Trump and his inner circle may imagine he is the American Putin, but once Patrick Cockburn has suggested it, it seems obvious that he is the American Boris Yeltsin instead.
I would disagree with Cockburn on only one point, that the "national decline" that might result from the election of our very own Boris avatar, His Excellency The Donald, is "calamitous." It would be a blessing for ourselves and the rest of the world. We had reached a size and strength that has attracted brutal and stupid leadership, not the wisdom to bring about an orderly "decline." -- wmh
With the US distracted by Trump and the UK by Brexit, they’re about to see a decline in their global power
One need only look to Yeltsin’s Russia to see how great powers fall. Both Trump and Yeltsin won power as demagogic anti-establishment leaders who won elections by promising reform. The result in Russia was calamitous national decline and the same thing could now happen in America
Boris Yeltsin was making a presidential visit to Washington in 1995 when he was found one night outside the White House dressed only in his underpants. He explained in a slurred voice to US secret service agents that he was trying to hail a cab so he could go and buy a pizza. The following night he was discovered by a guard, who thought he was an intruder, wandering drunkenly around the basement of his official residence.
Drunk or sober, Yeltsin and his escapades became the living symbol for the world, not just of the collapse of the Soviet Union but of a dysfunctional administration in the Kremlin and the decline of Russia as a great power. It was impossible to take seriously a state whose leader was visibly inebriated much of the time and in which policy was determined by a coterie of corrupt family members and officials serving at Yeltsin’s whim.
Donald Trump is often compared to Vladimir Putin by the media which detects ominous parallels between the two men as populist nationalist leaders. The message is that Trump with his furious attacks on the media would like to emulate Putin’s authoritarianism. There is some truth in this, but when it comes to the effect on US status and power in the world, the similarities are greater between Trump and Yeltsin than between Trump and Putin.
Trump does not drink alcohol, but his incoherent verbal onslaughts on Australia, Mexico and Sweden since he became President are strongly reminiscent of Yeltsin’s embarrassing antics. Both men won power as demagogic anti-establishment leaders who won elections by promising to reform and clear out corruption in the existing system. The result in Russia was calamitous national decline and the same thing could now happen in America.
It will be difficult for the US to remain a super-power under a leader who is an international figure of fun and is often visibly detached from reality. His battle cry of “Fake News” simply means an inability to cope with criticism or accept facts or views that contradict his own. World leaders who have met him say they are astonished by his ignorance of events at home and abroad.
This cannot go on very long without sizeably diminishing American global influence as its judgement and actions become so unpredictable. Over the last three quarters of a century, countries of all political hues – dictatorships and democracies, republics and monarchies – have wanted to be an ally of the US because it was the most powerful player in world affairs.
It will remain so but the degree and nature of its primacy is changing significantly for four reasons. The US has a leader who appears unhinged to an extent not true of any of his predecessors. Secondly, political combat in the US has reached an all-absorbing ferocity not seen since the 1850s. This does not mean that the last act of this crisis will be a civil war, but American society is more divided today than at any time since the conflict between North and South. From the moment Trump took office he has shown no inclination towards compromise and his divisiveness inevitably makes America becomes a lesser power than it was.
The US is in a much stronger position today than the Soviet Union in 1991, but aspects of the two situations are the same. The Soviet Union was past its peak when it dissolved, but the US is weaker than it was fifteen years ago. Despite its vastly expensive armed forces, the US has failed to win wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or to obtain regime change in Syria. In all three wars, it made serious mistakes and suffered important setbacks. Barack Obama had an acute sense of just how far US military strength could be turned into political gains without stumbling into unwinnable wars in the Middle East and beyond. Contrary to Trump’s jibes about Obama doing disastrous deals with Iran and others, the last president kept out of the Syrian civil war, which would have been as draining as Afghanistan or Iraq, and gave priority to the campaign to eliminate Isis.
As presidential candidate Trump presented himself as an isolationist, claiming to have opposed the wars in Iraq and Libya. He had taken on board, as Hillary Clinton had not, that the American public does not want to fight another ground war in the Middle East. But Trump’s appointment of two senior generals – James Mattis as Defence Secretary and HR McMaster as National Security Adviser – tells a different and more belligerent story. Already, there are steps being taken to create a Sunni Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies and in cooperation with Israel, to confront Iran.
The Trump administration does not have a coherent foreign policy and will probably go along at first with many of the policies already in place. The dangerous moment will come later when it has to devise its own responses to new events, such as terrorist attacks by Isis, and its real capacity becomes apparent. It looks all too likely that a president who has such a ludicrously warped picture of life in Sweden will fail to grapple successfully with complex crises in Yemen, Syria or Iraq.
The election of Trump brings with it another negative but less tangible outcome that is already eating away at American primacy: the US will be not only divided but unable to focus on for the foreseeable future on anything other than the consequences of Trumpism. When US politicians, officials and media look at Russia, China, Ukraine, Iran, Israel or anywhere else in the world from Sweden to Australia, they will view them through a prism distorted by his preconceptions and fantasies.
The US is not alone in this. The debilitating result of a single factor marginalising other crucial issues has become all too clear in Britain since the Brexit vote. Tony Blair said in his recent speech that “this is a government for Brexit, of Brexit and dominated by Brexit. It is a mono-purpose political entity.” Aside from this single-minded focus, nothing else really matters, not the health service, the economy, technology, education, investment or crime. “Governments’ priorities are not really defined by white papers or words, but by the intensity of focus,” explained Blair. “This government has bandwidth for only one thing: Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams; or nightmares.”
In the US, Trump is a similarly obsessive concern. Once it was smaller European countries like Ireland and Poland that were derided for an exaggerated and unhealthy preoccupation with their own problems. A Polish joke from the 1920s relates how an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Pole competed to write the best essay on the elephant. The Englishman described “elephant hunting in India”, the French wrote about “the elephant in love” and the Pole produced a lengthy paper on “the elephant and the Polish Question”. These days the Englishman would undoubtedly write about “the elephant and Brexit” and an American, if he was allowed to enter the competition, would write interminably about “the elephant and Donald Trump”.
Donald Trump and the US media are in a fight to the finish – and they're both guilty of peddling alternative facts
Fake news may have helped hand Trump the presidency, but he is now finding it is a double-edged sword
Self-absorbed and irrational Donald Trump may well be, but on Thursday he held what was probably the most interesting and entertaining White House press conference ever. These are usually grimly ritualistic events in which select members of the media establishment, who have often come to see themselves as part of the permanent government of the US, ask predictable questions and get equally predictable replies.
The conventions of democracy are preserved but nobody is much the wiser, and the general tone is one of fawning credulity towards whatever line the administration is adopting. That this has long been the case was shown in the fascinating book about the press coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse, which notes that negative popular perceptions of the media truckling to power is largely true of the White House correspondents, though not of other reporters.
For now, Trump reminds one more of a theatrical populist like Silvio Berlusconi than anything resembling a proto-fascist or authoritarian demagogue like Benito Mussolini. This perception may change as he secures his grip on the levers of power as he promises to do, blaming leaks from the US intelligence services on holdovers from the Obama administration.
But the lesson to be drawn from the history of all populist authoritarian regimes is that there is always a wide gap between what they promise and what they accomplish. As this gap becomes wider, the regime responds by concealing or lying about it through control or closure of the media. This was the trajectory in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding a referendum in April which will establish an all-powerful presidency. In the run-up to the vote the Turkish media simply reports military failures in Syria as brilliant successes and even mildly critical tweets can lead to the tweeter being sacked or imprisoned. Press freedoms may never be extinguished to the same degree in the US, but then many Turkish journalists did not foresee what was going to happen to them.
At present, this is a golden era in American journalism, because established media outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post find themselves under unprecedented and open attacks from the powers that be. Richard Nixon may have felt persecuted by press and television, but he never counter-attacked with the same vigour and venom as Trump. Discussions on CNN, which used to be notoriously soporific, have suddenly become lively and intelligent, and the same is true of the rest of the mainline media.
This radicalisation of the establishment media may not last and is accompanied by a significant rearrangement of history. Lying by the Trump administration is presented as wholly unprecedented, but what has really changed is the position of the media itself, forgetful of its past complicity in claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or that war in Libya would bring peace and democracy to that country.
“Fake news” and “false facts” are the battle cries in this ferocious struggle for power in Washington in which each side takes a high moral tone, while trying to land any low blow they think they can get away with. Trump, accused of everything aside from grave-robbing, is said to have been aided by the dark hand of Vladimir Putin in winning the election, in a manner that is far beyond Russian capabilities. The Kremlin is credited with demonic foresight whereby it sponsored Trump as a candidate in the presidential election long before any American politician or commentator thought he had a chance.
A bizarre feature of the present confrontation is that the Democrats and liberals have relaunched McCarthyism, something they would have decried as a toxic episode in American political history until a few months ago. Just as Senator Joe McCarthy claimed in 1950 to have a list of communist infiltrators in the State Department, so any contact between a Trump supporter or official and a Russian is now being reported as suspicious and potentially treacherous. It is difficult to see where Trump is wrong when he tweeted that “the Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly, so they made up a story – RUSSIA. Fake news!”
Trump has a point, but he is also entirely hypocritical because he himself probably won the election because of the spurious significance given to Hillary Clinton’s private emails and her supposed responsibility for the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi by jihadis. Paradoxically, she was blamed for one of the few bad things that happened in Libya that was not her fault. In recent decades it has been the Republicans who have made a speciality in promoting trivial offences or no offence at all into major issues in order to discredit political opponents. In the 1990s they succeeded in smearing the Clintons by elevating a minor unsuccessful real estate deal into the Whitewater scandal. Probably the biggest Democratic Party “false fact” success came in the Presidential election in 1960 when Kennedy claimed that the Republicans had allowed “a missile gap” to develop between the US and the Soviet Union, though he knew this was untrue since he had been officially briefed that the US had far more missiles than the Russians.
The phrases “fake news” and “false facts” give a misleading impression of what really happens in the course of political combat now or in the past. A direct disprovable lie, like Kennedy on the missile gap, is unusual. More frequent is systematic exaggeration of the gravity of real events such as Clinton’s emails or Trump’s Russian connections.
Sound advice on this was given 300 years ago in Dr John Arbuthnot’s wonderful treatise on “the Art of Political Lying”, published in 1712, which warns that once a false fact or lie is lodged in the public mind, it may be impossible to persuade people that it is untrue except by another lie. He says, as an example, that if there is a rumour that the pretender to the British throne in exile in France has come to London, do not contradict it by saying he was never in England. Rather “you must prove by eyewitnesses that he came no farther than Greenwich, but then went back again.” He warns against spreading lies about a political leader which are directly contrary to their known character and previous behaviour. Better to give credibility to a lie by keeping within realms of credibility, by blackening the name of a prince known to be merciful “that he has pardoned a criminal who did not deserve it.”
Arbuthnot assumes that political parties lie as a matter of course, and that the only way for the public to limit the power of governments is to lie as much as they do. He says that, just as ministers use political lying to support their power, “it is but reasonable that the people should employ the same weapon to defend themselves, and pull them down.”
Could this be the fate of Trump? He became president because false facts fatally damaged Hillary Clinton – and now the same thing is happening to him.
The Art of Political Lying
I am prevailed on, through the importunity of friends, to interrupt the scheme I had begun in my last paper, by an essay upon the Art of Political Lying. We are told the devil is the father of lies, and was a liar from the beginning; so that, beyond contradiction, the invention is old: and, which is more, his first essay of it was purely political, employed in undermining the authority of his prince, and seducing a third part of the subjects from their obedience: for which he was driven down from heaven, where (as Milton expresseth it) he had been viceroy of a great western province; and forced to exercise his talent in inferior regions among other fallen spirits, poor or deluded men, whom he still daily tempts to his own sin, and will ever do so, till he be chained in the bottomless pit.
But although the devil be the father of lies, he seems, like other great inventors, to have lost much of his reputation, by the continual improvements that have been made upon him.
Who first reduced lying into an art and adapted it to politics, is not so clear from history, although I have made some diligent enquiries. I shall therefore consider it only according to the modern system, as it has been cultivated these twenty years past in the southern part of our own island.
The poets tell us, that after the giants were overthrown by the gods, the earth in revenge produced her last offspring, which was Fame. And the fable is thus interpreted: that when tumults and seditions are quieted, rumors and false reports are plentifully spread through a nation. So that, by this account, lying is the last relief of a routed, earth-born, rebellious party in a state. But here the Moderns have made great additions, applying this art to the gaining of power and preserving it, as well as revenging themselves after they have lost it; as the same instruments are made use of by animals to feed themselves when they are hungry, and to bite those that tread upon them.
But the same genealogy cannot always be admitted for political lying; I shall therefore desire to refine upon it, by adding some circumstances of its birth and parents. A political lie is sometimes born out of a discarded statesman's head, and thence delivered to be nursed and dandled by the rabble. Sometimes it is produced a monster, and licked into shape; at other times it comes into the world completely formed, and is spoiled in the licking. It is often born an infant in the regular way, and requires time to mature it; and often it sees the light in its full growth, but dwindles away by degrees. Sometimes it is of noble birth; and sometimes the spawn of a stock-jobber. Here, it screams aloud at the opening of the womb; and there, it is delivered with a whisper. I know a lie that now disturbs half the kingdom with its noise, which, although too proud and great at present to own its parents, I can remember its whisper-hood. To conclude the nativity of this monster: when it comes into the world without a sting, it is stillborn; and whenever it loses its sting, it dies.
No wonder if an infant so miraculous in its birth should be destined for great adventures; and accordingly we see it hath been the guardian spirit of a prevailing party [the Whigs] for almost twenty years. It can conquer kingdoms without fighting, and sometimes with the loss of a battle. It gives and resumes employments; can sink a mountain to a molehill, and raise a molehill to a mountain; hath presided for many years at committees of elections; can wash a blackamoor white; make a saint of an atheist, and a patriot of a profligate; can furnish foreign ministers with intelligence and raise or let fall the credit of the nation. This goddess flies with a huge looking-glass in her hands, to dazzle the crowd, and make them see, according as she turns it, their ruin in their interest, and their interest in their ruin. In this glass you will behold your best friends, clad in coats powdered with fleurs-de-lis and triple crowns; their girdles hung round with chains, and beads, and wooden shoes; and your worst enemies adorned with the ensigns of liberty, property, indulgence, moderation, and a cornucopia in their hands. Her large wings, like those of a flying fish, are of no use but while they are moist; she therefore dips them in mud, and soaring aloft scatters it in the eyes of the multitude, flying with great swiftness; but at every turn is forced to stoop in dirty ways for new supplies.
I have been sometimes thinking, if a man had the art of the second sight for seeing lies, as they have in Scotland for seeing spirits, how admirably he might entertain himself in this town, by observing the different shapes, sizes, and colors of those swarms of lies which buzz about the heads of some people, like flies about a horse's ears in summer; or those legions hovering every afternoon in Exchange Alley, enough to darken the air; or over a club of discontented grandees, and thence sent down in cargoes to be scattered at elections.
There is one essential point wherein a political liar differs from others of the faculty, that he ought to have but a short memory, which is necessary, according to the various occasions he meets with every hour, of differing from himself, and swearing to both sides of a contradiction, as he finds the persons disposed with whom he hath to deal. In describing the virtues and vices of mankind, it is convenient, upon every article, to have some eminent person in our eye, from whom we copy our description. I have strictly observed this rule, and my imagination this minute represents before me a certain great man famous for this talent, to the constant practice of which he owes his twenty years' reputation of the most skillful head in England, for the management of nice affairs. The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it; so that if you think fit to refine upon him, by interpreting everything he says, as we do dreams, by the contrary, you are still to seek, and will find yourself equally deceived whether you believe or no; the only remedy is to suppose that you have heard some inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all; and besides, that will take off the horror you might be apt to conceive at the oaths, wherewith he perpetually tags both ends of every proposition; although, at the same time, I think he cannot with any justice be taxed with perjury, when he invokes God and Christ, because he hath often fairly given public notice to the world that he believes in neither.
Some people may think that such an accomplishment as this can be of no great use to the owner, or his party, after it has been often practiced, and is become notorious; but they are widely mistaken. Few lies carry the inventor's mark, and the most prostitute enemy to truth may spread a thousand, without being known for the author; besides, as the vilest writer hath his readers, so the greatest liar hath his believers, and it often happens that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.
Considering that natural disposition in many men to lie, and in multitudes to believe, I have been perplexed what to do with that maxim so frequent in everybody's mouth, that truth will at last prevail. Here has this island of ours, for the greatest part of twenty years, lain under the influence of such counsels and persons, whose principle and interest it was to corrupt our manners, blind our understanding, drain our wealth, and in time destroy our constitution both in Church and State, and we at last were brought to the very brink of ruin; yet by the means of perpetual misrepresentations, have never been able to distinguish between our enemies and friends. We have seen a great part of the nation's money got into the hands of those who, by their birth, education and merit, could pretend no higher than to wear our liveries; while others, who, by their credit, quality, and fortune, were only able to give reputation and success to the Revolution, were not only laid aside as dangerous and useless, but loaded with the scandal of Jacobites, men of arbitrary principles, and pensioners to France; while truth, who is said to lie in a well, seemed now to be buried there under a heap of stones. But I remember it was a usual complaint among the Whigs, that the bulk of the landed men was not in their interests, which some of the wisest looked on as an ill omen; and we saw it with the utmost difficulty that they could preserve a majority, while the court and ministry were on their side, till they had learned those admirable expedients for deciding elections and influencing distant boroughs by powerful motives from the city. But all this was mere force and constraint, however upheld by most dexterous artifice and management, until the people began to apprehend their properties, their religion, and the monarchy itself in danger; when we saw them greedily laying hold on the first occasion to interpose. But of this mighty change in the dispositions of the people I shall discourse more at large in some following paper; wherein I shall endeavour to undeceive or discover those deluded or deluding persons who hope or pretend it is only a short madness in the vulgar, from which they may soon recover; whereas, I believe it will appear to be very different in its causes, its symptoms, and its consequences; and prove a great example to illustrate the maxim I lately mentioned, that truth (however sometimes late) "will at last prevail."