It’s been an, er, interesting week, to be sure. European views of what’s happening in America are, I’m afraid, not what you might call particularly varied. Despite Herr Drumpf’s Germano-British ancestry, there seems to be a remarkable lack of trust being shown in the US President pro tem. (Although, to be fair, most of the comment from Britain’s serious Right is paywalled, so I haven’t read it.) Indeed, some even go as far as to say that America’s elected President is a teensy bit odd. I realize that this may well be quite shocking to some of you, but you should perhaps be aware that we don’t have much access to the excellent Fox News Channel over here, and are thus somewhat handicapped in the search for knowledge and understanding.
Laboring under this ignorance, people are liable to come up with strange pieces like this one from Nash Riggins:
We live on a planet bound by resolute, scientific principles and concrete facts. Up is up, down is down and blatant lies are blatant lies. It’s all pretty straightforward, actually. But as the days and weeks slowly wither to ash, it’s become increasingly clear that Donald Trump doesn’t live on the same planet that you and I have been occupying all this time.
You see, in Donald Trump’s dystopian and suspiciously orange world, all truths are totally subjective – and everybody is a pathological liar with the memory of a haggard old goldfish. It’s the only possible explanation left after this week’s anomalous FBI pantomime performance.
In fact, our benevolent alien overlord only gave Comey the heave-ho because the US Attorney General made him do it. If Trump had gotten his way, things could have worked out a lot better for everybody.
Or that was the narrative for about half a day, anyway.
By Thursday night, Donald Trump appeared on the ultra-fake NBC News to tell us “this Russian thing” actually played a huge role in his decision to send Comey packing. But then again, maybe it didn’t – because several minutes into the exact same interview, Trump sternly declared the FBI hadn’t even been investigating him in the first place.
Every time Donald Trump utters a single syllable, he tarnishes the integrity of his sacred station that much more. He treats voters like mindless meat bags incapable of independent thought, and whimsically wields his presidential powers like a toddler might curiously pull a cat’s tail. He’s got no clue how the world is supposed to work – and if nothing else, the repulsive duplicity he’s demonstrated over the past four months has proven he doesn’t very much care how it’s supposed to work, either.
In the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole says something rather similar:
What do you do if you’re a reality TV star and your show is flagging?
Easy: you generate conflict. Get people up in arms, keep them talking about you.
So what if some of them are apoplectic? – apoplectic is good. But what if you’ve already started lots of fires and they’re spluttering out? You do what everyone in Hollywood or TV land does when things are not going well – you revive an old idea that worked before. If it grabbed the ratings last time, why not roll it out again? This is what Donald Trump has done with the dramatic sacking of the FBI director James Comey. He is trying to keep his fans happy by reviving his catchphrase from the Apprentice: “You’re fired!”
To suggest that there is some method in Trump’s madness is not to deny that the firing of Comey is indeed mad. The chaotic implementation of the move – with Comey learning of his sacking from breaking news stories on TV and Trump’s surrogates utterly unprepared for the task of defending his latest outrage – suggests that it was largely impulsive. The impulse in question is the narcissist’s rage that the world is refusing to conform to his desires.
Trump’s instinctive gamble has always been that his fans would be happy to live vicariously through him. His self-gratification gratifies their own desires. He is for them a kind of wish-fulfillment, a figure of untrammeled power who doesn’t have to abide by rules, who can grope anyone he wants and fire anyone he wants.
It’s an absurd gamble but of course it paid off with the presidency of the US. It ceases to pay off, however, the moment he begins to look like a man who acknowledges ordinary limits and common laws.
Decorum would destroy him.
There may be many reasons why Trump fired Comey but two of them loom largest: he wanted to and he could.
He is entirely incapable of doing his job, but it happens to be a job that allows him to fire missiles and fire people.
For as long as he survives, he will never be able to resist the gesture for which his fans learned to adore him: pointing his stubby finger and saying “You’re fired!”
Or this, from Simon Riesche:
It is no secret that Donald Trump is greatly concerned with the results of research into his person. “I get very good marks for foreign policy”, he was pleased to say this week in an interview with the magazine “Time” . That his general popularity continues to be very bad, the President did not say. About the unflattering result of a recent survey – according to which the top three concepts Americans have of Donald Trump, “idiot” (1st place), “incompetent” (2nd place) and “liar” (3rd place) — he unsurprisingly uttered not a syllable.
It is always the same pattern, the author and blogger Paul Waldman analyzed a few weeks ago. First, the President said “something ridiculous”. Then his helpers would come together to assure either that what Trump was saying was true, or at least had a true core. Subsequently, most media would then deconstruct Trump’s alleged truths and even some Republicans would distance themselves from the president. At the same time, right-wing commentators would rush to help Trump and hastily spread conspiracy theories. “When it’s over, we all feel disoriented, as if someone has just awakened us from a deep sleep and tells us that we have two minutes to come up with support for 20 lies and solve a crossword puzzle.” And then comes the next tweet.
Waldman also has a name for Trumps alleged Masterplan: “Bombardment of baloney”.
Der Spiegel’s Veit Medick has this to say:
Trump’s Putsch from above is a sign of how serious the situation is for him. The Russia affair is not only still there, it has now become a rather unpleasant problem. Ex-Justice Minister Sally Yates put the question on Monday on the issue of why the president held his first security adviser Mike Flynn in office, even though there were warnings that he had misrepresented talks with the Russian ambassador. In addition, it became known that the FBI has now also taken action specifically against Flynn’s associates. That now needs to be stopped – Trump’s decision was driven by this desire.
We should be careful with historical comparisons, but at this point it is difficult not to think of Richard Nixon. In October 1973, Nixon, then himself under pressure, fired Archibald Cox, the special investigator in the Watergate scandal in which the president was so deeply involved. The dismissal was the beginning of Nixon’s end. Trump hopes that he will come through by making his decision. And so the matter becomes a great test for the US.
Trump and his rhetoric have long been a burden on the independence of the institutions. If the Republican majority now nods through a successor to Comey, the president will not only erode this independence, but also the confidence in the rule of law in the United States.
However, if a person who is supported by Republicans and Democrats and is beyond any doubt is found, the system of “checks and balances” endangered under Trump may experience a certain revitalization. This also includes the use of a non-partisan special investigator, who investigates the Russian affair to the last detail.
In the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Marie-Astrid Langer says all this is endangering the Trump project:
In the past few days, Trump has not only shown how impulsive and thoughtless he is, but also how much he is ignoring the influence of his advisors. He has demonstrated above all his low opinion against the independence of the FBI. His behavior feeds a well-known narrative. Earlier, he had compared CIA’s foreign secret service with the Nazis and threatened uncooperative judges. Those who still needed proof of how Trump stands on the separation of powers and the independence of the institutions received him this week.
This behavior may shock Washington, partly also disgust, and harms America’s reputation as a democracy. But the fact is: it hardly changes the minds of Trump’s base. None of what the President has revealed in the past few days is new, but follows his pattern. A majority of the electoral districts voted for him nonetheless. What interests Trump’s voters are perceptible reforms, especially economic. That is why they carried him to the White House, and they will measure him or the Republicans in the mid-term 2018 elections.
But Trump could stumble here: the Russia affair with its ever-new episodes threatens his reform agenda. Firstly, scandals such as the recent ones soak up resources in Washington and delay the implementation of electoral promises, specifically health reform or new tax legislation. Both Trump and the Republicans want to whip the Congress as soon as possible, as long as they have the majority there. Secondly, Trump risks his backing among Republican Congressmen. So far, many of them have shut their eyes, but the president is likely to overstretch loyalty, especially when it comes to a red flag like Russia. Only a few Republicans would have to turn their backs on him, and the majorities in Congress would be destroyed.
And there’s a lot more in a similar vein.
But the NZZ in particular has some other articles less focused on the immediate problems of the Trump administration.
Ivo Mijnssen has an article about the crisis of democracy:
Presidential candidates generally praise the virtues of their country. Donald Trump is different. His America is so degenerate that it is no longer a model for anyone. Asked whether he would stand like his predecessors for the promotion of democracy, he simply said: “We have no right to give lessons. We must go to our own door. “ The statement is symptomatic of the crisis of the promotion of democracy, especially in the country which for decades, with messianic self-assurance, stood for freedom and human rights worldwide.
Trump meets the Zeitgeist. The one-time hopes for the unstoppable global advance of democracy and market economy have given way to a skepticism that often slips into cynicism. At best, it derives from legitimate criticism of the trench between Western realpolitik and humanitarian ideals. In the worst, rulers in Russia or China abuse this temporising to pursue their goals. More and more populists in Europe are joining the choir. The democratic promise has become a concept of struggle.
The Copenhagen Criteria of 1993 for EU candidate countries provided clear legal and market-based standards. This gave the Union a strong leverage in the democratization and opening up of the post-communist states in the 1990s. In return for the costs, Western companies opened up new markets. Democratization in the course of the EU eastward enlargement was a success.
However, the EU did not welcome the movement of democracy on its eastern edge with open arms. The Europeans supported many citizens’ initiatives and , at the beginning of the millennium, spent almost ten percent of their development aid on democracy projects – about the same as the US . They did not open up a prospect of accession to the poor and politically unstable states.
The cost, lack of consensus, and the consideration for the reviving Russia, they held back. The non-committal neighborhood policy, without any prospect of EU membership, which offered Brussels, for example, to Ukraine, was not enough to democratically sustain them.
The US under George W. Bush also contributed strongly to the crisis of democratic promotion. They discovered this as a means against terror , which they applied independently of whether the prerequisites for a liberal order were given in a country. The disastrous armed democracy campaign in the Middle East and the excesses of the war on terror damaged the credibility and led to quarrel with the Europeans. This played into the hands of the enemies of democracy in Eastern Europe.
These conspiracy theories and merging strategies are still valid today – even with a Western audience. They serve the Putins and Orbans of the world as a general purpose weapon to deprecate criticism. The discussion is hardly ever about the difficult to justify promotion of democracy with weapons. Rather, the autocrats attack civil society, the free media and the independent judiciary. Cynically, they do not argue openly against a free society. They merely undermine the credibility of their bearers by branding them as artificial, imported, and unpatriotic.
Expanding particularly on Putin, Andreas Rüesch discusses the new Russian offensives:
A sigh of relief went through Europe, when Emmanuel Macron won the election to the top of France last weekend. The horror of a seizure of power by the authoritarian nationalist party of Marine Le Pen seems to be defeated; the second largest economy in the euro zone remains on a predictable course However, the feeling of being able to sit back and rest easy is wrong. This is not only due to Macron, who will hardly be able to fulfill his hopes. It is also a matter of concern that France – like before the US – was the victim of an externally-driven campaign to influence the elections. The pattern was the same as in the previous year with the American Democrats: hackers got themselves using fraudulent emails access to computers of the Macron camp, captured internal documents and revealed these shortly before the election with the goal of putting the favorites in a bad light.
Unlike in the USA, the trick did not work this time. The publication was far too near the election to have an effect. But this is only a weak consolation, because the leaders of the disinformation campaign will not be beaten, but will draw from this error the necessary lessons for their next action. Interferences such as these threaten to become a permanent companion of Western election campaigns.
Disinformation is now one of Putin’s favorite occupations. The modern communications society offers resources, of which he could only dream as a young agent. Geographic distances have become irrelevant thanks to the Internet, online platforms such as Wikileaks help uncover discrediting documents, and robot programs ensure that propaganda is automated and spread over social networks. It is no longer enough for the Kremlin to stifle democracy in its own country, but it also wants to manipulate it abroad. This fits into Russia’s goal of weakening the West and causing fear on the world stage as a great power. Putin has billions of dollars in his hacking brigades and propaganda budgets; However, it is a cost-effective instrument, much cheaper than a conventional military deployment
Trump would probably have been elected without Putin’s help. But the goal of weakening America from within has reached Moscow. The dispute over the Russian interference in the election campaign is like a long-term poison, which paralyzes American politics. The de facto dubious dismissal of the FBI chief, who wanted to track Trumps Russia’s intertwines, was another omen this week that Washington could slip into a real state crisis.
Against this background, it is tragic that the traditional preeminence of the free world is governed by a president who has no sensitivity to the danger from Moscow and who constantly lies to his people. Nevertheless, it is necessary to put Putin within limits. It is not enough to equip the western cyber defense system technically and with personnel. It also needs a new concept of deterrence. Russia must be credibly aware that further manipulation campaigns would result in painful retaliation. Finally, the West also has a rich arsenal of nonmilitary resources. It is conceivable to strengthen the persecution of Russian hackers, who are often confused with the criminal underworld, as well as the freezing of assets of the Putin regime in the West. A discussion is needed before the Kremlin continues to intensify its unstoppable attacks on the foundations of Western democracy.
But it’s fair to say that neither combatting Putin nor ousting Trump is going to be accomplished within the next few days. Trump is about to do some real Presidenting, taking a tour of various countries which host the headquarters of major religions other than Trumpism. So if you aren’t worried enough yet, read the redoubtable Patrick Cockburn:
Many people view Donald Trump as the most dangerous man on the planet, but next week he flies to Saudi Arabia for a three-day visit during which he will meet a man who surely runs him a close second as a source of instability. This is deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31 – the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since his father King Salman, 81, is incapacitated by old age – who has won a reputation for impulsiveness, aggression and poor judgement in the two-and-half years he has held power. Early on he escalated the Saudi role in Syria, thereby helping to precipitate Russian military intervention, and initiated a war in Yemen that is still going on and has reduced 17 million people to the brink of famine. Combine his failings with those of Trump, a man equally careless or ignorant about the consequence of his actions, and you have an explosive mixture threatening the most volatile region on earth.
Prince Mohammed, who is also defence minister, is not a man who learns from his mistakes or even notices that he has made them. Less than a year after his father became king in January 2015, the BND German intelligence agency issued a warning that Saudi Arabia had adopted “an impulsive policy of intervention” abroad and blamed this on the deputy crown prince whom it portrayed as a naïve political gambler. The degree of alarm within the BND about his impact on the region must have been high for them to release such a document which was swiftly withdrawn at the insistence of the German foreign ministry, but its predictions have been fulfilled disastrously in the following eighteen months.
Trump has already ordered greater US support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, but the deputy crown prince will be primarily bidding for US backing for his confrontation with Iran. Words are already turning into action with reports of the US and Saudi Arabia being at one in planning to stir up an anti-government insurgency among minorities in Iran such as the Baluchis in the south east, something that has been done before but with limited impact.
Saudi leaders were overjoyed by the election of Trump whom they see as sympathetic to them and the Gulf leaders whom he will meet after he arrives in Saudi Arabia on 19 May, before going on to Israel. It is a chilling tribute to the authoritarian instincts of Trump that his first foreign visit as President should be to the last arbitrary monarchies left on earth and to a state where women are not even allowed to drive. On the question of confronting Iran, he is unlikely to be restrained by his Defence Secretary, James Mattis, and his National Security Adviser, HR McMaster, both former generals scarred by America’s war in Iraq, where they see Iran as the main enemy.
The White House is doubtless conscious that the one-time Trump has won universal plaudits in the US was when he fired missiles in Syria and dropped a big bomb in Afghanistan. Trump and Prince Mohammed may be very different in some respects, but both know that fighting foreign foes and waving the flag shores up crumbling support at home.
So there we are. If the weather is even halfway decent where you are, I strongly advise going outdoors and seeing something uplifting.
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