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Populist delusions

Self-declared "patriot" wants "globalist" help

by Hans Dembowski


Trump at the UN headquaters in New York.

Trump at the UN headquaters in New York.

Today's Financial Times includes a short item dealing with the United Nations General Assembly. The absurdity of what US President Trump said in that context is worth pointing out. It has worldwide repercussions, but is also peculiar in regard to his domestic problems.

“The future does not belong to the globalists. The future belongs to patriots,” Trump said in regard to trade policy according to the FT (paywall). He also criticised China for relying on market barriers, state subsidies, product dumping, the theft of intellectual property and forced technology transfer. The obvious irony is that these things are not objectionable in themselves and may well serve patriotic interests, but they do indeed breach the principles of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Trump’s criticism is based on paradigms of an institution the supports of which he likes to denounce as "globalists". No, intellectual coherence is not his strong point.

He also lambasted Iran and pledged to ramp up sanctions. The plain truth is that the crisis that Trump triggered by quitting the nuclear deal is spinning out of his control. He had thought the US was strong enough to intimidate Iran's Shia dictatorship and would get concessions by threatening military action. It turns out, however, that he is more afraid of going to war than the mullahs are.

Things have actually been playing out pretty much along the lines that I predicted in a blog post in late July. It is an open secret that Trump now hopes that the USA's European allies like France, Germany and Britain will somehow help him out of this mess so he will neither lose face nor have to go to war. It is worth reiterating: Trump needlessly canceled the nuclear deal that his predecessor Barack Obama had concluded with Iran in close cooperation with the governments of not only France, Germany and Britain but also Russia and China. Multilateral action had worked, but his unilateral pressure is not working.

As far as I can tell, Trump attended parts of the special summit on climate action simply because he hoped to get the attention of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and perhaps French President Emanuel Macron, knowing that he needs their support in regard to Iran. I cannot think of another reason why he would have gone there, given that he is a stubborn denier of climate change. It fits the picture that his tweet regarding Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish climate activist, was comparatively mild-mannered: "She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!"

Trump obviously had nothing substantial to say in response to Thunberg's UN address in which she told policymakers that her generation would never forgive them if they fail to respond to the climate crisis effectively. Her speech was actually quite impressive and is worth reading.

The science is unequivocal. We are heading for climate disaster. Unless action is taken fast, today's world leaders will be considered failures not only by Thunberg's generation but those that will follow as well. Science denying populists like Trump may imagine themselves to be patriots like Roosevelt, Churchill or de Gaulle, but in retrospect they will look more like Hitler or Mussolini in view of the devastation they are failing to prevent. Just to make sure that I will not be misunderstood: I am not likening Trump to Hitler, I am likening the damage climate change is set to cause to the devastation of World War II. I don't think that this is an exaggeration, especially if humanity fails to avoid dangerous tipping points such as the melting of Greenland's ice shield or the slowing of the Gulf stream.

In a similar way, science acknowledging leaders such as Merkel and Macron, who see the dangers ahead but are so far failing to respond wholeheartedly, risk going down in history as the equivalents of the halfhearted Germany policymakers who were unable to stop the rise of the Nazis or their international counterparts who failed to challenge them appropriately when there was still time for doing so. Do they really want to look like Chancellor Heinrich Brüning or Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain? I know that the politics of tackling climate change are tricky, but incrementalism is simply not enough. At this point, the global community needs determined leaders who are willing to move ahead of the crowd.

Impeachment inquiry

Of course, Trump's domestic problems are mounting too. An impeachment inquiry  has been formally announced. The reason is that the president is suspected of having tried to make Ukraine's government help him to win reelection next year. It is a complicated story. The rough outlines are that Trump:

  • apparently demanded that Ukraine start investigating the son of former Vice President Joe Biden who wants to run against Trump next year, and
  • withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to Ukraine even though it had been approved by Congress.

Trump has basically admitted that both has happened, but he claims that there was no link. He pretends that he wanted to fight corruption. So far, there is no evidence of Biden's son having done anything wrong, however, while Trump's children are well known to be using their father's position for commercial gain. Even worse, it is generally assumed that foreign governments like to rent rooms in Trump hotels because they hope to score points with the president that way. The Trump family, so far, has denied the public information on how much money the Trump Organization raked in that way.

Trump claims to be a patriot. An increasing number of Americans see him in a very different light. Don't take my word for it, check out what David Leonhardt wrote about Trump in the New York Times (paywall): “He is the president of the United States, and he is a threat to virtually everything that the United States should stand for.”   According to Paul Krugman, who writes a column for the same newspaper, Republican politicians in general only “pretend to be patriots”.

Self-declared patriots like Trump have been gaining ground in many countries in recent years. Their populist stance is certainly self-serving, and citizens of all countries concerned should pay close attention to whose interest these politicians are really promoting. After all, they have a tendency of following Trump’s example.

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