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2017 Retrospective: Part 1 – The Year of the Narcissist

December 31, 2017

I could have written much more about Donald Trump this year, but in the end I realised that there were so many people focused on him that I would find it hard to say anything that wasn’t already being said. But I suppose that as a Brit who frequently visits America,  I have my own perspective, so here’s a selection of stuff I did write on the character I liked to call The Walrus (as in the Carpenter).

In January he was inaugurated. The Steele Dossier first raises its ugly head:

So on the day Obama says goodbye, The Walrus (aka Trump) has to deny an “unsubstantiated report” that he has indulged in an extensive dalliance with the Russians. Which bit is not true, I wonder? Getting two prostitutes to pee on his bed? Or bribery? Or extensive contacts between members of his team and Russian intelligence? If the Russians have video evidence of his antics at the Ritz Carlton, it’s a fair bet that the two girls performed more, shall we say, personal, services for the cameras than just a bout of voluntary incontinence.

Lies, all of it, goddamit! As The Donald says, it’s fake news. But what if there’s a teeny-weeny grain of truth in the allegations made by our present-day George Smiley?

No doubt the religious right will forgive him for his sexual weakness – if the report is true of course. After all, there must be a few pastors and God-fearing brethren out there who have fantasised about some of the stuff allegedly on offer in Moscow. (From Dirty Linen in Moscow)

On Inauguration Day, I was in Da Nang, Vietnam. The parallels between Trump and Lyndon Johnson were irresistible:

If Trump had to make the decision to throw everything against the Viet Cong today, the protests, the personal vilification and the political pressure that led to Johnson standing down in 1969 would be amplified many times on the social media. There would be so much abuse thrown at him that he would take years to fire his customary retaliatory tweets at all the critics who would take aim at him.

Johnson, himself thin-skinned, endured the opprobrium for four years before he threw in the towel. Would Trump, who is a more fragile individual than LBJ ever was, last that long? I doubt it. It would probably be a matter of how long before he tried to do something irrational and catastrophically stupid, at which point one would hope that more grounded people around him would either thwart him or declare him no longer competent to continue in office.

How long? My guess is a year, maybe two. (From Postcard from Da Nang, on the eve of an inauguration)

When Trump signed his first Executive Order banning people from a number of Muslim countries from entering the United States, I wondered what a close friend of mine, now passed, would have made of the decision:

Steve was a Republican. I last saw him in Seattle shortly before he passed away. It was during the Bush-Kerry election campaign. The Bush posters were outside his house, and American flag flew proudly in the yard.

He was a kind man who was never less than supportive of the young Saudis who were determined to break free of their reliance upon Westerners, yet proud and happy when they went to study in his country. In no sense did he share the attitude of superiority that many of his colleagues felt towards “the Arabs”. There wasn’t a racist bone in his body, and though he wasn’t particularly religious himself, he was never less than respectful to the religion of his hosts.

I thought of him when chaos unfolded in the wake of Donald Trump’s intemperate and ill-considered Executive Order banning citizens from seven Muslim countries from entering the US. He would have been appalled by Trump, and appalled at the fall-out from Trump’s latest order. “Completed staff work”, he would have muttered. (From Trump’s immigrant ban – management by thunderbolt)

By February, people were starting to wonder (if they didn’t already) whether there was something wrong with the President:

Dementia doesn’t deal an even hand. It can hit you at any age, though more frequently when you enter your eighth decade. Harold Wilson resigned as British Prime Minister at sixty. He is said to have been concerned about his declining cognitive powers, and subsequently developed Alzheimer’s. Donald Trump is seventy, the same age as Reagan when The Gipper first came to the White House.

In his recent press conference, Trump lurched from subject to subject, free-associating with gay abandon. As for empty phrases and fillers, do “great”, “sad”, “loser” and “failed” qualify? I guess we’ll have to leave it to the shrinks to figure out whether he too shows signs of pre-dementia.

Given his frequent bizarre logic leaps, it’s scary to think that he’s only at the start of his term, not nearing the end as Reagan was when his decline became evident. Even if it turns out that Trump shows no sign of incipient dementia, it’s hardly likely that at his age he’s at the peak of his mental powers. (From Alzheimer’s – which of us is heading for the sunset, and do we want to know? Depends on who we are…)

As Trump puts his team together, there’s cause to wonder whether a new kind of presidency is emerging:

Are we looking at an entirely new style of presidency, wherein Trump continues to behave like a man running for election, and his senior cabinet members – with the support and connivance of Mike Pence – get on with the business of government despite him, rather than because of him?

In other words, a collective presidency – government by cabinet – while the man himself rants and raves in a bubble of sycophancy in the White House?

Whatever one thinks of the policies, a degree of consistency and coherence applied by his less ideological team members is surely more to be desired than Steve Bannon’s destructive testing of the world order, and the chaotic leadership Trump has shown thus far. (From The collective presidency – Trump’s accidental innovation?)

Will the cult of personality Trump seems to be building destroy his businesses as his brand becomes increasingly toxic?

I appreciate that I have an outsider’s view. I’m not American, and I would never, ever set foot in a Trump-branded hotel or holiday resort. The last thing I need on a holiday or business trip is to encounter a garish portrait of the leader in the vestibule. I’ve been to too many places in the Middle East where monarchs and dictators similarly beam (or glare) out at you in halls and reception areas.

But how many of the seventy million or so voters in the United States who didn’t go for Trump would touch one of his properties with a bargepole over the next four years? Far less than would have done before he entered the presidential race, I suspect. The brand is becoming toxic. (From Information War: toxic brands bring down the castles too)

Trump’s demise, if it happens, will be very different to that of Brexit, which I fervently hope for:

If you’re a Brit, and a political junkie like me, you might think that the Brexit entertainment would be a welcome alternative to all the stuff going on across the pond. There have been times when I and many others have seen Trump and Brexit as intertwined abominations. Now I’m coming to see that the differences are as significant as the similarities. Brexit is a slow, muddy river of depression, whereas Trump is a manic white-water ride.

Or, to use a different analogy, Trump may well be a supernova, flaming out in a gigantic explosion that will light up the sky. My country, on the other hand, seems to be a dying star, slowly degrading. This year: Brexit. In 2018: Scottish independence. Any time soon: renewed conflict in Northern Ireland. No longer united, no longer great. Our politicians are the opposite of Trump – risk-averse and predictable. They are boring us into submission. (From Parallel Washingtons come together – a delicious confluence)

The idea that Big Data was responsible for Trump’s election starts gaining traction:

… the idea of Dataism falls apart somewhat when you consider that the Masters of the Data Universe saw fit to achieve the election to the most powerful office in the world of the ultimate collection of screwed-up algorithms – an ignorant, unpredictable podgeblaster called Donald Trump – who is quite capable of reducing all our treasured data to little more than particles of radioactive silicon. It doesn’t seem so inevitable when you consider that a significant minority of our planet’s population have no connection to or interest in the great river of data, and are concerned only with getting enough to eat and protecting themselves from earthquake and famine. And when you consider that even if Trump doesn’t blow up the world, that minority will still have to contend with the effects of climate change as cities are swamped and fields turn to desert. Indeed, the minority might become a majority in the not too distant future.

Should the unthinkable not happen, and wildly unstable biological algorithms fail to bring us to our knees, we may yet become subordinated to unconscious intelligence and ultimately eliminated. So be it. (From I’m not a number! Hold on, I’m an algorithm – allegedly….)

Thoughts on the President’s beloved Wall:

I love walls. Many of them are beautiful, though not in the way Donald Trump predicts about his wall.

For me, walls that define and protect boundaries are symbols of failure. They are steeped in emotion – hubris, fear and sadness. Think of the famous walls that remind us of those emotions: Hadrian’s Wall, the Land Walls of Constantinople, the Great Wall of China.

All of them failed in their objectives. Hadrian’s successors couldn’t protect Britannia from the encroaching Saxons, let alone the Picts and the Scots to the north. The walls of Constantinople crumbled under the onslaught of the Ottoman cannon. And China’s wall, a landmark five thousand miles long, visible still from space, couldn’t keep out the Mongols.

Yet the bricks are still there for us to admire, as we contemplate the downfall of those who defended them. (From Note to Trump: the only beautiful walls are monuments to failure)

Trump fires Comey, and all hell breaks loose. But will the Russia affair bring him down?

If Trump has anything to hide, I would be very surprised if there weren’t multiple Deep Throats ready and waiting for the appropriate moment to release the bombshell that brings him down.

Management by fear works for tyrants who are able to surround themselves with loyalists and put apparatus in place to weed out traitors. The United States is not at that point and hopefully never will be. So Trump is making enemies and doesn’t have the means to deal with them. Which suggests that Russia notwithstanding, his leadership style will eventually be his undoing. Every major media organisation in the US that he has insulted over the past year is watching and waiting for his next misstep. (From Trump fires Comey – management by thunderbolt, not Russia, will bring him down)

Unlike Theresa May, the President is never boring:

The danger for the Conservatives is not that Theresa May is likely to implode in a Trumpian inferno. More likely that the electorate will become steadily more disenchanted with the consequences of Brexit, or die of boredom with her uninspiring persona.

Trump, on the other hand, could never be described as boring. His qualities are the very opposite to those that May trots out several times a minute. He’s doesn’t appear strong, despite all the dice that are stacked in his favour. And as for stable, well that’s a matter of opinion, or more likely of clinical diagnosis.

When all is said and done, we shouldn’t be surprised if Donald Trump manages to slash and burn his way through to 2020, and maybe beyond. What America and the world beyond will look like by then is anybody’s guess. (From Trump on the slippery slope? A view from the other side of the pond.)

A comparison between Sejanus, the feared henchman of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, and latter-day chiefs of staff in the US and the UK:

Imagine a day in the life of the unfortunate Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff. Surrounded by a web of poisonous relationships between scheming courtiers who hate each other. Walking corridors where staff nervously eye their mobile phones, occasionally muttering “POTUS is tweeting again…Jesus!” Constantly dealing with outrage and confusion over Trump’s utterances, and fending off lawsuits triggered by his flawed executive orders. Bombshells to the left and tantrums to the right.

How calm the waters of Downing Street must feel in comparison. But (Nick) Timothy and (Fiona) Hill will have their crises too, especially when the Brexit negotiations start unravelling. And Theresa May will not be content to be seen as a pliant plaything in the hands of two ambitious ideologues. (From A courtier’s life is not a happy one – ask Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill, Reince Priebus…..and Sejanus)

Trump goes to Saudi Arabia – with Melania in tow:

Trump and Saudi Arabia are made for each other. I’m pretty sure the President is finding much to admire, and perhaps even more to envy.

The Saudis, for example, respect the elderly. At 70, Trump is years past the retirement age of the average Saudi, so he definitely counts as worthy of deference.

They love KFC and MacDonalds. They love big buildings. In their gilded palaces, the décor will make him feel as though he is in Trump Tower. The chairs are built for Trump-sized rumps.

In Saudi Arabia, women know their place in traditional society. When the head of the house goes shopping, his wives follow him several steps behind – a practice with which Melania Trump would be familiar, judging by the recent picture of her following him down the steps of Air Force One. (From Trump in Saudi Arabia – much to admire, even more to envy)

Sean Spicer falls on his sword:

The president doesn’t really want anyone to speak for him. I get the impression that he would be far happier giving the occasional rambling interview with the fake news media, and then lambasting them with his late-night tweets. If he has something big to say, he can always call his faithful to a rally, or deliver some set-piece rant at a G7 conference, or speak to the nation from the White House lawn.

Who needs people like Spicer, who don’t have the brains to keep up with him? I suspect that Trump secretly envies Kim Jong Un, who in all his public appearances is surrounded by officials who capture his every thought by slavishly scribbling away in the little notebooks that each of them carries. What’s more, they never fail to giggle at his jokes. (From Alas poor Spicer, we knew him well)

So does Scaramucci:

The most extraordinary aspect of Scaramucci’s stunning impact on the US political stage is that to me at least – and most likely to the vast majority of people like me who watch the reality show from afar – his existence was unknown a week ago. It’s as if some TV producer invented him for Trump’s benefit and our amusement, like some new character parachuted into the Truman Show, or a contestant inserted into Love Island half-way through the series.

What’s next? Caligula’s horse? The Terminator? Coco the Clown? Your guess is as good as mine. One thing’s for sure, if he continues to recruit such colourful characters, Trump will put Broadway out of business. (From Anthony Scaramucci, the latest arrival on Love Island)

Looking on the bright side:

Donald Trump will eventually expire. By that I mean that his presidency will sooner or later end, unless the lunatics in the asylum manage to make him dictator for life. In that event, the demented heffapsycho still has a limited shelf life.

We’re still in the European Union. And will be until March 2019, unless the bleeding obvious jolts enough Members of Parliament out of their career-protecting ideological delusions and persuades them to call a halt to the whole thing. (From Mr Grumpy looks on the bright side)

Trump recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And so?

It means nothing in the sense that it will not change the Israel-Palestine impasse. Few countries will follow Trump’s lead. In political terms Israel’s possession of the city is no more legitimate today in the eyes of most of the world than it was before Trump issued his fatwa.

And if Jerusalem’s ancient walls were sentient, I suspect that they would be having a hollow laugh at Binyamin Netanyahu’s triumphant crowing, just as they would have done at Saladin’s glee.

Nothing is permanent in Jerusalem. Saladin passed on. Over the following eight hundred years, and up to the present day, there were more conquests, sackings, periods of peace, changes in control. No faith or political entity could truthfully be said to own the city. (From Jerusalem – Everything and Nothing)

And so it goes on, as my late mother used to say. Donald Trump is the writer’s gift that keeps on giving.


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