Garvan Walshe: Orban’s fertility drive is an attack on Hungarian women

The man his critics call the ‘Viktator’ has two new policies – one a gimmick, one deeply sinister.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

It’s been a busy view weeks for the man opposition demonstrators like to call ‘Viktator’. Freedom House downgraded Hungary to “partly free,” the first EU member state to qualify for this dubious distinction.

On Tuesday Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, troubled Viktor Orban with a visit. The effect was mixed. On the one hand, the Trump Adminstration finds Orban’s nationalism congenial. But the US (if not the President himself) is growing increasingly concerned by how close he’s got to his fellow reactionary strongman, Vladimir Putin.

Then, on Wednesday, the reinvigorated opposition held another demonstration, this time on the banks of the Danube outside the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Not content with expelling Budapest’s internationally renowned Central European University, he’s now turned his sights on the rest of the higher education sector, seeking to politicise and control it. One by one, Hungary’s independent institutions are being snuffed out.

Some four-fifths of all nominally non-state media have been amalgamated into a single foundation controlled by one of his cronies.

New administrative courts are being created, directly under the control of the Ministry of Justice.

And the larger opposition political parties have been hit with arbitrary fines (the office of a smaller one suffered a mysterious fire).

Orban boasts a racist obsession with immigration, saying (according to the official English translation of his remarks): “we do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others.”

But his real problem is emigration. The now discontinued independent news site Budapest Beacon estimated that 600,000 Hungarians — one-tenth of the working age population — had left to other parts of Europe by 2016.

People have gone not only for better wages, but to escape corruption and politicisation of their work. If you’re a heart surgeon, why work for a corrupt political appointee when you can go to Germany or Britain instead? Along with these disproportionately educated and hard working people go their taxes. Public hospitals are now so short of resources that the opposition Momentum party has taken to handing out loo roll to patients.

This is happening despite high nominal economic growth. The country is suffering from a severe labour shortage. Orban’s first plan to deal with this was to change the overtime law. This did not first sight seem inherently objectionable — except that the workers would have to wait three years for their extra pay!

His second plan is to find more workers, but he’s ruled out the easy way to get them — immigration. In the same speech where he said he wanted a white-only Hungary, he also pledged “to keep Hungary as it has been for the past 1,100 years.”

His method is import substitution. Perhaps inspired by that German AFD election poster showing two pregnant women under the caption “let’s make our own”, Orban has turned to natalism.

Like other Orban initiatives, this can seem superficially plausible but conceals a much darker reality.

Hungary’s fertility rate is low (1.42 births per woman) so in the long run more children are needed to achieve replacement level even with modest immigration.

Increasing fertility to those levels is not impossible. France has a generous system of child benefit and extensive state childcare (40 per cent of children below three and almost all above three are in formal childcare), and a fertility rate of 1.96. Sweden has a similar record (almost 55 per cent and 90 per cent), and a fertility rate of 1.85.

Both France and Sweden have done so without taking too many women out of the labour force. In France, parenthood reduces the average amount of time women spend in work by only about ten per cent (and in Sweden actually increases it fractionally). Yet in Hungary it reduces it by a third — by far the largest amount in any European country.

Instead of following their example, Orban has come up with two policies: the first a gimmick, the second sinister.

His first idea is an income tax cut for women who have four children. Fair enough, you might say. But since Hungarian childcare is so poor, how many women with four children are going to also have the time to earn enough to benefit from the tax cut? Cynics have already pointed out one benificiary: Orban’s wife (she has five children).

The second is far more ominous. Married women under 40 (and note, married women only) are to be eligible for a huge loan — of ten million forint, or about £27,000, 30 times the average monthly salary — which will be forgiven if they have three children.

This is a huge amount of money, particularly in poorer parts of Hungary where salaries worth a few hundred pounds per month are normal. It might sound like a nice deal if you’re a young woman from an impoverished village: get married, have some children. But what happens if you don’t like your husband? Or he’s violent or abusive? Or have a terrible pregnancy and don’t want another one? Or even if he just loses his job? The payments on the loan would be crippling. The pressure to have more children (and, given the parlous state of Hungarian childcare provision, and difficulty of getting part-time work; and long commuting times in sparsely populated areas) would be severe.

This isn’t a positive incentive to have children, but debt-peonage to the state.

Nor would it even work in the medium term, because it takes women out of the labour force, exacerbating the labour shortage, instead of getting them to work in order to relieve it.

This policy won’t make a dent in Hungary’s labour shortage, but it will put Hungarian women under the thumb of the government and their husbands.

Maybe he needs a new name: Orban the Taliban.

A Liberal Democrat perspective on Trump’s State of the Union

Last night, Mr Trump presented his State of the Union to the American People and the watching world. I stayed up late and caught a live stream of it, as well as the Democratic Party response delivered by Stacey Abrams. It was an uninspiring jumble of falsehoods, empty promises, and rhetoric. The highlight of the […]

Last night, Mr Trump presented his State of the Union to the American People and the watching world. I stayed up late and caught a live stream of it, as well as the Democratic Party response delivered by Stacey Abrams.

It was an uninspiring jumble of falsehoods, empty promises, and rhetoric. The highlight of the evening was Congress singing “Happy Birthday” to Holocaust and Pittsburgh shooting survivor Judah Samet, who turned 81.  [Image: Judah Samet. Src: White House Public Domain Photo via flickr]

The evening began with Presidential hypocrisy as Trump praised three “incredible heroes” who participated in D-Day, yet in November he cancelled his Armistice Day visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial simply because it was raining.

Like Nixon before him, Trump tried to use his State of the Union Address to oppose the ongoing investigation in him and his team, referring to investigations as “partisan” and “ridiculous”. Trump then moved on to praise his “success” with Tax reform – that didn’t pay for itself; he criticised antisemitism – despite his rhetoric directly contributing to a rise in the abuse of Jewish people and communities. He continued his tirade against a woman’s right to have control of her body, he rallied against legal asylum and pushed again for his racist southern border wall.

In one of the stranger twists, Donald Trump told us that he is meeting Kim Jong-Un later this months and that the US has held “constructive” negotiations with the Taliban, and then in the next breath went on to criticise Iran calling them “Bad bad people”. He praised the US Armed Forces; “Our economy is the envy of the world, our military is the most powerful on earth, and America is winning each and every day,” ignoring the fact his recent discriminatory trans ban, will weaken the US Military.

Of course, I could continue to highlight the fallacies in almost everything Trump said, but it’s important to look at the positive, and fortunately, we did get to hear from a leader who delivered a powerful message – Stacey Abrams (Stacey Abrams in November 2018. Src: Marla Aufmuth / TED via Flickr. CC-BY-NC-ND)

In her speech, Abrams calmly presented a vision of a better America, it wasn’t a rebuttal, or even really a response, but it was clear; Democrats will tackle what this Government is not.

She tackled the recent US Government Shutdown, highlighting bi-partisan work in Georgia on criminal justice reform, transport, and foster care. She addressed healthcare, climate change, children in cages at the border, LGBTQ Discrimination,

On Education, Abrams highlighted active shooter drills in Elementary schools and rising Higher Education costs: [Embed tweet: https://twitter.com/ABCPolitics/status/1092993608376971264]

Moreover, most importantly, Stacey Abrams finished strong, leaving viewers with a message of strength; “America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies: foreign and domestic … and when we do so, never wavering — the state of our union will always be strong.” [Embed tweet: https://twitter.com/CNN/status/1092996508323139585]

Stacey Abrams’ speech contained everything we needed to see from a revitalised Democratic Party as we began the 2020 Presidential Election Fight, and if it weren’t a response to the State of the Union, I’d have expected to see it in an announcement of candidacy.

We had two speeches last night; one was Presidential and a sign of Leadership, the other was Trumps. The next two years are still going to be difficult for America and the world, but maybe the Democratic Party are ready to put up a fight.

* Aimee Challenor is a member of the Stonewall Trans Advisory Group and speaks openly about her experiences of being a young transgender woman with autism.

James Frayne: Amid all the turbulence, one politician is surging among UK voters – Donald Trump

Few actually agree with him, but a surprising number say they admire his decisiveness and strength.

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Something strange has been happening over the last six months. In focus groups I’ve been running on a range of issues, one politician has been surging in popularity. A year ago, almost everyone in every group agreed he was a clown or deeply unpleasant or both; now in any focus group you find yourself in, his name is raised with respect by half of those in the room.

The politician’s name? FT readers look away now: Donald Trump.

I have written about Trump on these pages occasionally over the last few years. I’ve always disliked his brand of politics. I hoped he’d never win the Presidency and I recommended here that the British Government either bin his proposed high-profile visit to the UK or seriously downgrade its importance. Whether you define as a libertarian or conservative – as most of us that read this site will likely do – he comes across as an ideological imposter. He doesn’t seem like “one of us”. His surging popularity in Britain is depressing but real.

Last week I wrote about how politicians’ moves to delay or derail Brexit risks turning Leave voters into the stereotype of angry Trump voters – people that reject “London politicians”, in the same way Trump voters reject Washington. But this doesn’t mean that British Trump fans are all hardcore Leave voters; on the contrary, in the groups I’ve been running, pro-Trump comments have been flying out of the mouths of people from across the political spectrum, and from those that voted both Leave and Remain.

I can still picture the voter who was must positive towards Trump: a man from the North West; from a C1/C2, BME background; who had voted for different parties over the years; and who voted Remain and who considered himself left-wing. He disliked Trump’s politics, but marvelled at the strength of his opinions and his decisiveness. “You might not like what he says, but he says what he thinks and he just does whatever he wants”. This man’s comments are typical – and it’s commonplace to hear statements suggesting that Trump would make a brilliant negotiator for the British Government in our exit talks with the EU.

The seemingly never-ending saga of our Brexit negotiations has made people crave strong leadership and decisive action, but so too has the fact that Britain appears to be making little progress of any real note on domestic issues. Things seem stuck in a rut, where they have been for many months. Again, regardless of whether people lean left or right, and whether they voted Leave or Remain, voters are desperate for the country to move forward again – and Trump is a politician that, in their eyes, seems to get the need for action and change. He doesn’t worry about offending people, they think, he gets things done.

Interestingly, as I indicated last week, people don’t draw simple comparisons between Trump and Theresa May; they don’t think that Trump is strong and May is weak. In fact, voters increasingly praise May for her strength and resilience; they think that she is doing everything possible to secure action on Brexit and that she is being undermined primarily by a mixture of Corbyn’s Labour and European politicians (not a great look for Corbyn, by the way). To more and more voters, she’s tough.

To restate: respect for Trump doesn’t mean the public are aligned to his politics and genuine British Trump voters are extremely rare (I can’t recall more than a couple). People are not desperately worried about political correctness here or the prospect of losing a culture war; you don’t hear people talk about Trump and in the next breath about the likes of Nigel Farage. Those that make pro-Trump comments are usually mainstream voters that want change and action – and that should provide us with some reassurance.

However, we can only reassure ourselves so far. For the respect that is building for Trump means more and more voters are likely to be open-minded to those that pledge change and action – regardless of whether they are conventionally respectable. While a delayed or derailed Brexit virtually guarantees at least some unpleasant outcomes at the ballot box, a general lack of political progress means that many voters are going to be sympathetic towards anyone that pledges decisiveness and an intolerance towards inaction.

Garvan Walshe: Can civil war be avoided in Venezuela?

A wise US president with a clever plan would be able to reduce the risks. But this one may well squander the opportunity for a peaceful return to democracy.

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He grew up in Latin America and now runs TRD Policy.

Lacking the persuasive skills of their charismatic predecessor, the leader lives on borrowed time. A disastrous election campaign took away the government’s parliamentary majority. The streets have been filled with opposition demonstrators. Regional allies have turned against their former friend. The administration’s policy provokes only exasperation from economists. Its oil resources are not what they once were. Opposition media are filled with stories of food shortages and stockpiling. Hints are dropped of emergency powers and even the declaration of martial law. European Union leaders have turned up the pressure by demanding concessions by a strict deadline.

But whereas Theresa May managed this week to retain control of Britain’s legislative agenda (the Cooper and Grieve amendments having been defeated thanks at least in part to Labour frontbenchers breaking their whip), Nicolas Maduro is in a much deeper hole.

Having been defeated in elections for the national assembly in 2015, he got his handpicked Supreme Court to anoint a puppet parliament and remains in office as an unvarnished dictator. His security forces torture and imprison opposition leaders while his country goes without food. Three million Venezuelans have fled – to America, Spain and Chile if they can; to Colombia, Peru and Ecuador if they must.

Last week, Juan Guaidó, the young head of the democratically elected National Assembly — himself only installed because Leopoldo López, the real leader, has been placed under house arrest by the regime — declared the presidency vacant, and, under Venezuela´s constitution, proclaimed himself interim president, and demanded free elections.

He immediately received the support of the Organisation of American States, and with it the democratically elected governments of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay and the United States as well as several smaller countries. Britain has followed their lead.

The European Union is due to follow suit. Led by Spain’s centre-left government, they gave Maduro days to agree to hold free elections, and will transfer recognition to Guaidó if, as everyone expects, Maduro digs in with the support of Russia and China.

It’s not a matter of much surprise that Britain’s Labour Party has avoided facing this issue square on. It has instead taken refuge in myths of Cold War era US “intervention”. It allows them to evade the obvious failure of a regime that promised “Socialism in the 21st Century” and which is unable to supply basic services to its people despite owning what are by some measures the world’s largest oil reserves. Yet the bankruptcy of this position, taken by John McDonnell among others, is clear, and has been dismissed by none other than the notorious far-right US Senator, Bernie Sanders.

Far from a US provocation, the Venezuelan crisis is domestic in origin. The Chavez-Maduro regime politicised the oil industry, failed to keep control of law and order, and rather than improving the conditions of the poor, made them far worse. Food, medicines and basic sanitary products are often unavailable. Beset by mass demonstrations and sporadic military revolts, Caracas now relies on Russian and Chinese security assistance to keep itself in power.

The stage is now set for a stand-off between the democratically elected National Assembly and what Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, calls the “tyrant”. Maduro stays installed Caracas’s Miraflores palace, while his secret police operate from a post-modernist disused shopping centre converted into a warren of torture chambers known as the Helicóide.

The transfer of international recognition to the National Assembly is more than just symbolic. Pursued fully, it would mean that, in the view of the countries that recognise it, the Assembly will be the legitimate representative of the Venezuelan state abroad. Its appointees, not Maduro’s, will be recognised as diplomats. Property belonging to the Venezuelan state can be assigned to it, and not to Maduro’s government. Efforts are under way to transfer oil revenues to its control. Conversely, Maduro and his agents will no longer be, in the eyes of major world democracies and the international financial system at least, legitimate forces of order. They will have been converted into rebels using force to overthrow the legitimate government of Venezuela, as represented by the National Assembly.

This could begin to change the balance of power, but to stand a chance of bringing democracy back to Venezuela, further steps must be taken. What is needed is a diplomatic process to put pressure on the regime to acquiesce in free elections that will continue alongside what will it is hoped will continue to be peaceful popular opposition to Maduro, and the role of the United States will be crucial.

A wise US administration would stay in the shadows, and leave public leadership to Latin American countries, while providing diplomatic heft (in particular in dissuading Russia and China from provocation) and practical and organisational assistance to the regional anti-Maduro coalition. Such discretion would shield Venezuela’s democracy movement from the charges of American imperialism that Maduro has already begun to deploy and which are being enthusiastically if hypocritically relayed by pro-Russian satellite TV.

We don’t, however, have such a wise administration. This one, understaffed diplomatically, incapable of consistent action, with a president beholden to Moscow, and a counterproductive fondness for the theatrical may well squander the opportunity for a peaceful return to democracy in Venezuela. Among the risks facing the world in 2019 we may now have to add further deterioration. Descent into prolonged violence or even low-level civil war now looks all too possible.

Ben Roback: Can a true progressive win the presidency in 2020?

Hopefuls should remember that what plays well in the primaries may be un-deliverable from the White House.

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Make no mistake, the 2020 presidential election campaign is well underway. At the latest count, over half a dozen Democrats have announced their intention to seek the party’s nomination and well over a dozen more could join the field in the coming weeks and months.

Building on the anger and passion that pushed the Democratic base to join the resistance and then turn out to vote in the midterms, the wide field of Democratic hopefuls is set to gravitate around a progressive left-wing agenda.

Pushing that leftward shift is the rising stars of the party, all of whom make no apology of their progressive and at times even socialist values. The nickname-only Democrats are the brightest lights in that group – namely “AOC” (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), “Beto” (Beto O’Rourke) and to a fading extent “Bernie” (Bernie Sanders).

The policy platforms put forward by those running in 2020 are, for the majority, unquestionably left-wing. The default proposal by anyone seeking the Democratic nomination has been Medicare for all and support for a ‘Green New Deal’. It is no surprise that the Obama-alumni hosts of Pod Save America described those two policies as the “secret password” that gets Democratic hopefuls into the race.

On the campaign trail then, we will hear an awful lot more about Medicare for all and the jobs boom associated with a Green New Deal. But just as Donald Trump found that it is easy to promise that he will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it at rallies, Democratic hopefuls might also find that their most progressive policies are dead on arrival on day one of a Democratic presidency.

Political kryptonite for the Republican Party, a Medicare for all bill has no chance of passing a GOP-controlled House or Senate. The proof? Before introducing legislation that would create a government-run, single-payer health care system in September 2017, Sanders said:

“Look, I have no illusions that under a Republican Senate and a very right-wing House and an extremely right-wing president of the United States, that suddenly we’re going to see a Medicare-for-all, single-payer passed. You’re not going to see it. That’s obvious.”

Moreover, the party structures on the left are yet to get behind some of these radical reforms. Tom Perez, Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman, regularly pivots to a broader answer about health care policy when asked whether he supports a single-payer plan. Nancy Pelosi, the House Majority Leader, was more direct earlier this year when she was asked whether Democrats should run on a single-payer platform in 2018, and said: “No. I say to people, ‘You want to do that, do it in your states.'”

All that is before we even consider the process required for such a fundamental overhaul. That’s why Vox wrote:

“Doing anything as big as Medicare-for-all would be difficult. Doing it while cancelling a large portion of the country’s current health insurance plans, even with a transition period, would be an undertaking with no precedent in the history of American social policy. It would require the categorical commitment of the next Democratic administration to get it done.”

Notwithstanding those legislative and political challenges, the left will be buoyed going into 2020 by polling that shows strong support for major policy overhauls. According to Reuters, 70 per cent of Americans support Medicare for all, including 85 per cent of Democrats and a staggering 52 per cent of Republicans.

Despite that gloomy picture, it is worth remembering historical examples of radical agendas being implemented in the face of political objection. Although there has been much commentary on the increasingly progressive economic policies favoured by the likes of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the viability of their ideas in today’s political environment, it should be noted that Democrats have, in the past, been able to advance an interventionist agenda in the face of staunch right-wing opposition.

From Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, which laid the basis for modern day social security, to Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ which, among many other things, created Medicare, an advancement of left-wing social and economic policies is not a new phenomenon in US political life.

A wide-open race that could get wider

Polling continues to show that there is no clear Democratic frontrunner for 2020. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll  found that 56 per cent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, when asked whom they would support for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, didn’t offer up any name at all. The starting gun has barely been fired and there are months for more hopefuls to throw their hats into the ring.

With an early flurry of announcements and the creation of exploratory committees, more ‘establishment’ candidates like Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg (whose candidacies are expected but not guaranteed) might keep their powder dry and wait to see the direction that the race takes before entering.

With Trump entering a new period of vulnerability and exposure on three major fronts – the shutdown, Mueller, and his approval ratings – the list of Democrats and left-leaning independents that think they can run against him and win is long and growing by the day. At the same time, the rising Democratic stars are pushing the party’s presidential hopefuls further and further to the left. The narrative that underpins 2020 Democratic candidates will therefore become increasingly progressive.

Politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the promise. Democratic hopefuls would do well to remember that what they promise in Iowa and New Hampshire is not necessarily compatible with what they can deliver in the White House. The President’s current self-inflicted problems are the perfect proof of that.

Puzzling and concerning events in the USA which mark, perhaps, a watershed

Embed from Getty Images One has to ask what has been achieved by the longest partial government shut-down in US history. Thousands of devoted federal workers had a grim Christmas and January, many of them resorting to food-banks and second jobs. And now it is over – Donald Trump has hoisted the white flag. His […]

Embed from Getty Images

One has to ask what has been achieved by the longest partial government shut-down in US history. Thousands of devoted federal workers had a grim Christmas and January, many of them resorting to food-banks and second jobs.

And now it is over – Donald Trump has hoisted the white flag. His stalwart supporter Lou Dobbs observed that Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, “has just whipped the president of the United States”.

It has all been complete madness. The video below shows Senator Michael Bennet (Democrat – Colorado) making perhaps the most passionate speech I have ever seen. It is worth listening to at least the first ten minutes. It perfectly captures the insanity of the Donald Trump’s shutdown. It is such a brilliant speech that the video has now had more than 11 million hits and is the most watched congressional speech in the entire 40 year history of C-Span!

But perhaps a glimmer of good emerges from the terrible human pain which this shutdown inflicted on federal workers. Donald Trump has at last been humbled. He tried to beat Nancy Pelosi, but he lost.

So perhaps some semblance of common sense can now reign across the governance of the USA.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

Sanders is a refreshing change from the careerists who infest American as well as British politics.

So though he presents himself as anti-Trump, he has something in common with him. And there could, astonishingly, be a future for socialism in America.

Where We Go From Here: Two Years in the Resistance by Bernie Sanders

Books by serving politicians in which they purport to describe their beliefs and vision of the future are seldom of any value. The author is in a rush, and imagines that words which elicit applause when spoken at a rally of the faithful can be transferred without further effort to the printed page.

Bernie Sanders, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2016 and is contemplating another run in 2020, is as lazy a writer as the rest of them. His book reads at times like a parody: “I have said it a million times, but I think it bears repeating. The campaign that I ran for president was never about me.”

Here is another grave problem with the campaign book as a genre. It is all about me, but the candidate is anxious to demonstrate how ordinary and unassuming and decent he is, so he (or she, though still most often he, for this kind of vanity comes more easily to men than to women) advertises his homespun humility, while also reminding us at frequent intervals that he is morally superior to the other side.

Sanders dismisses Donald Trump as “the most dishonest and reactionary president in the history of the Republic”: a formula which makes one wonder how much American history he knows. But it is true that the really disgraceful presidents are often passed over in silent embarrassment by the historians.

And then we are into the campaign rhetoric:

“Our job, for the sake of our kids and grandchildren, is to bring our people together around a progressive agenda.

“Are the majority of people in our country deeply concerned about the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that we are experiencing? You bet they are. Do they believe that our campaign finance system is corrupt and enables the rich to buy elections? Overwhelmingly so.

“Do they want to raise the minimum wage to a living wage and provide pay equity for women? Yes they do. Do they think the very rich and large corporations should pay more in taxes so that all of our kids can have free tuition at public colleges and universities? Yup. Do they believe that the United States should join every other major country and guarantee health care as a right? Yes, again. Do they believe climate change is real? You’ve got to be kidding.”

To dismiss this because of the style would be a mistake. In Britain, Conservatives thought it was sufficient to be contemptuous of Jeremy Corbyn, and failed to foresee that in the 2017 general election he would be rather good at persuading people to vote for a socialist.

In the United States, Sanders, who is eight years older than Corbyn, was likewise dismissed as an out-of-date Leftie whose socialism could have no popular appeal.

But Sanders was in many ways a more attractive candidate than Hillary Clinton, who inspired even in her most devoted supporters deep misgivings, and who managed to beat him only because she had the Democratic machine behind her.

Sanders actually appeared to believe what he was saying, for with eccentric obduracy, or if one prefers admirable independence of mind, he had stuck to it even for long periods when he might with advantage have modified his views.

It was obvious to most people that however much Clinton claimed to have the interests of the struggling poor at heart, she had come to feel more at home in the Hamptons.

She herself was beaten in 2008 by Barack Obama, a candidate with a better ear, and a more plausible claim to be in touch with the wider public. His campaign book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, is in a different league to Sanders’ effort.

And Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, written ten years before he became well-known, so when he still had time to write a proper book, is better still.

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama describes a conversation he had over lunch in late September 2001 with a media consultant who was encouraging him to run for office:

“‘You realise, don’t you, that the political dynamics have changed,’ he said as he picked at his salad.

“‘What do you mean?’ I asked, knowing full well what he meant. We both looked down at the newspaper beside him. There, on the front page, was Osama bin Laden.

“‘Hell of a thing, isn’t it?’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Really bad luck. You can’t change your name, of course. Voters are suspicious of that kind of thing. Maybe if you were at the start of your career, you know, you could use a nickname or something. But now…’ His voice trailed off and he shrugged apologetically before signalling the waiter to bring us the check.”

As it happened, Obama with his strange name possessed the touch of implausibility which Americans sometimes warm to in a presidential candidate. So, in his unbelievably boorish way, did Trump.

For either of them to get to the White House was amazing, and in that sense a dream come true. They were outsiders who knew, in quite different ways, how to appeal to anti-Washington sentiment, which is generally the prevailing sentiment in the United States.

Clinton, as the wife of a former President and a woman who had come to enjoy the company of the rich, could not run an anti-Establishment campaign, and looked hypocritical when she pretended to do so.

Sanders is not open to that charge of hypocrisy. He genuinely believes that billionaires (his favourite target) should pay more tax, the pharmaceutical industry should charge less for essential medicines, assault rifles should not be on sale to the mentally ill, and they in turn should receive proper medical treatment at public expense rather than being incarcerated in America’s shamefully extensive prison system.

In this book, one starts to feel that Sanders, though not immune to the charge of senatorial self-importance (he has been one of Vermont’s senators since 2007, and was before that in the House of Representatives), is a refreshing change from the careerists who infest American as well as British politics.

The new and younger version of Sanders is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. According to Sanders,

“Progressive ideas are now mainstream in America. That’s what the people want, especially Democrats… When there is political excitement in the air, when ordinary people sense hope for the future, they will come out and vote, and Democrats will win. The simple truth is that ‘moderates’ or ‘centrists’ do not generate that level of excitement.”

We shall see. Lord Ashcroft has pointed out that a candidate who makes Democrat activists feel good might “drive uncommitted voters back into the arms of Donald Trump”.

But Trump is enough to give plutocracy a bad name, and Sanders here mounts a fierce attack on the in his view undeserving rich.

Once one has adjusted to his manner of speaking, one finds he is lucid and sincere in his account of where America has gone wrong and what a bad deal many hard-working Americans get. His opponents as well as his fans should pay attention.

Lord Ashcroft: Trump, his opponents, and the voters – halfway through his (first?) term

As a woman in Iowa told us: “It’s like the CEO of the company I work for. I don’t care if you’re the nicest guy in the world. I care that I’m going to have a job from day to day.”

Yesterday was the second anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President. Other things being equal, the next such ceremony will take place on 20 January 2021. In other words, we are now into the second half of Trump’s term – or should that be his current term? Since the 2016 election campaign, my Ashcroft in America project has helped explain how Trump came to be elected, the hopes and fears of his supporters and opponents, and what they make of the unfolding story of his presidency and its seemingly endless controversies.

My new book, Half-Time! American Public Opinion Midway Through Trump’s (First?) Term – and the Race to 2020 brings together two years of research with new polling conducted since last November’s midterms to explore how different parts of the electorate see the President and his agenda, and how they are lining up for next year’s showdown. Here are five of the big points.

Trump’s supporters are (mostly) still with him

Those who voted for Trump give him high marks on most issues, and overwhelmingly say that they approve of his overall performance. They largely give him the credit for America’s recent economic success, citing his tax cuts and rolling back of regulations. They also strongly approve of his appointment of two conservative judges to the Supreme Court – a particularly important point for Republican voters who had their doubts about Trump at the election. His tough line on immigration, which they closely associate with national security, has also gone down well with the base, as has his willingness to take on international partners over trade deals and defence spending, and his continued determination to say exactly what he thinks.

But this is not uniform across the board – those who chose Trump as the lesser of two evils, or switched to him having previously backed Barack Obama, give him lower (though still positive) scores compared to those who were enthusiasts from the outset. They are more open than Trump voters in general to be willing to consider an alternative at the next election.

Many separate his personal behaviour from what he does as President

This is not to say that Trump’s voters like everything about him. Many are doubtful about his personal ethics, and want him to be a bit more presidential, cut out the name-calling and generally calm down, especially on Twitter. But even his more reluctant voters generally like what he is doing as President, even though fewer approve of his character. Whatever their qualms on this score, they decided at the election that other things mattered more, and this still holds true. Many of the criticisms of Trump have focused on his conduct, but his voters are more focused on delivery. As a woman in Iowa told us shortly before the midterm elections: “It’s like the CEO of the company I work for. I don’t care if you’re the nicest guy in the world. I care that we’re going to be successful and I’m going to have a job from day to day.”

We can expect to hear a lot more about immigration and healthcare

During the 2016 campaign we asked Americans about their greatest fears. Republicans’ biggest worry was the immigration system letting in individuals who would threaten their community. For Democrats, and for voters overall, it was being unable to pay for treatment if they or their family were to have a serious illness. Two years later, these two issues topped the list when we asked about the most important issues in the midterm elections.

As of today, the federal government remains shut down because of the continuing standoff between Trump and the Congressional Democrats over funding for a Mexican border wall. Trump continues to invoke the migrant caravan making its way north towards the frontier. The most committed Republicans have the most negative views about the effects of immigration, and Democrats regard the now-abandoned policy of separating the children of illegal immigrants (which made even some Trump supporters uneasy) as among the most deplorable aspects of the Trump presidency.

Meanwhile, the controversy over healthcare has not gone away since the administration’s failure to push reform through Congress, and Democrats are not alone in worrying about it: Republicans too raise it as a concern and most want to keep the requirement for insurers to cover pre-existing conditions. The two issues look set to play a big part in the next two years and the 2020 campaign itself.

The investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign – potentially the most explosive of all, and which could in theory explode his presidency – is not one that actually moves many votes: whether you think Trump is bang to rights or the probe is a politically motivated witch hunt essentially depends on whether you voted for him in the first place.

The electorate is shifting – especially on the left

During the run-up to the 2016 election, we asked 30,000 Americans about their background, ethnicity, education, work, religion, level of political interest and sources of news – among other things – as well as their attitudes to social and cultural issues. We analysed the results to identify ten distinct segments within the electorate, which fell into four clusters: the Democrat Core, Centrist Voters, Republican Partisans, and a more disengaged but dissatisfied group we called the Trump Targets.

In a similar study two years on, we find some small declines in the centrist and disengaged groups and a minor uptick in the Republican-supporting segments. But the biggest change has been on the Left.

As before, a third of the population falls into one of the three segments of the Democrat Core – but while two of these groups (the Mainstream Liberals and more working class and socially conservative Blue-Collar Democrats) have shrunk, the most left-leaning segment has doubled in size. This shift is a telling part of the movement’s response to the Trump presidency. We have heard focus group participants explain how they once considered themselves moderates, but have felt themselves driven leftwards in reaction to his words and deeds.

We can also see changes in their broader political outlook. In the most liberal groups, we can see dramatic falls over the last two years in the numbers thinking life in America is better than it was 30 years ago, that life for today’s American children will be better than it was for their parents, and that it is possible to succeed in America whatever your background.

His opponents’ reaction to him could work to Trump’s advantage

Not surprisingly, asked what kind of candidate they would like to see take on Trump in 2020, Cosmopolitan Activists prefer the idea of a progressive liberal to a moderate centrist by a huge majority – bigger than that among Democrats more generally, let alone uncommitted voters in the middle. People most likely to be in play on the other side – Obama-Trump voters, lesser-of-two evils Trump voters who couldn’t stand the idea of President Hillary Clinton, and moderate Republicans open to an alternative to the incumbent – seem unlikely to flock to such an individual.

But as well as being the furthest to the left on the political spectrum, the young, educated and affluent Cosmopolitan Activists are also by far the most likely of all the segments of the electorate to donate to campaigns, work for candidates, attend political events and, crucially, vote in the Democratic primaries. Will their horror at Trump and all his works drive them to choose the candidate most likely to hand a second term to their nemesis?

Half-Time! American Public Opinion Midway Through Trump’s (First?) Term – and the Race to 2020 is published this week by Biteback.

Ben Roback: Three weeks into a record shutdown and no sign of a compromise

The President’s strategy of making a resumption of normal government depend on funding for his wall doesn’t appear to be working.

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

As British politics sinks further into a self-enforced abyss of disagreement with no end in sight, it is worth remembering that we are not alone in navigating choppy waters.

The US Government is in its third week of a partial shutdown that it brought entirely on itself.

The shutdown is now entering day 27, and crucially there is little indication of a cooling of tensions that could provide a light at the end of the tunnel. Its implications are octopus-like, reaching simultaneously into complex areas of public policy and people’s everyday lives.

Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are either being furloughed or working without pay, bringing pain to households in commuter towns in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia. Around the country, a lack of airport security personnel means screening takes hours when it should take minutes (scarily, in three weeks, Atlanta airport is expecting over 100,00 passengers coming into town for the Super Bowl).

The longest government shutdown in history shows no sign of ending any time soon. Americans employed by the government and tourists hoping to visit national parks are losing out at the sharp end of the shutdown – but does its continuation in fact suit both parties?

Playing the blame game

Both the White House and Congressional Democrats have been keen to continually lament the shutdown, scathing about its impact on Main Street American jobs and the macroeconomic impact. The longer the shutdown goes on, the more both sides are proven correct – yesterday the New York Times wrote:

“The partial government shutdown is inflicting far greater damage on the United States economy than previously estimated, the White House acknowledged on Tuesday, as President Trump’s economists doubled projections of how much economic growth is being lost each week the standoff with Democrats continues.”

For the President, this brings a significant risk. Donald Trump has prided his tenure so far on the economic impacts he has delivered – a bullish stock market and wholesale tax reform for companies and individuals. Tumbling economic forecasts suddenly undermine that narrative, which will be one of the central features of his 2020 re-election campaign.

It represents a likely battle taking place between the economic and immigration advisers in the President’s inner circle. After all, the shutdown is only entering its 26th day because of the White House’s insistence that fiscal provisions to keep the Government open contain over $5 billion in government funding to build a wall on the US/Mexico border.

With absolutely no surprise whatsoever, Democrats are refusing to acquiesce – immigration became one of their top priorities as an increasingly diverse electorate become ever more important to their electoral coalition. In previous congressional cycles, the focus had been on securing a long-term solution for the so-called “dreamers”, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. Notable attempts failed under President Obama in 2014. Since Trump made chants of “BUILD! THE! WALL!” a central feature of his election campaigns, that focus has sharply shifted to the issue of the wall.

So, who is to blame? The President has sought to shift blame towards the Democrats, whom he continues to describe as “obstructionist”. Following a televised address to the nation last week, three polls showed that strategy is failing to land:

  • A Quinnipiac University poll (here) found that 56 per cent of voters held Trump and congressional Republicans responsible for the shutdown whereas only 36 per cent said they thought congressional Democrats were responsible.
  • A CNN/SSRS poll (here) found that 55 per cent of Americans blamed the President for the shutdown, compared to 32 per cent who blamed the Democrats. Interestingly, the poll also found that a majority (56 per cent) opposed the deal whilst only 39 per cent supported it.
  • A CBS News/YouGov poll (here) found that 47 per cent of Americans blamed Mr Trump “most” for the shutdown, compared to 30 per cent who cited Democrats. However, 20 per cent allocated blame “equally” on both parties, suggesting neither is gaining as a result of the current malaise. Worryingly for the GOP, these criticisms are held acutely amongst suburban voters – whose votes will be crucial for Republicans in states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia in 2020.

Immigration shaping up to be the biggest wedge issue in 2020

As we enter the lame duck period, so much of what happens in US politics will be viewed through the lens of the 2020 general election. The proof? Since Christmas, three Democrats have launched their early campaigns for the presidency and a fourth appears imminent. On the left, the pressure from the grass roots will be to hold an aggressive line in staunch opposition to the wall. There will be absolutely no political reward whatsoever for riding to the rescue of a President that has buried himself in a bunker. And so:

  • Elizabeth Warren, who was the first to launch her campaign for 2020, has tweeted: “24 days into the #TrumpShutdown and over 800,000 federal employees have already missed 1 paycheck. How many more before Republicans stop crushing working families and re-open the government? Time to end this.”
  • Tulsi Gabbard has tweeted: “Today an estimated 800,000 federal employees will miss their first paychecks of the year. Families are suffering. Our country is less safe. The impact of this shutdown is real.”
  • Kirsten Gilibrand has tweeted: “The emergency at our border is the cruel treatment of children who are still detained. It’s the asylum seekers being shut out. It’s @realDonaldTrump’s dehumanizing attacks on immigrants in need. We need to end the shutdown and get back to solving real problems families face.”

For the President, the strategy of keeping the government shut down unless Democrats vote to fund his border wall doesn’t seem to be working. According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, since the shutdown began the president’s aggregate approval rating has fallen from 42.2 per cent to 40.8 per cent.

No end in sight

The 2018 midterm elections saw the Republicans and Democrats trade on the currency of anger and fear in the American public. Those two sentiments have continued into the 116th Congress and there is no sign it will end any time soon. For that reason, it is hard to forecast a sudden change in sentiment from the White House or Congressional Democrats, one of which would be needed to bring about an end to the shutdown.

How Trump appeals to unspeakable emotions

A new book about Holocaust and climate change denial also casts light on the American President.

Denial: The Unspeakable Truth by Keith Kahn-Harris

Anyone who takes the faintest interest in politics is bound to wonder why, while behaving in a manner so loutish, shameless and disrespectful of conventional wisdom, Donald Trump has managed to form such a close bond with the American public.

Keith Kahn-Harris touches only in passing on that question, yet succeeds in casting much light on it.

His book has the merit of being short. He examines a phenomenon – the yearning to deny various commonly accepted positions – which could have spawned a treatise of inordinate length.

He manages to write not much more than an extended essay by selecting only a few examples of denial. These include denial of the Holocaust, of the harm done by tobacco, of the link between HIV and AIDS, and of man-made climate change.

One may question how much in common with each other these denials have. The Holocaust has already taken place, while climate change is to a large extent a series of predictions about the future.

And denialism (a term he admits to be “terrible”) as a form of non-argument, where one refuses to listen to the opposing point of view or to take into account strong opposing evidence, and is instead driven by inner compulsions of one’s own, has also been seen quite a bit during our own referendum campaign.

In his frivolous youth, Kahn-Harris tells us in his preface, he developed a love of “nonsense dressed up as scholarship”, and revelled in the “portentous ludicrousness” of books such as Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, which in the 1970s contended that aliens had visited earth and inspired the glories of ancient civilisations.

Kahn-Harris’s Jewish upbringing meant he was conscious of the Holocaust from an early age, but when he heard of people who denied it had ever happened, this too “was all a big joke to me”.

It is easier to be heartless in one’s teens than later on, when he begins to worry that those who challenge “real scholarship” are helping  “something deeply poisonous” to grow, and to produce “diseased fruit in our ‘post-truth’ age”.

In some ways, I prefer the earlier and more heartless Kahn-Harris, who shrieks with laughter at the flat earthers and other cranks he comes across. For as he himself says, these people yearn to be taken seriously, and one should be wary of paying them that compliment.

But one advantage of taking them seriously is that he starts to see that they are not just liberals who have somehow gone astray, and only need a bit of education in order to enable them to perceive the truth:

“Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation, it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences… Denialism arises from being in an impossible bind: holding to desires, values, ideologies and morals that cannot be openly spoken of.”

Later on, Kahn-Harris remarks that “all denialists share a burning desire to continue to appear decent while rejecting the path of decency”.  They cannot say what they really want, and

“politics becomes a kind of shadow play, in which – shorn of of real discussions of real differences – all that is left is a battle over who can really claim the mantle of righteousness, who can rightly claim to embody the values we all sign up to.”

We are all, he points out, anti-racists now. The anti-Zionist Left vehemently rejects any idea that it might be anti-semitic. Holocaust deniers similarly reject with indignation the charge that they hate Jews, and indeed find themselves adopting the ludicrous position that Hitler was pro-Jewish, for after all, in their version of events, the Nazis were not actually evil and the Jews were not actually killed.

Kahn-Harris sees “the pathos, the desperation and the fierce hope” that undergird denialist tracts – qualities one is liable to miss if one just debunks such works as ludicrously unscientific and unscholarly.

And here one starts to see Trump’s appeal. There is no way to be a polite racist. It is an inherently rude position, and in, for example, his attacks on Mexicans, Trump embraces that rudeness, revels in it, is authentically and genuinely loutish, appalls respectable society and thus convinces his supporters that he is on their side.

I have just been reading about the Mexican War of 1846-48, in which the United States made vast gains of territory at the expense of an enfeebled Mexico, which was provoked into war, fought bravely but was thrashed by well-led American forces with superior equipment. It was in many ways a disgraceful affair, and people like Abraham Lincoln said at the time that it was disgraceful.

But at the same time, a strong moral case was made for the expansion. It was, the Democratic Review declared in 1845, “the fulfilment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

The war was popular – democratic, one might say – and no one supposed afterwards that these gains stretching all the way to the Pacific, including what became the states of California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, and a southern border pushed down to the Rio Grande, should be handed back.

One of the heroes of the war, General Zachary Taylor, who had no political experience, was adopted as a presidential candidate in the election of 1848, which he proceeded to win.

Kahn-Harris does not go in to this history, and if he had done his book would have become unmanageable. But he does observe that denialists have beliefs which used to be regarded as morally defensible and now are not.

In the old days, one could win presidential elections thanks to one’s heroic record in unequal wars waged against native Americans and Mexicans. Today one cannot advocate that kind of thing. But Trump, with brutal skill, knows how to show whose side he is on. He is a more traditional figure than his opponents, whose outlook is usually bounded by their own lifetimes, tend to realise.

Throughout his essay, Kahn-Harris touches on the pleasure to be derived from shocking people, behaving in an outrageous fashion, claiming to be in possession of arcane information, and throwing one’s opponents off balance by saying things they never imagined could be said. Trump has a genius for that kind of performance.

At  the end of his essay, Kahn-Harris admits his book has not been particularly helpful in showing how denialism should be dealt with. He attempts, rather unconvincingly, to frame messages for Holocaust deniers and global warming deniers.

But his purpose is to understand, not to cure, and his essay can be recommended not just to anyone interested in denialism, but to anyone dismayed by the narrow limits within which our political debates take place.