Friday, 9 November 2018

Warning: the president is now sh*t scared

You pays your money and you takes your pick.

Thursday’s New York Times: ‘Trump Vows “Warlike Posture” if Democrats Investigate Him.’

Likewise The Guardian: ‘Trump issues threat of warlike response after Democrat gains.’

The Financial Times, on the other hand: ‘Trump urges bipartisan approach as Democrats take control of the House.’

So which was true, and which was Fake News? Both, of course, were true, because Trump said both. And it’s another reason why we should surely now know better than to take seriously anything he says.

Much better to concentrate on what he actually does rather than on his Rant of the Day. And by far the most important thing he did on Wednesday was fire his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, who has enraged him for months by failing to halt the Mueller inquiry into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia in the period leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

Was the decision to get rid of Sessions designed to shut down, or at the very least hobble, the inquiry? What do you think?

What’s more, within hours of Trump’s chaotic, nasty press conference, with the president at his snarling worst, the White House suspended the credentials of an admittedly grandstanding CNN correspondent whom the president had called ‘a rude, terrible person’ for daring to challenge him. It was yet another petty response from a man who will never be able to get his head round the idea that the job of journalists is to do just a bit more than sing his praises all day. The White House also distributed what seems to have been a doctored video to bolster its allegation that the correspondent, Jim Acosta, ‘touched’ a female White House staffer as she tried to wrestle his mic away from him.

What I saw as I watched the Trump press conference was a President who is sh*t scared. Scared of what a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives could start prying into (Tax returns? Conflicts of interest as visiting foreign dignitaries ‘choose’ to buy accommodation at Trump properties?), scared of subpoenas that House committees can now issue, and scared, above all, of what the Mueller investigation might come up with.

Trump claimed – wrongly, of course -- on Wednesday that the Mueller investigation ‘got nothing, zero.’ Nothing, that is, except for his former personal lawyer and consigliere Michael Cohen pleading guilty to campaign finance violations and other charges; his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort being convicted of filing false tax returns, failing to disclose offshore bank accounts and bank fraud; his former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates pleading guilty to lying to investigators; his former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts; and twelve Russian intelligence officers being indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of hacking into Democratic Party computer networks. (I’ve probably left a few out, but I think you’ll have got the point.)

And here’s where the Democrats will have to get canny. They could, if they so wish, go after Trump on a dozen different fronts, tie him up in Congressional and judicial knots for the next two years and make his life an absolute misery.

But if they do, how will he react? Badly, for sure. He will call them ‘enemies of the people’, ‘traitors’, and much worse. He will blame them for every mass shooting (‘soft on crime’), for every economic hiccup (‘high tax socialists’) and every act of terrorism (‘soft on illegal migrants’).

He will challenge every attempt to rein in his most dangerously autocratic impulses, and if his challenges end up in the Supreme Court, he may very well win. (Remember how hard he fought for the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh? Funny, that …)

And when he seeks re-election in 2020, he will run, as he did in 2016, as the Champion of the Little People, against the elitist liberals who have hated him – and his supporters – from day one. And you know what? He could win again.

Far better, surely, for the Democrats to focus on the things that really could make a difference to voters’ lives: health care, which was a major issue in this week’s elections; opioid drug addiction; rebuilding roads, bridges and airports; and gun crime.

(More than half of American voters think gun controls should be tighter, and nearly half think there would be fewer mass shootings if gun laws were tougher. The most recent tragedy was on Wednesday, just a day after the mid-terms, in Thousand Oaks, California, when a former US marine shot dead twelve people in a bar.)

Rather than start trying to impeach him – which, unless Mueller comes up with something truly earth-shattering, would be bound to fail in the Senate – it would make more sense to show voters that Democrats are better for them, their families and their country. Defeat Trump in two years’ time, and then, if there is evidence that he may have committed crimes, prosecute him as a private citizen.

Final point: when George W Bush and Barack Obama each suffered major reverses in mid-term elections in 2006 and 2010, they openly acknowledged that voters had administered what Bush called ‘a thumping’ and Obama called ‘a shellacking’.

So when Trump was asked what lesson he took from his losses on Tuesday, how did he respond? ‘I’ll be honest: I think it was a great victory … I think people like me.’

Friday, 2 November 2018

Why we still believe things that aren't true

What links Donald Trump, the newly-elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, and the Brexit referendum?

One word: lies.

Misinformation. Falsehoods. What Winston Churchill liked to call ‘terminological inexactitudes.’ Call them what you like: they are statements that purport to be true but are, in fact, demonstrably untrue.

And one of the biggest challenges in modern democracies is how to counter them. Because here’s the truth: a lot of people believe the lies, and a lot more people vote for the liars even if they don’t believe their lies.

Long before he was elected President, Donald Trump wrote in his best-selling book The Art of the Deal: ‘I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration.’

Innocent? Really? As a property developer selling a brand, just possibly. But as a head of state, and commander-in-chief of the world’s mightiest military power, I don’t think so.

In Brazil, the election of the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro was preceded by a deluge of lies on social media, mainly Whatsapp, designed to bolster his support at the expense of his opponents. Just two examples: a claim that Fernando Haddad, his left-wing rival, had written a book defending incest, and photo-shopped images of Haddad’s vice-presidential running mate, Manuela D’Avila, supposedly showing her with tattoos of Che Guevara and Lenin.

As for Brexit, no one will forget the Leave campaign bus and its erroneous claim ‘We send the EU £350 million a week’. It was, and is, a lie. Nevertheless, despite everything that has been said and written about it over the past two years, forty-two per cent of British voters still believe it to be true.

According to Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy at King’s College, London, who has recently published a book on public misconceptions called The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything: ‘Our attitudes and beliefs are as much a driver of our views of the world as the other way round, which makes our misperceptions partly immune to evidence … Despite more than two years of constant Brexit discussion, we still think European immigration is three times its actual level, exactly the same as in 2016; we still underestimate investment from the EU; and the same two in five believe the £350 million claim.’

Of course, not all the falsehoods told by politicians qualify as outright lies. Sometimes, politicians get things wrong because they are misinformed. Sometimes they express themselves badly. And sometimes they say something that they think is true but that turns out to be untrue.

What I think is new is politicians who simply don’t attach any importance to whether something is true or not. All that matters is that it works. Here’s how the New York Times put it in a story this week: ‘In the past couple of weeks alone, the president has spoken of riots that have not happened, claimed deals that have not been reached, cited jobs that have not been created and spun dark conspiracies that have no apparent basis in reality. He has pulled figures seemingly out of thin air, rewritten history and contradicted his own past comments.’

Just last week, when challenged about his unsubstantiated claim that there are ‘criminals and unknown Middle Easterners’ among the would-be migrants trekking through Mexico towards the US border, for which there is absolutely no proof, he replied: ‘There’s no proof of anything. But they could very well be.’

It’s all just ‘truthful hyperbole’, or perhaps ‘innocent exaggeration’. It’s what people want to believe, because it feeds into their perception of how the world is.

And the virus is spreading. The day after Trump tweeted about the ‘criminals and Middle Easteners’ among the migrants caravan, his vice-president, Mike Pence, went one better. ‘In the last fiscal year, we apprehended more than ten terrorists or suspected terrorists per day at our Southern border from countries that are referred to in the lexicon as “other than Mexico” — that means from the Middle East region.’

It was another lie. The truth, according to the US Department for Homeland Security, is that, on average, it blocks ten terrorists or suspected terrorists per day from trying to enter the US at all its entry points combined.

So how many tried to get in from Mexico? According to a State Department report published in July last year, there is ‘no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has travelled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.’

None. Not one.

What Trump instinctively understands – just as do all populists from Bolsonaro to Erdoğan, Salvini, Orban, Xi and Putin – is that fear wins over facts. Fear is an emotion; facts are logic. As Trump told Time magazine: ‘I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right.’ After all, who needs truth when your instincts are always right?

Trump’s genius is to build on voters’ fears by appealing to their other emotions as well. As The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington wrote in a fascinating report after attending pro-Trump rallies across the US, the core Trump message also plays to love (‘I love you all!’), strength (‘Make America Great Again!’), hate (‘Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border ... This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!’) and hope (his constant emphasis on jobs and economic growth figures).

Much of what he says is provably untrue. But it doesn’t matter. He is telling a significant number of Americans what they most want to hear. He said it himself: ‘I play to people’s fantasies.’

Friday, 26 October 2018

Why we must confront, not silence, racists and bigots

If I had been a journalist in Germany in the 1930s, would I have interviewed Adolf Hitler?

If I had been in Russia, how about Stalin? Or Mao in China in the 1950s?

Answer: Yes. Of course. Loathsome mass murderers though they were, a journalist’s job is to report on who, and what, shapes the world.

As it happens, I have actually interviewed a loathsome mass murderer. His name was Radovan Karadžić, and he is now serving forty years in prison after being convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity during the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s.

Did I want to interview him? Frankly, no, I hated the idea. As I recount in my memoir, Is Anything Happening?:

            I told my colleagues that I did not relish the prospect of interviewing a man whom I regarded even then as a war criminal. But they were insistent, so we reached a deal that would enable me to live with my conscience while still doing the job for which I was being paid.

‘Show him into the studio and then call me,’ I said. ‘I won’t shake his hand, and I won’t make small talk. I’ll go into the studio, I’ll do the interview and then I’ll say, “Thank you” and walk out.’

That is what we did. I challenged him as hard as I could when he denied that his forces were firing indiscriminately into a heavily populated city and I hoped that listeners would understand that he was lying. I was persuaded, reluctantly, that they deserved a chance to be able to make up their own minds, but I hated doing it.

And that is how I would have dealt with Hitler, Stalin or Mao. It is also how, if I had the chance, I would deal today with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Why do I raise this now? Because there seems to be a growing belief, especially on the left, that people with objectionable views should not be questioned in the media or allowed to speak from public platforms.

Steve Bannon, self-appointed standard bearer of ultra-nationalism? Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, formerly of the British National Party and the English Defence League? To put them on air, or to allow them on a platform is – so it is argued – to ‘normalise’ their arguments and by doing so, to increase the risk that more people will follow them.

I don’t agree. I remember when Nick Griffin, the then leader of the BNP, appeared amid much controversy on the BBC’s Question Time programme in 2009. It was an unmitigated disaster for both him and his party – by 2014 he had lost his seat in the European parliament, been expelled from the party and declared bankrupt.

I also remember Margaret Thatcher banning the voices of Irish Republicans from the air waves in 1988. That wasn’t a huge success either, its main effect being to provide useful work for Irish actors who were hired by broadcasters to read the words that had been spoken by the banned IRA or Sinn Fein spokespeople.

Thatcher’s view was that the media must deny people whom she regarded as terrorists the ‘oxygen of publicity’. I believe the opposite: that the oxygen of publicity is the best disinfectant available when toxins threaten to take hold in the body politic.

So yes, the BBC’s Newsnight programme was absolutely right to broadcast a carefully made film about Tommy Robinson and the roots of his support two weeks ago (full disclosure: the reporter, Gabriel Gatehouse, is a friend and former colleague). And yes, the editor of The Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, was perfectly entitled to interview Steve Bannon as part of the magazine’s Open Future festival last month.

As she put it in a statement: ‘The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate. This will expose bigotry and prejudice, just as it will reaffirm and refresh liberalism.’

Similarly, Nicola Sturgeon was, I think, wrong to withdraw from a conference to be held in Edinburgh next month at which Steve Bannon was due to appear the following day. She did not want, she said, to ‘be part of any process that risks legitimising or normalising far right, racist views.’

A couple of days ago, a group of academics attacked plans to hold a debate on the topic ‘Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?’ It was, they said, ‘framed within the terms of white supremacist discourse. Far from being courageous or representative of the views of a “silent majority”, this is a reactionary, opportunistic and intentionally provocative approach …’

The academics insisted that they were not trying to shut down debate: ‘We are simply asking that we do not give yet more ground to those who seek to shift the blame for systemic failures onto communities who are already subject to oppression and hostility, and legitimise hate and scapegoating as if that is analysis.’

This is dangerous territory. Yes, of course organisers of this kind of debate must be sensitive about the way they frame the question – in fact the title of this particular event has now been amended to ‘Immigration and Diversity Politics: A Challenge to Liberal Democracy?’, which at least gets rid of the problematic word ‘threat’.

 The Times columnist David Aaronovitch, who is scheduled to be one of the debate participants, was not impressed: ‘Ironically and tragically, this idiocy by the liberal left allows the far right to pose as the champions of free speech and therefore as champions of true British aspirations. And that’s at a moment when the whole direction of the pro-diversity argument should be that a multi-ethnic, tolerant Britain is the best embodiment of our national values.’

 Which surely is the key point, because if there is one way to add fuel to the pernicious bigotry peddled by white supremacists, nativists and extreme nationalists, it is to pretend that they don’t exist. Much of their appeal, after all, is based on the argument that they are ignored, belittled and shut out of the hated mainstream media.

 It would be the height of stupidity to prove them right.