Founding Fathers 1, populists 0: The US Constitution is taming Trump

“Through all the gloom I can see rays of ravishing light and glory.”
–John Adams to his wife Abigail, July 3, 1776, after Congress voted for Independence

“Good people don’t go into government.”
–Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s first month in office ended with a bizarre, rambling press conference that made incompetence into a type of performance art. Preternaturally gormless, blithely convinced that things have been going well—all evidence to the contrary–the largely oblivious president nevertheless allowed a few cracks to show. He reserved particular scorn for the media and the intelligence agencies, who have been leaking his peccadilloes like a sieve, especially regarding the administration’s all-too-warm ties to Vladimir Putin.

Here Trump–living up to the adage that if you throw enough darts at a wall you are bound to hit something–is onto something big. For his trials and tribulations of the past month, a car crash that has scared and riveted people around the world in equal measure, ironically prove the strength of the American Constitutional system, not its weakness.

It is important to remember that the United States has had one Republic (while the French have had five). The American Founders—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison—were, unlike their French revolutionary cousins (Robespierre, Marat, and Danton) brilliant administrators above all else.

They fashioned a system of shared powers and checks and balances not by accident but as a conscious way to halt potentially dictatorial and ignorant leaders from undoing the country. Serious students of history, the Founders knew that the few examples of representative government up to their time had all been destroyed from within, with chaos leading to tyranny. By dividing power, they consciously made getting things done at the federal level harder, precisely as a way to see off rule by the few.

And this brilliant system has withstood a Civil War, Red Scares, Japanese-American internment, McCarthyism, Vietnam, and Watergate. The lesson of the past month is that the Republic will endure the boisterous know-knothingism of Donald Trump as well.

For over January, the constitutional and bureaucratic obstacles that have left the new president a spluttering caricature have been evident to all. This is precisely what the Founders had in mind. I have found myself involuntarily blessing them over the past fraught days, as their genius has been more than a match for the latest threat to the American Constitutional order.

First, the Federal judiciary (a co-equal branch of government to the presidency) has so far declared the White House’s noxious travel ban to be illegal.

Second, the FBI alerted members of the press—for all its faults the key institution in Jefferson’s mind for preserving representative government—about the odd, clandestine acts of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in cosying up to the Russian government before the transfer of power. Flynn unceremoniously left his post after a mere 24 days. Congress, in its constitutionally-mandated oversight role, may soon begin hearings to clarify the murky relationship between the Trump campaign team and the Kremlin.

Third, the press caught the President misleading them about the size (and the man does have an obsession with the concept) of his electoral triumph. Saying his victory over the hapless Hillary Clinton was the largest since the days of Ronald Reagan, Trump was corrected by the press, who noted that Presidents Obama, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush all triumphed by much larger margins.

Slightly embarrassed (but not nearly enough), Trump made it clear he did not have time to check these facts, which honestly all of my interns would have known cold. And that, in many ways, is precisely the point. For like it or not, facts matter. This should be especially true for the man who heads the most powerful country in the world. The press, the courts, and the intelligence agencies are doing their jobs—and more, fulfilling the Founders’ hopes for restraints on dangerously uneducated powerful men–in reminding the White House that reality is not optional.

The constraints of the real world have also played their part in moderating Trump’s excesses. Over the past month, he has rowed back from appearing to ditch the One China policy, left the sane and humane Defence Secretary James Mattis to decide about the efficacy of torture (Mattis is opposed), accepted the Iran deal (though promising to be tougher in oversight of it), reaffirmed America’s key links to its Japanese and NATO allies (though rightly demanding they pay their fair share for a change), and left sanctions in place over Russian adventurism in Ukraine and Crimea.

Frankly, while chaotically formulated, this is a clearly distinguishable realist foreign policy that I and much of the American populace can generally get behind. I do not kid myself (as some in the media do) that President Trump arrived at this end state out of some pre-planned, Machiavellian strategy. Rather the real world intruded on his fantasies, and able men like Mattis have steered him in the right direction.

In other words, thank God the American Founders win again.

Published in City AM London February 20, 2017

Blame France’s incompetent and corrupt elite for the rise of Marine Le Pen

“Apres moi, le deluge.” (After me comes the flood)

–Louis XV

Say what you will, Francois Fillon, the disgraced former frontrunner in the upcoming French presidential elections, is no Professor Moriarty. As the investigative journal Canard Enchaine reports, Fillon paid his wife Penelope over 800,000 euros for work as a political assistant it is unclear whether she preformed. Far from being a master criminal, it seems he gave two of his children legal jobs despite the highly relevant fact that they were not yet lawyers. France is ripe for another revolution to rectify such excesses.

This is the problem with the rise of populism in Europe. The demagogues—horribly wrong as they are in policy terms over peddling impossible dreams as solutions–have all the best lines. And they are entirely correct in that Europe’s lazily corrupt, highly incompetent elite have driven the people they represent into a ditch.

There is no doubting that Marine Le Pen, the charismatic, firebrand leader of the xenophobic Front National (FN) has a great story to tell about both French elite corruption and incompetence.

The corruption portion of the populist narrative is beyond dispute. Beyond Fillon, former President Jacques Chirac and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe were given suspended sentences for corruption. Former Finance Minister and current IMF chief Christine Lagarde was found guilty of negligence for approving a massive payout of taxpayer money to a controversial French businessman. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy is presently under investigation for alleged illegal campaign funding. In reading this doleful list, sometimes I truly wonder if there is anyone left in power in France who has behaved honourably.

The other side of the coin, incompetence, is epitomised by hapless outgoing current President Francois Hollande, a leader so gormless that in November 2016 he had a personal approval rating of just 4%, a subterranean low unequalled in the history of the Fifth Republic. Bowing to electoral reality, in December 2016 Hollande surrendered, not even bothering to try to run for a re-election he stood absolutely no chance of winning.

The main reason for this was his pathetic failure to even begin to substantially reform the sclerotic French economy. During his tenure, France has lost a further 600,000 jobs. In 2016, France grew at an anaemic 1.1% of GDP, in line with its lacklustre 1.2% in 2015. Stunningly, as of January 2017, more than one in four workers under 25 is jobless. The world is simply passing the French economy by.

As a result of this dual headed monster of corruption and incompetence, Fillon has fallen in the polls, making maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron the new frontrunner to be President of France. The latest early February 2017 polls have Le Pen at 25%, Macron at 22%, and Fillon at 19% in the first round of voting. In a second round, Macron would win decisively over Le Pen with a 66-34% advantage. But while the competent Macron is now likely to win, such a victory should not be seen as a repudiation of Le Pen. Rather it is part of her long-term game plan.

For Macron is France’s last, best chance to save itself in its present form. However, if he cannot reform the heretofore unreformable French economy, France as we know it is on its last legs. Le Pen is set to take one third of the vote in the second round of this year’s presidential elections on May 7th, almost double her father’s total of 18% as the FN candidate in the second presidential round of voting in 2002. So the flood waters for the French elite are definitely rising.

All Le Pen needs are five more years of economic failure, and then she has all the chance in the world to win the presidency next time, especially as her narrative of elite incompetence and corruption hardens into certainty for the French electorate. Le Pen is merely betting on is things staying as they are, with the talented, youthful Macron (he is only 39) unable to drag his country into the twenty-first century. Given France’s recent past history, that is more than a reasonable bet to make.

And yet in Macron there is hope. A former Rothschild banker, he comes from the real world pro-business wing of the Socialist Party, serving as a marginally successful economy minister under Hollande, after the French president made his belated policy pivot back to economic reality. If anyone can reform France, Macron is the man.

However, Le Pen’s long-term bet on French elite incompetence and corruption has so far been borne out by the historical facts. It will take real French reform to stave off the terribly destructive prospect of French populism. For the main problem in French politics at present is that only Le Pen seems to have a real long-term political game plan.

Published in City AM London, February 13, 2017.

War with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions is now a very real possibility

Such is the concern about the mad, cruel, despotic regime of Kim Jong-Un of North Korea that recently an internet falsehood spread that sounded just crazy enough to be true.

According to the apocryphal tale, the untested Kim—chafing under the patronising tutelage of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek—decided he had had enough. Jang was dramatically arrested by the young dictator, stripped naked and fed to a pack of starving dogs.

While this Bond villain ending proved to be untrue (Jang was more prosaically merely executed by firing squad), the simple fact that the hoax was so believable highlights the problem of the West in dealing with North Korea over its nuclear programme. Deterrence only works if the other side is rational. In the case of Kim’s leadership, this is a highly dubious proposition.

As America’s most underrated modern President Dwight D. Eisenhower put it, nuclear deterrence is only effective if the other side doesn’t want to die. Ike gauged that Stalin, for all the rivers of blood he caused to flow, was rational to this extent. As such, a peaceful nuclear stalemate was possible. For all the modern world’s many twists and turns, until the advent of the North Korean nuclear programme, Eisenhower’s test has precariously held: no state with nuclear weapons has been open to committing suicide.

However, given the fundamental irrationality of the hereditary communist despotism there, relying on this in the future amounts to more of a hope than a certainty. Indeed, both the outgoing Obama foreign policy team as well as Israeli intelligence have alerted the Trump White House to the rising danger from Pyongyang, stressing that it is the most immediate peril facing the world.

For North Korea’s nuclear programme has not been standing still. In 2016, it conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile tests, in an effort to expand its nuclear missile reach. In his past New Year’s speech, Kim boldly announced North Korea is in the final stages of developing an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of carrying nuclear warheads, which could theoretically reach the American mainland for the first time. Further, many regional experts expect North Korea is preparing yet another nuclear test for the near future, perfecting its ballistic missile programme.

Were this to prove so (Kim’s regime notoriously tends to overstate its capabilities), it would do nothing less than change the basic global strategic equation, constituting a primary threat to the United States. North Korea, equal parts malevolent and incompetent, is playing with fire in thinking that this further exercise in brinksmanship will not elicit the strongest response from the US, as this jarring strategic shift may be something Washington is simply not prepared to live with.

In the end, America and the West have only two basic policy alternatives to halt these very alarming developments: negotiate or take military action to stop the programme, very likely risking a renewal of the Korean War and catastrophically destabilising the volatile Asia-Pacific region, even risking armed confrontation with China.

The obvious, logical, least bad policy alternative would seem to be to talk to the North Koreans. And that is what all recent American administrations have done, achieving absolutely nothing, as the outgoing Obama administration has glumly admitted.

The only real outside driver who can leverage North Korea to halt its grandiose nuclear ambitions is China, whose vibrant economy just about keeps its economic basket case ally going. However, so far Beijing has preferred to tacitly support its difficult friend, rather than joining the rest of the world in standing up to Pyongyang and risking its implosion on the Chinese border. And if negotiations did not work during the time of the Obama administration, they are far less likely to do so now, as the new Trump White House is far more antagonistic towards China than its predecessor.

All this makes for the most dangerous of potential crises, and is a wholly underrated political risk roiling the world. North Korea is dangerously aiming to alter the global strategic nuclear balance. Negotiations to curb its ambitions have failed over many years, and are even less likely to work now that the US and China are at daggers drawn. But if negotiations show no chance of success, don’t expect the US to meekly accept the alarming development of an effective, accurate North Korean ICBM which can hit the mainland US.

War, and all the peril it could bring, is very much a possibility. It is past time the world woke up to the growing political risk over North Korea.

Published in City AM London, February 6, 2016