not caught by surprise, and they did little damage. Overall, it’s hard to see much change from the Obama foreign policy to the Trump policy, despite his promise to “put America first.”
That leads to the most incongruent aspect of the Trump Presidency – his populist message is at odds with his style of governance. He quickly ordered an end to the “drain the swamp” rhetoric, and has stocked the White House with lobbyists and insiders. His nationalist guru Steve Bannon is finding himself overshadowed by Trump’s mainstream son in law, Jared Kushner. Simply, beyond rhetoric President Trump has done nothing that really jives with his campaign. The salesman behaves differently when he runs the service department.
Yet anger at Trump from the left, along with support by xenophobes and white supremacists on the right still resonate. Republicans hope the President’s mainstream approach to governance will convince moderates that he isn’t some kind of dangerous radical. But already Breitbart news and some on the “alt.right” have warned Trump that if he veers too far from his rhetoric, or if he were to dump Bannon, they’d turn on him with a vengeance.
Simply, Donald Trump doesn’t have what it takes to be President. He lacks patience, discipline, and is too insecure – focused on how the media portrays him. Rather than lead a revolution in American politics – some kind of rejection of globalism in favor of strident nationalism – he’s appears like a deer caught in a car’s headlights. He’ll enjoy the pomp, offer rhetorical flourishes, but lacks the capacity to have a disciplined approach to governance.
This could change – Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump want to turn the administration around, and they are likely a moderating influence. This could be early day stumbles; perhaps he’ll learn on the job. But at this point Donald Trump, for all the bluster, appears en route to becoming “the do nothing President.”
Update: This article in the “Daily Beast” chronicles an effort by the “adults” in the White House to gain control and stabilize the Presidency: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/04/16/new-power-center-in-trumpland-the-axis-of-adults.html?via=newsletter&source=DDMorning
I was in South Dakota this weekend for my niece’s wedding reception. Two years ago, my nephew got married. Both have awesome partners and are clearly in love. In all the talk about love, partnership, commitment, it occurs to me that as a culture, we have a very tenuous grip on what love actually is.
The divorce rate is over 50%. I’ve been divorced more than once. I clearly haven’t understood love properly. Perhaps Joni Mitchell put it best in her classic “Both Sides now”:
“Moons and Junes and ferries’ wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way
But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all”
So what is love?
I’ll take a Platonic approach to this. Plato argued that the world we experience, the world of appearances, is not the true world. The true world is the ideal; our world is just a poor reflection of that ideal, more illusion than reality.
In our world ideal love is distorted by human weakness, emotion, jealousy and fear. If we want to experience love, it seems we should seek the ideal, and try to work against the distortions.
So what is ideal love? Here’s a stab at a definition: Love in its ideal form is when one person cares about another to the point that the well being, happiness, and autonomy of the other is an end in and of itself. The last phrase is important – if it is an end in and of itself, it is not transactional. One doesn’t give love in return for love, or predicate love on what another does in response. In the move from ideal to “real in the world” love, the most difficult aspect is to have love as an end in and of itself.
Autonomy is an important aspect of love, yet one that people find difficult to apply. If someone complains, “She doesn’t pay attention to me,” “He doesn’t buy me anything,” or “She ignores me when I’m talking about things important to me,” then one is really saying, “he or she is being autonomous, rather than doing what I want them to do.” That ain’t love, that’s a desire for control. Even harder might be, “she slept with someone at the party, she cheated on me.” She can’t cheat if she’s autonomous.
While monogamy may be a common result of real love, expectations of monogamy are attempts at control. People usually nod to human jealousy and decide that if its expected of both, then at least it’s fair – two people agree that they can’t give up wanting some control of what the other does. In essence they say “we’re humans, humans are jealous, so let’s just accept that and promise to give up our autonomy in this realm.” That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s a step away from ideal love.
The happiness of the other as an end is also an ideal difficult to achieve. Two people decide to find ways to be happy together, each compromising so that their happiness is shared. When these compromises yield happiness – the two enjoy doing something together – it’s great. They’ve learned to expand the experience of happiness to something new, that is an important benefit of love and friendship. But if they struggle through something (‘Football is important to Joe, so I’ll entertain his friends and pretend I’m enjoying the game….then he’ll go shopping with me which I know he hates…’), then it’s really misplaced. Better to go off and do something on their own or with other friends than believe it’s necessary to be together all the time.
At base, the more insecure one is, the more it becomes tempting to use relationships as a crutch to bolster self-esteem or avoid confronting difficult truths. Insecurity is the root of negativity, and the most certain path to the farthest point away from ideal love. Since all humans have some level of insecurity, love in the world is always likely to fall short of the ideal.
Yet as I think of my niece and her husband starting a life together, the joy of the two dancing to their song, and sparkle when they’re eyes meet, I hope they don’t give up the quest to express love in the most ideal way possible.
And as I consider a planet full of fear, jealousy, insecurity, stress and struggles for control, I realize that this isn’t just about relationships. The quest to experience love in its ideal form is universal, connecting all humanity. Getting closer to idealized love is the only path to really limit pain, misery and boredom in this world. But universal love for humanity is abstract and difficult.
Best to start the quest to express love as ideally as possible with the people around us – friends, family, partners, and even those who just cross our path for brief periods of time. Perhaps most importantly is to love ourselves – one cannot be strong and secure without self-love. We may learn that love is indeed the answer.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s strategic analyst and dark guru, met with the Freedom Caucus to lay down the law. “You have no choice but to vote for this bill,” Bannon commanded, not realizing that Congress people don’t like being told what to do, even by a White House controlled by their own party.
Bannon’s logic made sense: If the bill to repeal and replace the ACA fails, then Obamacare survives, perhaps indefinitely. If the White House gives in to the ultra-conservative freedom caucus, then moderate Republicans would bolt, assuring the bill’s defeat. However imperfect – only a small reduction in the deficit, despite having 24 million more uninsured within a decade – the legislation was the only way to keep the promise to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
While some in the freedom caucus were tempted – one person has quit the caucus out of frustration of having the group obstruct the President’s agenda – the three dozen members held true to the belief that the replacement was simply “Obamacare light,” and did not undo the most objectionable aspects of the ACA.
Making things harder for the GOP was that the ACA’s favorability went into positive territory this January – the first time since its passage. In fact, favorability was + 10% in many polls, a turn around from just a few months before. The reason: once people started to understand what it would mean to have the act repealed, they had second thoughts. Republicans in Congress learned that on their ‘town hall meetings’ over the last couple months as well. Many in the party feared that “Trumpcare” would be a disaster and give the Democrats something to rally around. Keeping the ACA, anathema to many Republicans, might be best for the party’s electoral chances in 2018.
So does this mean Obamacare is here to stay? The odds are good that it will endure. To be sure, President Trump made what Nancy Pelosi called a “rookie mistake,” trying to ram ‘repeal and replace’ through quickly. President Obama took over a year to pass the ACA, despite enjoying a much larger majority in both houses. Obama had to cajole, deal, and adjust the proposal numerous time – health care is complicated, as President Trump recently noted with some surprise.
But it’s very difficult to roll back a government program that helps millions of people. Once it’s gone, the personal stories of people who lose insurance, and maybe some who die or endure medical cost bankruptcy will become common place, and be a big issue for the Democrats. Republicans, seeing the popularity of the program, are loathe to do anything to squander the political power they’ve worked ten years to achieve.
Republicans knew Obamacare would be hard to repeal; this is why they tried so hard to delay or prevent implementation of the ACA. They knew it would be like Medicare/Medicaid had been back in the sixties – extremely controversial to pass, but once in place, all but impossible to roll back.
Ultimately, the ACA has numerous flaws that need to be fixed. Perhaps a bipartisan effort coming from the Senate can move in that direction, and later gain support from President Trump, who right now absolutely loathes the “freedom caucus.” But a GOP-only “repeal and replace” looks unlikely. For a party that voted to repeal the ACA sixty times when they knew it would be vetoed, reality is proving far more daunting.
My prediction: in the coming years reality will force Congress and the President (including whoever comes after Trump) to make changes to the ACA. Overtime, like Medicaid and Medicare (and before that Social Security) this once extremely controversial bill will become mainstream and accepted by both parties. People will remember March 24, 2017 as the day that the ACA was on its deathbed, and thanks to hard core conservatives who did not want to compromise, Obamacare prevailed. Ironically, this may be the best outcome for the Republican party in the long term. It may also be the point where the freedom caucus and hard core conservatives in the House finally jumped the shark.
I have not blogged for over a week, and it’ll be a few days before I venture to write anything serious. I am in Italy, leading a community member and alumni trip that ends alas on Monday. This May I return, this time with students. So I’m getting a good taste of Italy.
Nothing serious in this blog except that travel is truly a wonderful experience. It changes you, and stays with you more than any material possession would. It also is the best kind of relief from the daily grind. Even though I’m working – setting up schedules, leading a group, taking care of planning – I’m away from the daily routine.
The best part is that without the daily worries of what has to be done and what tasks are ahead, one really lives in the moment. All that matters is the experience as it happens. The people along on the trip become close friends, even if I know that after we return we’ll all go back into our own worlds and hardly see each other. For now, this moment, this day, we are sharing a wonderful experience.
Whether it’s food, gelato, walking through Florence at night as the vibrant city is alive with buskers, people out and about, and the glorious sites of the Duomo, Piazza della Signora, and the Ponte Vecchio, one lives in the moment, and feels relieved of stress, anxiety and worries about petty things like what’s going on in the news.
We started in Sorrento, went to Pompei, the Amalfi coast, Positano, Naples, Rome – that is also a city full of vigor as the past co-exists alongside the modern. We end in Firenze (Florence), a truly wonderful experience. At dinner last night we thought briefly about the fact the trip is soon ending, a few of us singing “back to life, back to reality…” But then we said, NO! Now we are in Italy. Now we have a glass of Chianti in front of us, and can laugh and enjoy la dolce vita!
All six of these things happened.
That’s why so many Americans can’t treat him as a normal President. That’s why the response to him has been so widespread and deep. There is a sense that he’s impulsive, insecure and dangerous.
Let’s go one by one:
1) Is the US as bad as Putin’s Russia? Certainly some on the far left think so. And the US has killed innocents in pursuit of its aims. But at least so far domestic political opponets haven’t been jailed, poisoned and denied a voice. Perhaps Trump is tolerant of Putin because he deep down would like to just stifle opposition and control things himself? Republicans have been adamant that Trump’s moral relativism on this issue is wrong – they may be waking up to how dangerous this President can be.
2) A threat to “defund” California is bizarre. As the graphic notes, California pays more in federal taxes than it gets back (the biggest receivers of federal money are the so-called red states, ironically). Trump claims California is “out of control.” Well – outside his control, as it considers making itself a ‘sanctuary state.’ But defunding California would be utterly unconstitutional and insane – the fact Trump makes that kind of threat shows he doesn’t understand the Constitution. In fact, Trump could learn from how Governor Jerry Brown took a state that was in financial crisis and turned things around.
3) This is nefarious and dark. Judges rule based on the law, and this conservative jurist, appointed by President Bush, ruled the executive order on immigration was likely unconstitutional, and thus put it on hold until it could be examined. This means that the normal reality of the past decade continues – only well vetted immigrants can enter. Yet Trump wants people to blame this individual judge if any kind of terrorism happens. That’s an incitement to violence against the judicial branch. To me, that statement is so dangerous and disgusting that it rises to an impeachable offense.
4) Something like elevating someone to the National Security Council is a big deal. If a President is going to do it, he should know he’s doing it. If he does not, that suggests that he is lazy, letting others do the work, and simply being bombastic when his emotions get the better of him. As Trump might put it: Not good.
5) The last economic collapse was caused by Wall Street. It was a free market crisis, as unregulated mortgage backed bonds (as well as CDO’s and other ominous financial instruments) created an environment where loans were given to anyone, without regard to their ability to pay, and people fed into a massive speculative bubble. If government regulations like those CFTC head Brooksley Born advocated in the 90s had been in place, this might not have happened. The response since then has been meager; the banks still have the capacity to manipulate the system, and those who created the crisis have not been punished. Trump’s actions take away even those meager protections and set up another bubble and financial collapse — but only after hundreds of billions of dollars are made on Wall Street by the financial class.
6) Perhaps most disturbing is that the truth is irrelevant to Trump. Anything negative about him is fake news. He’ll claim his inauguration crowd was the largest in history, even though it’s laughable. His world of “alternate facts” suggest it’s all marketing, a big con.
The secret of the con is to keep up confidence (con man comes from confidence man). That means never admitting one is wrong. Simply lie, but do so persuasively, after creating conditions where the marks (victims) want to believe. Trump has made a living doing this, the truth is irrelevant to him. Now as President he’s taken this to a new level, but finds that the press investigates every claim and calls him on the carpet for falsehoods. When he demands his spokespeople repeat the lies, they are mocked very effectively by satire, such as Melissa McCarthy’s devastating portrayal of Trump press secretary Sean Spicer. Threatening the press has only made the press more intent on outing any administration misdeeds.
For those who say, “give him a chance,” or “pray for the President to do his best,” I reject that as abdicating our duty as individuals to be on watch for threats to the Republic. Maybe President Trump will learn that this isn’t a reality show, and recognize that his current path is leading him to spectacular failure. Maybe he will learn to make better choices. But that won’t happen unless the opposition call him on his lies, explore and lay bare the consequences of his policies, and not be intimidated.