Wednesday 11 December 2019

Seduced by hysteria

Donald Trump's crazy energy seems to be contagious. But Enda and Leo and all of us just need to stay calm

FLAG WAVING: British PM Theresa May and US President Donald Trump last week
FLAG WAVING: British PM Theresa May and US President Donald Trump last week
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

There is a kind of madness in the air among the political classes worldwide. It's as if Donald Trump's unpredictable energy is contagious. Trump, seemingly adrift without an administration around him, conducted a neighbourhood spat with the president of Mexico on Twitter, while the former president of Mexico has been trolling Trump on Twitter about not paying for "that f**king wall".

Meanwhile, Theresa May goes to America and unexpectedly signals a massive shift in UK foreign policy by dumping all over the UK liberal nation-building project. It was, in its own way, the equivalent of Trump getting up on inauguration day and dumping all over the Washington elite who preceded him. May even echoed some of Trump's language about not imposing Britain's way of life on people but letting it shine as an example.

Enda Kenny, not to be outdone, mischievously suggests that it might be time for Fine Gael or Fianna Fail to go into government with Sinn Fein now that they are clean as a whistle. While Leo Varadkar, who is increasingly acting like some kind of alternative leader of Fine Gael, half rules it out initially saying that he would not be seeking that mandate (presumably in the election that he told party members could occur this year) but that the people will decide. And then everyone starts clamouring to backpedal, some of Fine Gael decides to turn on Kenny again, while the other half seems to have turned on Leo.

No doubt silently processing Trump's victory, they are all acting like a bunch of contestants on Dancing With The Stars, all looking to distinguish themselves with gossipy titbits and stunts. Presumably they feel that if they are not saying quotable things and surprising everyone all the time they will not exist in the public mind anymore.

Meanwhile this general madness has trickled down to the body politic too. We are in full-blown hysteria in Ireland about Trump. The wall protecting the border, we all agree, is insanity, almost as insane as keeping refugees in former holiday camps for years and giving them 20 quid a week. We profess to be shocked about Trump's reckless approach to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement, which most of us had never given a thought to before. Indeed, if we had, we might know that both Hillary and Bernie Sanders were against it too and it was probably never going to make it past Congress. We are horrified too at the reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy, which means that the US won't pay for abortions around the world. Again we conveniently ignore the fact that this is not a unique act of this monster Trump. Every Republican president in recent years has reinstalled it on gaining office and every Democrat has suspended it again. We are seemingly shocked too at his isolationist tendencies even though half the country has spent years protesting about American interference around the world.

On a less hysterical level, we are worried about what Trump could mean for us. He has blown the dog whistle to big pharma abroad and he is going to attempt to bring home American multinationals with taxation carrots and sticks. And also, let's not forget, he is unpredictable and has torn up the rule book, and that can't be good for anyone who has the nuclear football in his grasp.

Some of us found ourselves thinking this week that Sean Spicer, the President's spokesman, would perhaps make a better president than Trump. Spicer is the man with the unenviable task of coming out and explaining Trump's behaviour. And you'd have to say that after a poor start, he did an amazing job last week. Of course there was the initial press conference on Saturday when Spicer had to read out those angry lies about the numbers at the inauguration. But if you kept watching Spicer for the week you'd have to say he redeemed himself. He trod a delicate line between trying to explain Trump in a reasonable fashion and then sometimes seeming to just throw his hands up. As when he kept repeating at one point in the week that the president has believed for a long time that there was voter fraud. Spicer offered no rationale for this and didn't attempt to defend it. He just said it, through almost gritted teeth.

When Spicer tried to explain to the press how frustrating and demoralising it is when everything you do or say is greeted with a wall of negativity, and to point out how racially charged the false story of the Martin Luther King bust was, you found yourself agreeing with him.

But many things seemed more plausible when Spicer explained them. It made you realise what the markets clearly feel, that a lot of what Trump is doing could be good for America, but there is a patina of madness over how he presents it, and in the crazy tweeting. It's almost like a movie where they have to hide from everyone that the president is an embarrassment, but the president has his own direct line to people through his phone, so he keeps scuppering the good work of those around him. Of course, it would help if people would allow Trump to fill the jobs around him. Right now, he seems to be on a mad solo run where he's not sure himself what he will do or say next, and sometimes it seems to depend on what he last saw on Fox News.

So what do we do amid this madness? We can protest, sure. Protesting against America is a long and noble tradition in this country, while we simultaneously expect them to solve our ethnic and religious squabbles, to take in our emigrants, legal and illegal, and to give us jobs in our own country too.

But beyond that what do we do? Do we arrive over with the shamrock and then lay into him about torture? Do we invite him for a game of golf or not? How much do we get sucked into this hurricane of change and madness? And where do our interests lie?

Theresa May was interesting in Philadelphia on Thursday. In one way she seemed to wrap herself around Trump. They dreamed the same dreams, she essentially said. She had been brought up with the values Trump was espousing - family, economic prudence, patriotism and power to the people. But then, in an interesting bit of nuance, she gave Trump a slight warning. She recalled how Ronald Reagan said he approached Gorbachev in a spirit of "trust but verify" and recommended that Putin should be approached on the basis of "engage but beware". The next day she would tell him that lifting sanctions on Russia would not be acceptable. She didn't arrive in there shouting and protesting. She was charming and polite but snuck in her point nonetheless.

If we get sucked into Trump's madness and start ranting at him about his views on torture or anything else, we will be out of the tent. There is madness in the air all right, and it must be tempting for politicians to get in on this populist hysteria. If, in the alternate realities we keep conjuring up in Irish politics, Mary Lou was heading over with the shamrock as part of Leo's Government she would no doubt give Trump a good talking to, and it would no doubt go viral and get loads of hits and headlines. But there's no point in tackling Trump by acting like Trump.

Leave Trump to his Twitter diplomacy and his unpredictable outbursts. The rest of us should, like Theresa May, keep calm and carry on. There is too much at stake. And America will be there long after Trump, and we will want them as our friends.

A matey word from Enda in March will do much more than any kind of confrontation with Trump.

This madness won't last. It will burn itself out. Trump could calm down or be broken by Washington; Equally he could create lots of jobs and make America safer, in which case, as one commentator put it, the rest will be just noise. Or Trump might not last a full term. Either way, this madness will not last and our politicians should stand aloof from it.

As Jana Ganesh wisely wrote in the FT during the week: "Populist propositions are about to be tested. By the time reality is through with them, a reputation for dull competence will be precious stock in politics. The trick is not to forfeit it in the meantime for the transient glamour of the street."

Enda and Leo and all of us need to calm down, and they should realise that flirting with the transient glamour of Sinn Fein's populism will not wash with their members.

Indeed, a bit of dull competence would be a fine thing in our politicians for a change.

Sunday Independent

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