Lest We Forget

This past week we saw violent protests in Charlottesville, USA. They deserve our attention.

A rally called “Unite the Right” had formed to prevent a statue of Robert E. Lee from being torn down. Lee was a General during the American Civil War who fought for the Confederacy, a collection of southern states that supported the continued existence of slavery.

Racial tension remains an ongoing issue within America, and in that context some have called for visible public symbols, like Confederate statues, which call to mind past conflicts and fan the flames of ongoing tensions be moved to museums or elsewhere.

Some would say this is the wrong thing to do because where do you draw the line? When do you stop removing statues? George Washington, the first President of the United States, was a slave owner. Should all of Washington’s statues also be moved to museums?  Obviously this is a nonsense argument, since the American Founding Fathers are central to America’s identity. Although, it does highlight some key questions. Is it appropriate to pull down statues? And, what is the best way to reduce racial tensions?

On its face, removing a statue might be seen as erasing history, destroying cultural heritage, or censoring ideas. Clearly it is not something that should be done lightly. However, it would seem appropriate in certain circumstances, for example if a statue is being used as a rallying point by racists, bigots, or extremists. It might be argued that pulling down a statue will in time help people to forget past conflicts and thus move forwards together. However, it is worth remembering that removing statues does not by itself remove social tensions. Ultimately, the only antidote to conflict is not collective amnesia but community forgiveness and reconciliation. It is not necessary to forget the past in order to forgive others and move forwards, and it may not even be sufficient. Research suggests that animosities can linger on long after the original facts that caused hard feelings are forgotten.

Unfortunately, these issues are highly politicised, and moving forwards together is not what most people engaged in the issue are focused on right now. The Washington Post reported that at the Charlottesville protest “[a] lone figure stood inside Emancipation Park, offering water and holding a sign that said, “Free Hugs.” Tyler Lloyd said he came hoping for a peaceful solution. The rallygoers accepted his water but declined the hugs.”

Shortly after the protests, President Trump poured gasoline on the fire by failing to clearly denounce hate speech (including pro-Nazi, anti-black, and anti-Semitic slogans) chanted by many of the protesters. In his initial address he condemned “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” While pulling down statues may not be the solution to racial tensions, it is hard to see how this amounts to hatred or bigotry when its intent is the opposite. And so, what Trump was actually doing was drawing a moral equivalence between the protesters engaging in hate speech and the counter-protesters opposing them. In response to Trump’s comments, David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, tweeted “[t]hank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville…” As if being endorsed by the KKK weren’t bad enough, a dozen CEOs also stepped down from Trump’s advisory councils in protest. As a result, the Strategy & Policy Forum and the Manufacturing Council are to be disbanded.

Are we living in base level reality, or is this one of Elon Musk’s distopian simulations?

The events surrounding Charlottesville give us a glimpse into the way Donald Trump thinks. He did not clearly denounce hate speech in his initial address, and while some have taken this to mean that Trump is a Nazi sympathiser it seems unlikely. He denounced the KKK and neo-Nazis as ‘repugnant’ two days later. However, he later defended his original morally ambiguous comments.

Trump’s willingness to spin on a dime and play fast and loose with tightly held American values highlights what many people already knew: Trump is a narcissist. He is more interested in his own agenda than what anyone else thinks. This means he is willing to tacitly support those who support him (remember that the alt-right was part of his support base during the election), and will viciously attack anyone who attacks him (CNN, the Washington Post, and other ‘fake’ news organisations). Trump’s narcissism is dangerous not because he intends to hurt others, but because he is casually indifferent to the agenda of anyone who is not Trump. What this means is that there is no way to understand or predict his behaviour, expect by knowing that he will at each step along the way reliably do what suits him best at a given point in time.

So where does that leave us?

The world finds itself at a delicate moment in history when the President of the most powerful country in the world clearly prefers expediency to morality, and has publicly demonstrated a casual indifference towards overt prejudice and discrimination.

In a heartening show of resistance, during the week a video released by the US War Department in 1943 went viral. It encourages Americans not to fall for the fascist rhetoric of prejudice and division. It is a positive message and if you haven’t already watched it, I encourage you to take a look. Lest we forget.

Political Correctness Killed the Republic

political-correctness-killed-the-republic

Six months ago I predicted that Trump would most likely win the US election. The official opinion polls told the opposite story, that Hillary was the preferred candidate, but my reading of the situation was different.

It was mid-July, and I was attending a talk given by Elizabeth Economy, Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Economy gave a wonderful speech, and she shared her view that a Trump victory would be truly unthinkable. This was the consensus in the room. However, despite her convictions, and the pro-Hillary audience, Economy couldn’t help smiling broadly every time she mentioned Trump’s name.

This was extremely telling.

It has been said that emotion makes people act, and logical makes them think. Trump is a man who clearly knows how to connect with people’s emotions, while Hillary is woman with a lot of knowledge, experience and intellect.

And so, it occurred to me that if a thoughtful intellectual type who strongly opposed Trump’s candidacy was having trouble resisting his charm, brand, charisma, call it what you will, then what hope had everybody else?

What hope indeed.

Donald Trump is now president-elect of the United States of America.

Who is to blame?

No single person or event is to blame, perhaps, but I believe a culture of political correctness in the West is one of the causes that has contributed towards America’s current predicament.

Let me share a brief anecdote.

A few days before the US election I shared with friends on Facebook my view that both candidates were bad choices for president.

On the one hand, Donald Trump, a man who hurls abuse at Mexicans, Muslims and anyone who tries to challenge him, inspires fanatical devotion in his followers and, based on everything we know about his behaviour, given the opportunity Trump will not hesitate to make a show of strength or take steps to enhance his own power. A potentially dangerous temperament.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton, an intelligent, hard-working and ambitious career politician who has survived and thrived in a broken political system by adopting a public and private persona, and at times appears to have placed pragmatism over principle (shown by her decision to accept donations to the Clinton Foundation from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, known funders of terrorism, while she was Secretary of State).

Wonderful! Two wonderful choices!

I didn’t want Trump to win, but both candidates had clear weaknesses, and I thought I had a right to comment.

Shortly after sharing these thoughts on Facebook, I deleted the post. I was under attack from a number of my pro-Hillary friends, and so I ducked for cover.

How dare I say anything negative about Hillary!!!???

How dare I indeed.

My feeling is that the political thought police are doing America and the West a grave dis-service and causing more harm than good.

What kind of societies do we want to live in?

Ones where people have to tip-toe around and only share their true thoughts in private or at the ballot box?

Or ones where ideas and issues are openly and candidly debated and discussed?

Hopefully you will agree that openness and debate are the best option.

But don’t just take my word for it. Have a listen to the wise and amusing words of Jonathan Pie (the satirical news reporter played by Tom Walker). Foul language warning! You might not want to play this if you are in the workplace, or if you are sensitive to the F-word.

(Image Source: Odyssey)

End of the Republic

If I were a betting man, at this stage my money would be on Trump to win the American presidential election.

This is not an endorsement, or a show of support of any kind. I think a Trump victory would be a horrible outcome.

So, why do I think Trump has more than a 50/50 chance? And what might the implications be if he wins?

The world is currently experiencing turbulent times economically and politically.

On the economic front, things look a little grim. Government debt as a percentage of GDP in America, Japan and at least nine other countries currently exceeds 100%, and other countries like the UK, Ireland, Spain, Canada and the EU are not far behind. Add to this the unprecedented levels of disruption to the workforce that will result when driverless technology automates millions of trucking jobs and technology like Kiva automates the work of millions of factory workers. High global debt levels combined with systemically higher unemployment levels are not two things that scream “economic stability and smooth sailing ahead”.

Politically, there appear to be more than a few explosives in the tinderbox. The UK held a referendum, the result of which will almost certainly see it leave the EU (and who knows which countries might follow).  The recent attack in Nice on Bastille day led to 84 deaths when an Islamic militant drove a truck through a crowd gathered to watch some fireworks (and this is just one in a series of attacks in France and Belgium in recent months). And militants in Turkey are now trying to stage a coup.

May we live in interesting times.

Trump has already surprised the analytical and political community in America by gaining enough delegates to win the Republican nomination. He is yet to be officially nominated but tensions are mounting. Politico reports that “nearly half of GOP insiders in key battleground states … believe there’s a good chance violence will break out around next week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.”

In a short blog post that I published in June last year I mentioned that Donald Trump “… has announced his intention to run for the White House in 2016 … Trump is a master at manipulating media attention and getting people to talk about him …”

At that stage I thought of him merely as a reality TV star, someone who was entertaining, a famous self-promoter. The prospect of him running for President seemed like it would make for good television. Little did I consider or realise the hateful ideas he would put forth in order to whip his faithful followers into a frenzy.

As I said last June, Trump is a master of building the Trump brand. He has authored multiple books, and put his name on everything from high-rise buildings to golf courses and casinos. His years of effort in building a branding juggernaut appear to have created a seemingly unstoppable force. This view was acknowledged (and more comprehensively discussed) by Politico back in October last year.

The problem for Hillary (and the Republican candidates who Trump has already defeated) is that while she might be a strong candidate, Trump is a candidate backed by the power of a global brand that conjures an alluring tale of “unstoppable and never-ending success”. His followers are not merely supporting Trump’s candidacy, they are supporting his story. They are supporting the brand.

This might sound like a subtle distinction, but it’s not.

Let me give an example.

I recently attended a talk in Beijing entitled “Advising the Next U.S. President on China” given by Elizabeth Economy, Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Ms Economy gave a wonderful speech and her view, along with the consensus in the room, was that a Trump victory would be truly unthinkable. However, despite her intellectual knowledge and conviction that Trump would be an absolute abomination, she couldn’t help smiling every time she mentioned Trump’s name.

This is extremely telling.

Trump is a man who is hurling hurtful and disgusting abuse at Mexicans, Muslims, judges, and anyone who would oppose him. And yet, when a well-meaning intellectual who opposes Trump’s candidacy mentioned his name in front of a packed audience, she smiled broadly every time.

This is not Ms Economy’s fault, but what it tells us is that the power of the Trump brand has infected even his staunchest opponents.

Intellectually she knows he is bad news, but even still she can’t resist.

And if thoughtful intellectual types are having trouble resisting Trump’s brand, what hope has everybody else?

If Trump does win, then what might the implications be for America?

Well, as I mentioned, we are living in turbulent times.

France has been in a state of emergency since the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, and plans to extend the state of emergency following the Bastille day attacks. What this means is that normal rules of law do not currently apply.

I am by no means an expert on the American political and legal system, however it is possible to imagine a similar state of emergency being called by Trump (following another inevitable terrorist attack). Conveniently, Trump might decide never to re-institute the normal rules of law and subsequently appoint himself as Emperor.

One of my colleagues here in Beijing is a Texan, and he explained to me that such a wild idea could never happen in reality because Congress would never allow it.

Maybe.

But, if the Bush family and Republican Party are collectively unable to prevent Trump from becoming the Republican nominee, then I really don’t think that Congress will be able to stand in Trump’s way.

[Please let me know your thoughts on this issue. Do you agree with me? Or are you strongly opposed?]

Trump Nation?

Donald Trump

(Source: Flickr)

The Donald has announced his intention to run for the White House in 2016 on a ticket to “Make America Great Again!”.

At this stage it’s unclear whether he will run for office or not because he has flirted with running in the past and then not done so.

Whatever happens though, the take away lesson at this stage is that Donald Trump is a master at manipulating media attention and getting people to talk about him (in articles like this one).

Trump is a shrewd businessman who never misses an opportunity to build the Trump brand.

Are you being similarly diligent with your own brand building efforts?