Understanding and defeating the current enablers of populism

18.10.2020

Dear Partners in thought,

As we approach the November 3rd US election, I thought it would be relevant to understand what happened in our democratic world and why populist-leaning leaders – some stronger than others, most still staying within the democratic institutional confines – were able to capture the interest of many “lost” voters and at times lawfully gain power.

This understanding process, that requires intellectual honesty, is a very sensitive one and its features could be offensive to many of the people who went for simple solutions to complex issues given an affinity with the message, a cultural closeness to the messenger or, in the American case, an overriding end-game. The conclusions of such a process may also today counter-productively strengthen the resolve of such voters who would react angrily to any adverse opinion by whom they see and reject as “experts” or members of the traditional elite. However, such a process should be carried out.

The rise to power of both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are probably, given the key countries they lead and what happened under their terms in office, the most important Western electoral events of the new political century, alongside the rise of a more assertive China, the meanders of an unstable Middle East and the rear-guard battle of a struggling Russia, all while the European Union is still a work in progress. While there might still be a debate as to the qualities of a Boris Johnson, it is increasingly challenging to find any to a Donald Trump in terms of leadership, competence and values. Yet and putting aside the vagaries of the US electoral college process, he was elected President. So why?

The new times that we know, especially in the West, have been marked by a wider and more active involvement of people, many of whom have become very vocal about their beliefs on all things, including political, and who vote. Rationality or facts are no longer priorities for many as if critical thinking in the classical sense was no longer relevant. More people vote, which is their right and might be seen as a positive development, even if they are not equipped to make a rational decision and are influenced by the new age of media, social and otherwise, with its news flows where truth is harder to detect.

Populist leaders and their movements or parties, the latter often hijacked by the former (the Republican party in the US being a perfect case in point), have benefited from a unique convergence of the societal failures of the education system and the worst sides of otherwise positive tech developments that drove more societally-aggrieved people to access “comforting” news they really wanted, regardless of rationality or facts involved, so they could feel some form of vindication and express their deepest resentments and need for drastic change at the polling booth.

In a new world of tech, which has undeniably brought many positive developments to society, many people sadly have not tried to think critically anymore. They also have preferred to listen to what they wanted to hear by way of news, truth being unimportant, rather than being informed. They have vigorously put their views out on social media as if they were as valuable as any other under a perverse democratic sense of “one man one vote”, this without grounding in facts or knowledge. The relative lack of education of some of these newly tech-empowered individuals, which is not a crime in itself and is often a poor reflection of the fairness of our societies, compounded the problem in creating in too many individuals little or no historical memory and an absence of any understanding of the boring workings of government or the complex issues of our times, increasing the drive toward unusually and welcomingly simple but hollow solutions to societal problems and their frustrations. The convergence of un-education and tech has unleashed an irrational drive to find new ways to change the politics of our societies, even if allowing at times conspiracy theories to prevail and tested governance means to be under threat. The end result of this convergence logically created “majorities” (even if technically not in the US in 2016) for populist-leaning leaders who offered a different set of untested style and ideas that would change the status quo, to prevail at the electoral booth.

The dual solution to the rise of populism is first to ensure, especially in America but also across the world, that governments focus on education so their citizens are trained in independent thinking, which is a classical feature of Western civilization. The more people have the tools to think independently and critically, the less they will follow beliefs that are groundless and potentially dangerous to society and indeed the world. This strategic focus on education needs to involve a complete overhaul of the teaching profession in order to attract the highest quality candidates for the role. The parallel solution is then first to ensure that parents from an early age of their children structure their use and timing of tech tools like social media so they do not fall victims to cheap elixir salesmen at an early age and can grow up as independently-thinking adults. Additionally, Big Tech should be driven further by government regulators to take enhanced measures to prevent the display of blatant hate speech and fact-less news fed by any domestic or foreign party onto their popular tech tools. Democratic societies should always want more educated people who can think for themselves and make rational decisions at the polling booth.

Trump got there as its core support base comprised a large number of non-college graduates (male non-college graduates being one of his very few “majority segments” today) who liked simple solutions to complex issues and the finger-pointing at a combination of targets like foreigners stealing their jobs, the Deep State, the megalopolises or the experts and the establishment – all deemed responsible for a perception of being “left out”. In addition and this time regardless of their education levels, Trump was supported by many religious conservative, two-hand raising, evangelicals, a group numbering 60 million, 80% of which will likely vote for Trump (so ironically his other key “majority segment”), who never liked the individual but convinced themselves to tolerate the “baby Christian” as they saw him, whatever harm he might bring to America and the world as well as the presidential role, as long as he could change the Supreme Court and overturn landmark Western liberal decisions like Roe v. Wade. So crucial was their overriding Supreme Court goal that supporting evangelicals would not mind unwittingly undermining Christian values along the Trump way. Un-education allied with societally-motivated religion, the latter at its core also faith-based (however good principles it may also project), created an odd “enabling” and at times unwitting coalition for an unusual form of hidden or soft populism, that would be harmful to both America and the world, personified by an oddly value-less Donald Trump. In all fairness, it is clear that regardless of their shortcomings or end game, Trump supporters’ objective was not to weaken America and its standing in the world, incidentally furthering the agenda of rival and challenging powers. However, by backing easy populist solutions to complex issues, unbeknownst to them, they did, all while eventually not seeing their own core problems and frustrations solved (even if evangelicals would rightly argue that current Supreme Court nomination hearings proved them right, if only focusing on their narrow end game).

To be sure, not all non-college educated and evangelical Americans voted or will vote for Trump (some evangelical groups, a minority, are indeed rooting for Biden) but these two segments do form the bulwark of its support and voting base. Similarly, many college-educated and non-evangelical Americans also voted for Trump for ideological reasons, Republican party habit, or rejection of some of the left-leaning planks of the Democratic party (likely an even more acute aspect today) as well as the probably unfairly perceived “entitled” personality of the candidate in 2016. The convergence of non-college education (as well as the absence of any professional qualifications) and the advent of all-empowering, truth-blurred and easy-to-use tech tools created a large and active group of voters who decided that the societal status quo and its tested recipes could and should change and new solutions and even governing style be implemented.

One key point for Western liberals in addressing the roots of populism tainted of nationalism (or national-populism if the term was not a dreadful and overblown reminder of another age) is not to mock the increasingly tech-enabled and vocal un-educated “left outs” but respect them and understand the grievances explaining their electoral choices that may lead to leaders with autocratic tendencies at the helm of our Western democracies. As an example, cultural identity, often a key universal focus of the left outs, indeed matters and should not just be the remit of the populists. We should always show respect and debate peacefully, though strongly, with the supporters of these populist leaders and movements and keep trying pointing to the disconnect of their views through facts and rationality.

There is a reason to hope, which is based on results. While populist movements and leaders have been very good at seizing power electorally in recent years, their results have been rather poor and have not changed the lives of their core supporters for the better. These movements and leaders are not good at governing, which many see as an afterthought to winning. Governing is indeed painfully detailed and boring, involving more debates than grand-standing rhetoric, something that populist leaders are not good at as we now vividly see from the standpoints of an appalling US pandemic leadership to dreadful Brexit negotiations, both clear self-harming populist demonstrations.

While democratic societies need to focus on increased education budgets associated with richer programs, also involving a key overhaul of the teaching profession, and a more sensible role and responsible use of tech, there is reason to hope that the waves of nationalistic-favored populism that we have known in the last five years will recede due to the inability to deliver results when in power. Austria’s latest election is a timely case in point. And so should America’s in November.

Going beyond the debate about populism and its enablers, one of the key side aspects to ensure that this quasi-pandemic wave will not come back will also be to make or remake capitalism more human and better shared in its successes or, as Joe Biden recently said, “reward work” and not see economic success only through a Dow Jones index lens. While rewarding work more, democratic societies should keep ensuring that more voters are educated and trained for jobs to come so the smallest number of non-qualified individuals will be left on the roadside when robots come in and we finally need to introduce an inevitable Universal Basic Income as a new social security cushion in an inevitable future.

Warmest regards,

Serge

How a Martian (and I) would see the November US presidential election today

1.9.20

Dear Partners in thought,

As we are right after the first appalling Trump-Biden debate and looking at the developments of the US presidential election race, a neutral Martian observer could make the following remarks:

  1. In spite of his drastically different presidential style and management, Trump was likely winning before the pandemic on the back of a strong stock market and an earlier massive tax break programme, even if not benefitting all Americans.
  2. Trump’s core base of 20-25% located in Red states and rural areas would back him come what may, facts and presidential style not mattering. To many of those disaffected voters known as “left outs”, proud of their American heritage and away from cultureless urban megalopolises, Trump cares for them. However, possibly less and less looking at polls of key states like Ohio.
  3. To many Trump supporters, including the evangelicals, whose female members find Trump’s treatment of women a private matter, the key driver in their support is essentially altering the composition of the US Supreme Court so past landmark liberal legislations can be overturned.
  4. Many Republicans and older white male voters not liking him as an individual and a President due to his style and his value-less behaviour, would still back him on stock market grounds and desire for traditional societal order they have known and liked (even if the economy was going South due to Covid-19).
  5. The George Floyd murder and others that initiated and fuelled the Black Lives Matter protests of mid-2020, that often slid into riots and lootings (at times helped by hard right groups), enabled Trump to grab the Nixonian mantle of election-winning Law & Order as a “trump card” to offset his poll rating declines due to his widely perceived Covid-19 leadership-less mismanagement (sadly also going as far as not condemning white supremacists during the first debate).
  6. In addition to the “Law & Order” salvation message, Trump now focuses on “patriotism” and the roots of America, wanting to stress that what mattered was 1776 (arguably a strong majority of Americans agreeing) and not 1619, the year when the first Africans arrived in America, a year that was put forward by the New York Times “1619 Project” as a sensitive academic-like and public discussion follow-up to the BLM events.
  7. The treble drive of Trump is to appear as a traditionally patriotic, Law & Order-focused and economy-friendly candidate against a candidate who is prisoner of its African-American (and by and large minority) voter base and would lead to a revisionist view of what is America while taxing more its citizens and financially supporting at federal level unproductive elements of society.
  8. The key high wire act for Biden will be to support the plights of the minority groups, that traditionally support the Democrats, this through a set of gradual reforms eventually benefitting society “at large”, while not appearing as soft on order in the street and too willing to accommodate views linked to the destruction of statues and the reshaping of both American history and traditional ways and values.
  9. The world order and foreign policy issues, including on the Trump side the subject of nemesis China, are largely absent from the presidential race, putting aside the slots reserved to them in the three debates between Trump and Biden.
  10. One of the less addressed and key features of the November election will be the potential change of control of the US Senate which could give Biden, if elected, a Democratic Congress at least for two years, enabling him to roll back to an “old normal” in American affairs.

A Martian observer could indeed come to the above remarks. However, we are not from Mars and this election not only impacts Americans but all of us the world over, all the more in a changing world leading architecture, with an inexorably rising China. November 3rd matters to all of us.

The American presidential election is about programmes at all levels but also and essentially about values and style and ways to get the job done. Lincoln, FDR, JFK and Reagan made the point. Not all presidents are without flaws but they all treated the role and their country with the requisite and expected respect.

A key factor to remember is that this election is not about just a President but also about a team around him. The low quality of Trump’s inner circle was clearly and increasingly (when “the adults left the room”) on display with loyalty being the key feature. Joe Biden may be old and not as a great a debater as a JFK but he would bring competence and experts to the White House and the various departments managing the US. The world would be better off.

On a side but meaningful note, one over-riding feature for Trump’s re-election drive is not to face additional scrutiny and likely legal developments that could lead to jail sentences regarding alleged tax frauds, a subject the President was adamant to keep under wraps by the unusual non-public disclosure of his tax filings in the past.

Now let’s hope Americans massively vote like Europeans do for once – this safely (at all levels) by mail or in person. And let’s hope the strange electoral college process does not lead to what was arguably, in essence if not in form, an undemocratic outcome four years ago.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Bis repetita: « 2027 – A wild and crazy geopolitical journey into a post-pandemic Trumpian near future »

Dear Partners in thought,

Knowing that some of you may not have received this blog post on 24th August due to the “heavy” marketing cover in its text that could have sent the email to a SPAM trip, I wanted to make sure that all of you knew about my new book published on Amazon. Please forgive me if you already received this notification, all the more as I approached a few of you directly though a personal email.

“2027”, which describes a potential geopolitical near future, is a “timely” extension of the Desperate Measures blog which was started in 2018 as a reaction to the rise of populism and nationalism around the world, notably in the democratic West, with its easy answers to complex issues.

The 350 page book, which aims at being entertaining and original and provides views on the past from a vantage point of the year 2027, shows what could be and hopefully will not. It shows that electoral and policy decisions do have consequences and that the world order is fragile, all the more after a great pandemic. Major actors and blocs, together with detailed key developments and the shiftings of alliances will be covered creating a highly differentiated world. A detailed Case Study or indeed “book within the book” will also over key themes of the pandemic, also from a geopolitical standpoint. Lessons to be learned and thoughts on key features “that matter” will be drawn (like the importance of history, leadership, voting, mulltilateralism, education) all chapters mixing an analysis of the past with future historical fiction as seen in the eyes of a strong-minded Western liberal observer.

The book is also a scream for a return to an “old normal” which many of us had taken for granted. We live in an imperfect world but one that was held together by many actors that often, if not always, pursued national agendas with a focus on working together, a feature that may no longer be obvious for some leading nations. Lastly and importantly, a strong dose of crazy humour will be found in all chapters as we should always keep smiling and thriving for the best, calling on the better angels of our nature.

Without giving up the full story, I would like to give you a glimpse at the table of contents so you get a feel for the way the book is structured.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Preface

  1. New America
  2. Strange Britain
  3. Unlikely France
  4. Resurgent Germany
  5. Newfound Russia
  6. Resilient European Union
  7. Withdrawing China
  8. Other rising and declining powers
  9. Global challenges and narrow world
  10. Brave New Monde
  11. Old duel revisited
  12. Manifest Destiny redux
  13. Early backyard clashes
  14. The forgotten region
  15. The long overdue crisis
  16. Going MAD and to the brink
  17. Asian pivot sliding
  18. Crossing the line in the sand
  19. The final roll of the dice
  20. Lessons to be learned
    Case Study: The great pandemic shock of the century

This was a fun piece of work where I was able to bring to bear years of professional and actual and quasi-academic experiences in a way that created a piece of unusual geopolitical fiction. As I wrote and noticed the developments in the real world, I could not help but notice that reality at times was stronger than fiction, however outlandish my scenario.

If you wanted to read the book, I think the timing could not be better, especially with the US election in November and the meandering end ot the Brexit “process”. You will find it on Amazon in your respective geographic locations, either as a book or as Kindle. For completeness, the full references for Amazon US (amazon.com) are shown below:

ISBN – 13:8674933724
In paperback or Kindle
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B08GFPM71Y

However if not in the US, please order through your own Amazon, like amazon.de in Germany, amazon.co.uk in Britain, amazon.fr in France, etc. as Amazon US may not ship to certain countries and the shipping costs could be higher if they did.

Needless to say, self-publishing that I chose as agents were expectedly cautious in our pandemic times (not to mention the first writer syndrome), is an arduous process in terms of marketing, so I am very grateful for your network-targeted word of mouth and social media which could help greatly the dissemination of “2027”.

Trevor Marshall, my trusted fellow Western liberal values warrior and copy-editor, and I would like to thank you very much for your reading and support should you wish to take a wild and crazy ride, all the more before “November”.

Warmest regards,

Serge

2027 – A wild and crazy geopolitical journey into a post-pandemic Trumpian near future

Dear Partners in thought,

As you have noticed I have not been posting much during the pandemic era partly because the range of topics to be addressed were single-focused and amply covered by the media and the writing community. I took this opportunity to finish a book I had started before the Covid-19 era, which is now published on Amazon and Kindle.

“2027”, which describes a potential geopolitical near future, is an extension of the Desperate Measures blog which was started in 2018 as a reaction to the rise of populism and nationalism around the world, notably in the democratic West, with its easy answers to complex issues. It was also driven by a reaction to the two key historical events that were Brexit and the Trump ascent, both I felt were setbacks for the Western world and the whole world in general, which is now also dealing with a once in a century pandemic and its deep-rooted impacts on society at large.

The book, which provides views on the past from a vantage point of the year 2027, shows what could be and hopefully will not. It shows that electoral and policy decisions do have consequences and that the world order is fragile, all the more after a great pandemic. Major actors and blocs, together with detailed key developments and the shiftings of alliances will be covered creating a highly differentiated world. A detailed Case Study or indeed “book within the book” will also over key themes of the pandemic. Lessons to be learned and thoughts on key features that matter will be drawn, all chapters mixing an analysis of the past with future historical fiction as seen in the eyes of a strong-minded Western liberal observer.

The book is also a scream for a return to an “old normal” which many of us had taken for granted. We live in an imperfect world but one that was held together by many actors that often, if not always, pursued national agendas with a focus on working together, a feature that may no longer be obvious for some leading nations. Lastly and importantly, a strong dose of crazy humour will be found in all chapters as we should always keep smiling and thriving for the best, calling on the better angels of our nature.

Without giving up the full story, I would like to give you a glimpse at the table of contents so you get a feel for the way the book (350 pages) is structured.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Preface
1. New America
2. Strange Britain
3. Unlikely France
4. Resurgent Germany
5. Newfound Russia
6. Resilient European Union
7. Withdrawing China
8. Other rising and declining powers
9. Global challenges and narrow world
10. Brave New Monde
11. Old duel revisited
12. Manifest Destiny redux
13. Early backyard clashes
14. The forgotten region
15. The long overdue crisis
16. Going MAD and to the brink
17. Asian pivot sliding
18. Crossing the line in the sand
19. The final roll of the dice
20. Lessons to be learned
Case Study: The great pandemic shock of the century

This was a fun piece of work where I was able to bring to bear years of professional and actual and quasi-academic experiences in a way that created a piece of unusual geopolitical fiction. As I wrote and noticed the developments in the real world, I could not help but notice that reality at times was stronger than fiction, however outlandish my scenario.

At a time when US federal forces are sent to places like Portland and a new warming war is developing between the two world leading countries set on a collision course, the only hope we have is a return to an “old normal”, the first step being with Joe Biden in the White House. Joe may not be the youngest of leaders or the most in tune with our times but he knows the value of decent American leadership and, as we see, the cost of its absence to both the US and the world.

If you wanted to read the book, I think the timing could not be better. You will find it on Amazon in your respective geographic locations. For completeness, the full references for Amazon US (amazon.com) are shown below:

ISBN – 13:8674933724

In paperback or Kindle

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B08GFPM71Y

However if not in the US, please order through your own Amazon, like amazon.de in Germany, amazon.co.uk in Britain, amazon.fr in France, etc. as Amazon US may not ship to certain countries and the shipping costs could be higher if they did.

Needless to say, self-publishing that I chose as agents were expectedly cautious in our pandemic times (not to mention the first writer syndrome), is an arduous process in terms of marketing, so I am very grateful for your network-targeted word of mouth and social media which could help greatly the dissemination of “2027”.

Trevor Marshall, my trusted fellow Western liberal warrior and copy-editor, and I would like to thank you very much for your reading and support should you wish to take a wild and crazy ride, all the more before “November”.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Understanding the French Enigma

7-7-20

Dear Partners in thought,

I wanted to touch on a point that baffles many outside France about how the French irrationally behave in relation to their leaders throughout history but even more so today. 

We hear today that President Macron is unpopular unlike his departing prime minister Edouard Philippe, who saw his beard turning white in the midst of the Covid-19 fight and would enjoy an Himalayan popularity rating by Gallic standards of 57%. All while Jean Castex, his successor known for his technocratic competence at Matignon, home of the French premiers, is un-liked as he would be a “non-entity”, read not from the top of his class of the best schools like ENA and then the “grand corps” of the French state and thus the subject of a status-focused elitist rant from those who are but would never get the job as well as from those who hate those elite institutions in the first place but require leaders with top credentials. And at the same time, two health ministers are under investigation and some popular ire for what would be a less than stellar early management of the pandemic, in what would clearly have already sent Donald Trump to Alcatraz and Boris Johnson to the Tower of London in another age. Getting rid of politicians close to Macron in the latest municipal elections this past week, while the President has been struggling to find any rival that could replace him at the Elysée Palace in 2022, is so French, that there is a name  for it: “dégagisme” or “throwing out” which is a national pastime akin to eating croissants at the Paris cafés.  

The French are simply impossible people (I know being one of them). They are never happy, especially with those who govern them who are easy venting targets. The French like to rant, to demonstrate, to march and to scream as it is such a great feeling, especially post lockdown these days. The “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) of the recent past were also a great example of people not liking their deal (some of them with some reason) in one of the most redistributive societies in Western history as if they did not want to look abroad. The French cut off the head of Louis XVI only as they could not bear an absolute king only to pave the way for an emperor who then wrote in a few years some of the glorious and bloody pages of French history and giving so many names of boulevards and avenues in Paris. Macron was elected as the French were fed up of what was a “normal president” as he liked to call himself. Who remembers François Hollande three years later? However when Macron invited Putin at Versailles and brought back the presidential pomp, critics started to rise as if the French live for picking fights with the established order in what they see as a rightful legacy of 1789. This is all irrational which is all the more disturbing for the country of Descartes. However this is France and the way it works. And it works well in the end when you look at where the country is in absolute and relative terms. 

The situation of that “condition”, akin to a sickness at times, worsened when France lost the battle of France (it should have easily won for those who have studied it) in a matter of weeks in May 1940. The stigma of the defeat and its underlying wound, in spite of the unlikely return to the tables of winners in 1945 due to Charles de Gaulle’s sleight of hand, would never disappear and keep shaping the relationship between the French and their leadership in modern times. Macron, who could be the son of Giscard d’Estaing, a premature leader for France given its times then, in the way he positioned himself at the centre and reshaped the French political spectrum, is the first leader who can change the country in spite of and for the French and their natural and angry, at times guilt-rooted, opposition. Macron is the only leader today who has had the courage in a humane manner to reform the jobs market while he will attack in the same way the multiple 1945 pension systems that need to live with their 21st century times. Macron is the first leader in modern times at a time of German transition, that can lead France to take the mantle of reforming the EU to make it stronger, more defence-focused and closer to its populations, a project that is key at a time of uncertain American leadership and aggressive Chinese rise. And yet, while history books years from now will stress Macron’s and France’s achievements in the 2020s, (some of) the French will have been in the street as it is what they do.  

Warmest regards,

Serge    

Beware of the “trump” card

4-6-20

Dear Partners in thought,

The recent and now universally-known wrongful chokehold death or indeed murder by a police officer of African-American George Floyd is adding another element, that was always if not historically societally simmering, to the challenges facing America in its pandemic and reelection times. It is a highly sensitive subject and I beg your forgiveness not simply for addressing it but for looking at it unemotionally, which is of course very hard when dealing with such a horrible death regardless of the potential chain reaction I would like to relay.

America was in the throes of one of its worst crises, like the world at large, likely since WW2 even with the Great Depression being also often mentioned as a good comparison as to its economic and financial impact. Then came unexpectedly the murder by police of George Floyd, a black man, in the midst of the great pandemic that had been incidentally very hard on the African-American community. This murder is one of a few cases involving black men having died in “police custody” or through police interaction (or even involving former officers) in the U.S. over the last ten years and are known for the names of their victims, like Trayvon Martin or very recently Ahmaud Arbery. These are terrible events that have to be condemned and may or do reflect the weight of history, also pinning a tiny minority of white men, usually feeling left out, not wanting to deal with black men, possibly rejecting the affirmative acton drive of these few decades or simply being racist. It is also possible that the death of George Floyd was triggered by the pandemic lockdown constraints and frustrations that saw a clear rise in mental illness and domestic violence and took its toll on an already unstable police officer, likely with racist tendancies. Whatever the reasons behind the act of knee-chocking somone’s throat for nine minutes, there is no defense and the crime is unspeakable, whether Mr. Floyd was a white, black or Asian American. The fact he was black added a dimension that led to race riots, sadly associated with looting and violence (the latter at times from all sides) while the protests may at times have been hijacked by extremist groups from both far-left and far-right, as well as professional knuckleheads” with their own political and/or looting agendas.

That the Floyd murder and ensuing riots took place in the great pandemic period was reminiscent of April 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated and massive riots erupted across American cities all in a context of a pandemic-like Vietnam war with its rising death toll and questionable management, if not rationale then. The similarities did not escape Donald Trump as his polls started falling due to his unusual leadership style and management of the national Covid-19 containment not to mention his approach to pandemic geopolitics tainted by the November rendezvous. Donald Trump is undoubtedly aware that Richard Nixon was also elected in November 1968 on a law and order programme that was directly linked to the racial riots of 1968, admittedly while he was also claiming that he would put an honourable end to the pandemic of the time. Having lost the opportunity to face a Bernie Sanders and not counting on a great economy (even though we will hear about the V curve for 2021), there is little doubt that he will use this card to win in November and inverse the Covid 19-induced poll trends.

There is a fair chance that the many white voters, certainly older, male and female, could opt for societal safety in November regardless of their dislike for Trump as a person and a President if the riots kept degenerating and shops burning to the ground. Faced with this Trump 2 eventuality the black community leaders should be very careful unless they would existentially thrive on shouting only, to focus on “what matters” and the big picture in the current American context. It would be strange as America has lost in excess of 100,000 lives to Covid-19, for one death however horrible, to set the easy stage for a Trump re-election and four more years of instability for America and the world, with unforeseen negative consequences for all, not to mention the African-American community.

One of the first steps for the black community leaders should be to ensure a proper security approach to protests so extremists and looters are not allowed to highjack them and give a very bad name to a rightful expression of anger. The other step should be to listen more to Barack Obama, indeed showing the presidential leadership that America misses today, and follow his focus on actual programmes that make a difference like those he lauched un 2013 to ensure police officers were better trained. The need to be both careful and productive in the rightful expression of the anger and demands of the African-American community falls within their leaders today. Otherwise the death of George Floyd would have served the wrong agenda, not to say those that believe in a bygone age and like things as they were.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Some frank thoughts on the pandemic

2-4-20

Dear Partners in thought,

We are already reading – as it should be – a lot about the pandemic and I was hesitant to add to the flood of news and thoughts on the dire matter. However, if I may and if you could indulge me, I would like to take the liberty of expressing some very frank thoughts about the pandemic we are all going through, this in full respect of those who have suffered and will suffer directly and indirectly from this very tragic event.

These thoughts, while frank in nature, do not cover all key aspects of the pandemic but only some coming to mind now. There is no doubt we could add to the sad pile. In sharing these thoughts, I will stay away (if only for one or two aspects) from those macro-developments triggered now or later in the economic sphere, the latter which has already been the theater of unprecedented and massive financial assistance packages from most leading governments in the world.

The virus did not come from nowhere and its roots require fixing. We hear that it is a “natural” development and it happened through the virus passing from animals to humans. Fine but this passing process happened due to “unsafe practices” in wild animal markets in Wuhan, China. The point here is not to blame China and call Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” as did President Trump for his own reasons, but to make sure that the Beijing authorities drastically change these unsafe practices in their wild animal markets so we avoid a repeat.

Good Chinese behavior now should not excuse lack of timely response earlier. The Beijing and Wuhan authorities knew of the virus outbreak in December and did nothing, likely out of worries about local and national responsibilities or blame, thus delaying early responses that might have prevented the pandemic we know today. The fact that China helps countries in need is very good, but showing their superior skillset astutely compared with substandard American crisis management should not make us forget that geopolitics never catches viruses.

Crises of that nature may show that the emperor has few clothes. The White House reaction throughout the crisis was staggeringly inept, with Trump going from denial to gradual crisis recognition and now dire death toll prospects all the while finger pointing and offering false hopes of crisis resolution in terms of means or timing. To be fair, the very set-up of America with its 50 states and mutually arduous relation with their federal government could never produce time-efficient and practical nation-wide solutions to crises like the pandemic. America simply cannot manage the pandemic like the Czech Republic or Taiwan.

Rallying around the flag is a default mechanism in times of crises. While both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have been less than stellar in the way they slowly reacted to the crisis and prepared their countries to manage it, their popularity ratings have risen. The same happened to most leaders across the world (not sure about Brazil or Mexico as apparently there is no pandemic in the minds of their leaders). While this is surprising – especially in the blatant American case – this reaction is normal as people do not focus on facts and want comfort and solace from whomever leads them formally. However, it is likely that such over-reactions will not translate well in an electoral context, like in November in the U.S., if the crisis has passed by then and the economy has markedly declined.

Many people are often stupid, at times greedy or even prisoners of cultural habits, worsening the onslaught. While we can understand why traditional family gatherings and masses in Northern Italian villages went on initially as people did not seize the extent of the threat, then why did these mass evangelical gatherings take place like in Florida over the weekend? What about righteous Liberty University and its come-back to campus approach? What about letting Mardi Gras go on in New Orleans? What about Madrid being fine with the International Women’s Day march of hundreds of thousands on…8th March? All these events have worsened the rate of local infections with additional secondary effects. What did they think? Why did they think a God or more people in restaurants and cafés could help them, assuming they were not in total denial? It is also hard to think that the now lonely Swedish bet on its population being asocial and well behaved is a sound one.

Big Tech may again win in the end. As the “office” concept may be reconsidered as we go through the pandemic and many will work from home, remote working or home-working may become the way of the future for many. This new era will be facilitated by Big Tech which will provide the tools for people to go through this redefinition of what work may mean. Better be prepared to upgrade your skills as Skype, Zoom or Huddle will soon be obsolete!

What do we do with those small jobs that may not come back? Many companies have gone under and will keep going under triggering mass unemployment among low-paid workers as already seen by U.S. job market figures. Many of these jobs will not come back any time soon and will create social upheaval in terms of livelihood as well as simply paying the rent. The concept of Universal Basic Income, be it temporary or not, that was heralded by people as different as Jeff Bezos, Andrew Yang or Rutger Bregman may be the only solution going forward that governments will institute out of sheer necessity while forgetting whether they like its philosophical foundations.

Do not make globalization the culprit. Globalization that gives trendy Nike sneakers or dazzling Apple phones to many may indeed retreat but not forever and completely. Travel and its airlines, the latter which had to be a pandemic vector and will suffer (not from that sin), will keep bringing people all over the world for business and pleasure. The world, even if it changes in some aspects post-pandemic, will not go to where it was one hundred years from now. Solutions will be found and globalization will adjust as will we. Globalization as it adjusts and learns lessons from this pandemic will be ready for the challenges of the future, this likely through an increased focus on multilateralism, reflecting a multipolar world that will keep moving forward as we will want it to do so.

Beware the creeping dictator supposedly acting for your own good. The extraordinary measures that are taken to fight the pandemic have to be temporary and with a good parliamentary-like oversight. Civil liberties are at stake and some governments, however democratic in name only would be too happy to seize the opportunity for a permanent or, supposedly on health grounds, long-lasting state of emergency. Such an approach would give rise to another pandemic, this time of a political nature.

In the end, three things seem to matter in winning the war against this pandemic:

  1. Adopting tough temporary lockdown and physical distancing measures at country level.
  2. Cooperating among nation-states against a borderless evil.
  3. Behaving individually with common sense and not falling for any easy superstition.

Stay safe and well, do not watch CNN (or Fox News, mind you!) all day, read and watch more great movies at home and do not forget to Pence-elbow ☺.

To borrow from a great man: “We shall overcome”.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Coronavirus in the age of Trump or a case study in stable genius crisis mismanagement

13-3-20

Dear Partners in thought,

We are all living through an unexpected and rare pandemic which has required challenging decisions taken by many if not all countries, starting with China and then Italy but now involving the globe. Some countries have declared regional or national quarantines, others closed down schools and universities. Many countries like in the Czech Republic, where I live, have closed borders for now 30 days to incoming visitors while their schools, cinemas and shops are closed or can only accommodate no more than 30 people while cafés and restaurants also have to close after 8 pm. These measures are not nice but are probably the only ones to stop the spread of the virus together with following common sensical hygiene like washing one’s hands.

Without dwelling on the particulars of the Coronavirus and whether it is only a super-flu and whom it affects most, it is fair to say that the measures taken are the best to stop the spread of the virus. Most if not all these decisions, which are hurting the economy and social lives, are not taken with a political agenda in mind. Well unless in the U.S. where President Trump, having initially played down the threat and clearly distanced himself from medical experts (too elite no doubt), has given us a series of reminders as to the excellence of his leadership and sanity not to mention the competence of his advisers who should have done their jobs better and contain the natural presidential impulse to try taking political advantage of any situation including pandemics. However, this time Trump showed even more clearly his lack of fit for the top American job not to mention that of world leader, stressing all his inadequacies, so much so that even Republicans and the markets seemed to worry for once.

The European travel ban was the cherry on the Trumpian cake. As the FT’s Edward Luce rightly wrote “On Wednesday night the global pandemic met US nationalism”. After criminalizing Europeans for having unleashed the virus (I did not know Wuhan was in Europe) Trump decided to impose the ban to “Schengen” EU countries from having its nationals travelling to America. The Schengen zone that allows free circulation and travel includes most of the EU member states today. In declaring the ban, Trump excluded Britain and Ireland as well as Malta, Bulgaria and Romania which was odd as I really thought there had been virus cases in Britain already (more than in the U.S. in relative terms). Then this travel ban did not apply to U.S. citizens or Green Card holders as if that kind of status prevented individuals from virus infection. While Trump pointed the finger at Europeans and the EU, the latter that he clearly sees as the enemy, he did so and imposed the ban without consulting EU leaders, this on the basis that “I didn’t want to take time” as “it takes time to make individual calls” and “when they raise taxes on us, they don’t consult us”. Putting aside the amateurish approach and basis for the travel ban which is in line with many of Trump’s initiatives even though this one topped the lot, it is now clear that the stock market, and the Dow Jones Index, did not enjoy the move sending shares to their lowest levels in years and entering the dreaded bear market territory which is only a prelude to economic decline, something Trump strangely had not expected and does not need in November. Putting aside the criminalization and inequity of the move, not to mention the impact on the world economy which requires a very sensitive approach (America is not the Czech Republic), it might have been sounder to first focus on mitigation efforts at home with thousands of likely cases already there. It would be better for Trump and his administration to focus on testing with only 6,000 tests done to date out of a population of 327 million. And stay away from the inefficient and useless finger pointing, domestic base-aimed, rhetoric.

It is clear that many if not all of Trump’s statements are made with November in mind and strengthening his core electoral base. While Trump’s base will always rejoice at his simple attacks to solve complex issues, they are simply not numerous enough to reelect him in November if the markets keep tanking and the economy falters, this for all to see. Every serious U.S. media, including the Republican-leaning Wall Street Journal, have been baffled by Trump’s latest decisions to handle the Coronavirus outbreak. His response is now judged as inept across the board to the point that former White House Republican speechwriters have dared saying that it would be better if he shut up and especially stop referring to the outbreak as a “foreign virus”. For the first time, critics from across the aisles, pointed to factual errors in Trump’s latest address to the nation, underlining the poor quality of his circle of advisers (not news I would say) who produced a speech that was apparently vetted by senior staff and agencies. This development causes concerns as to who is at the driving wheel in DC, even beyond the usual worries about Trump as a President. One could be forgiven for wondering more than ever if the American executive is not looking like an imperfect version of the extended Corleone family. In a more serious note, the Wall Street Journal rightly stressed as an omen coming from friends that “disasters and crises can make or break presidencies – not from the event itself but from how the public judges a President’s response”.

One could be forgiven for wondering if Trump in a twisted case that psychoanalysts should devote some time on is not systematically driven to decisions that will meet strong opposition as if the latter helped him existentially. Food for thought. In an almost amusing twist of fate, we have now learned that both Trump and Pence have met at the White House with an infected Brazilian official…Not being Trump I sincerely wish him the best in any adverse development that could ensue. On a more serious note and as expected, Joe Biden’s approach to the crisis shows all of us why, in spite of some of his weaker features, that it is ample time for America and the world to restore “decency” – a word we almost forgot for more than three years and that should be a key electoral driver – in that House that is on the shining city on the hill.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Why Joe is the only choice for America and for the world

5-3-20

Dear Partners in thought,

You know I always thought Joe Biden was the only choice to go and beat Donald Trump in November, this against many pundits. I even wrote back last June that it ought to be a Biden-Harris ticket.

Sometimes good fortune strikes and Super Tuesday gave the once perceived tired candidate, who did not seem to come through, a resounding victory. This did not come out of nowhere. He had what it took and the center finally woke up realizing that these primary processes may please extremes, but are bound to fail in terms of the end game. America, if anything, is highly practical and also cares about values.

Now that the primary contest is down to two candidates, it is very likely that Joe will prevail. It should not be a surprise. And yes he will likely select Kamala Harris, an amazing woman with the right credentials who will create a balanced ticket in terms of geography, gender, age and style.

However what matters – and his key strength – is indeed decency. With Joe, we get back the values that have made America and that we all grew up with. America should be a fairer society, led by a man who cares for the working man and woman. The world will be a safer place, without the unnecessary fights with powers that will be, dealt the old style way with the same and more efficient resolve.

Go America. Go Joe.

Warmest regards,

Serge

When democratic processes may destroy the essence of democracy

26-2-20

Dear Partners in thought,

Looking back at the two major break points in recent history, which were Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, also points to electoral systemic issues that helped these outcomes. In both cases, these were linked to electoral processes that were perfectly legal and enshrined though markedly less than suitable in the way they led to the final outcome of these historical turns. We are actually witnessing a third development that, if not a denial of democracy, carries some serious problems like with the current Democratic Party’s presidential primary process.  

In the case of Brexit and while “the will of the people had been heard in June 2016 (as we rightly heard from Brexiters), the final outcome was only made possible after three and half years of a divisive process. Brexit finally happened strangely through a general election, this mainly as a result of an enshrined inept and unsuitable technical “first pass the post“ one single round process favouring a de facto abysmal two party system choice that for tactical reasons mainly benefitted the pro-Brexit Tories. Adding insult to injury, this general election that was set up to find an outcome for Brexit took place in lieu of a second referendum where the focus would have been clearer. Putting aside that opinion polls for two years had shown a majority at 52-54% for Remain, it is a fact that 53% of the voters in the December 2019 general election voted for parties that were in favour of a second referendum but the unsuitable and arcane electoral system on offer nullified their wishes. Based on all those facts why did Britain, however tired, let itself be convinced that such a convoluted and unfair decision process was suitable to decide finally on its future in Europe? Where is the debate on this key question? Nowhere.

In the case of the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, he was amazingly elected with a popular vote of less than three million votes thanks to the way state delegates are allocated, this by narrowly winning less populated, rural states though getting in many cases all of their delegates. This relatively over-weighted representation of some “lower profile“ states originates from a system that was enshrined by the principles behind the thinking of the Founding Fathers who wanted then to build a nation and were aiming at what they strongly perceived as fairness among diverse states. It is likely that Donald Trump will not win the popular vote in 2020, this with an even wider gap than in 2016, all the more with the mobilisation of the bi-costal states like New York and California. However this massive bi-coastal influx of votes for the Democratic candidate will not change the 2016 picture those states will give in terms of impact via delegates. In the end and quite aside from the identity of his Democratic opponent, Donald Trump may be reelected by winning, even by small margins the rural and “lower profile“ states that already gave him the White House in 2016 and get most if not all of their delegates. By how many millions of popular votes less than his or her opponent can a presidential candidate seize the White House, making a joke of the “one man one vote“ principle, hiding behind out-dated historical reasons? Today nobody in America, even among well-balanced individuals, dares speaking about this denial of democracy given the enshrined roots of the electoral system.

In both cases of the British referendum and the last U.S. Presidential election the “majority“ lost or could not express itself fairly this due to technicalities and sheer politics. And yet no real debate has taken place as some matters are too sacred or sensitive to even be discussed. There is a need for the spirit of democracy to supersede its tools when those become unsuitable or obsolete, also as a way to save democracy from itself.

Similarly, the primary system of selecting a candidate for the presidential contest that allows “only party members”, many of whom have “strong” and not moderate views, to vote enables a radicalization process that favors the selection of a nominee who while being fairly selected, may not represent the average voter of the party concerned and stands a high likelihood of losing the eventual presidential election. A case in point is the current Democratic primary process where a motivated radical base is driving Bernie Sanders to eventually become the nominee, while standing little chance of winning the presidential race even against an incumbent like Donald Trump, this with far reaching consequences for America and the world. It is clear that the current primary outcome is helped by the highly differentiated style of Mike Bloomberg and his fragmentation of the moderate vote, this regardless of the many qualities the three times Mayor of New York may have. It is also clear that the choice of candidates, none of whom seem to have attracted primary voters like an Obama did in 2008, is also the cause of the potential disaster to come.    So while this third case may be less blatant a problem and likely not a denial of democratic essence there might be some merits for U.S. political parties to review how they select their presidential nominees. Food for thought.

Warmest regards, Serge