NEW DELHI: The modern incarnations of Humphrey from Yes, Prime Minister excel in keeping their pet politicians on leash through warnings that if they try to roam free they will immediately be eaten by monsters. In the same way that centuries ago some European cartographers used to implicitly encourage travellers to keep on the “right” path by drawing intimidating wild animals and sea creatures in parts of their maps that they judged dangerous or unknown, the Humphreys of today try to keep their charges “on track” by threatening them with the monsters of public opinion, their own party, the press, funders and other such terrors.
The thing is, the United States’ President-Elect Donald J. Trump seems not to believe in monsters. Or, to put it in another way, Trump thinks he—and America—are the biggest “monsters” on the map and the smaller monsters and the Humphreys should be scared of them. He might be right.
Ever since the primaries, politicians, pundits and the press all warned of dangers for Trump if he waded into the waters of taking on China’s trade policies, facing down Fox News, not kowtowing to the interests of major funders, using the term “radical Islamic terrorism”, and more. Not only did he survive, he won.
For decades no American President or President-Elect publicly took a direct call from a Taiwanese leader. They were told by their political cartographers the call would immediately dump them in troubled waters with China, where they could get eaten alive. Trump took the call. So far, in spite of a lot of thrashing around by Beijing, no monsters.
Politicians are trained to run public statements through a phalanx of focus groups, special interest lobbies and top bureaucrats or risk being cut off from funding or political support. By the time they come out the other side, the statements are weak and vague. Trump directly tweets major policy to the American public and foreign powers, sometimes in the middle of the night. So far, no monsters.
American politicians aren’t supposed to question the beneficence of globalisation. Trump has not only said it has been bad for the American workers, he has derogatorily rebranded those who support it as “globalists”. Former US President Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan was “it’s the economy, stupid”. But, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, it’s been clear that globalisation-linked economic indicators (stock prices, trade, etc.) can look strong without doing much for the average person. Trump knows that and has shifted to “it’s jobs, stupid”. He celebrates when new factories are announced for the US, and tweets against companies who decide to build abroad—often dramatically affecting stock price. Corporate America used to be able to stomp its feet, breathe fire, and get concessions. Trump seems not to care.
The mainstream systems have no idea how to handle Trump. A clear example was the recent case of the Russian “dirty dossier”. The premise was that the Kremlin had a file on Trump detailing dodgy activities including an incident in a hotel room in Moscow that could be used to blackmail him. The story has been discredited, but the interesting thing is that the fundamental premise was deeply flawed anyway. While the sort of activities described might have destroyed another politician, even if they had been true they probably would have done little damage to Trump. Many of the things Trump did during the campaign would have killed the prospects of another candidate—Trump University, the infamous audio of Trump describing his seduction technique, the name calling, etc. But Trump’s relationship with his supporters is so direct and unique, it bypasses the usual vulnerabilities.
In fact, those sorts of attacks on Trump tend to boomerang on the accusers. In the “dirty dossier” case, somehow Trump has even managed to put yet another “monster”, the normally sacrosanct intelligence community, on the defensive. Suddenly information is coming to light on how private intelligence companies function, who hires them, their links to politicians, how their data are leaked, and more.
It’s not Trump who is being weakened, it is expensive data firms, political operatives, former members of the intelligence community and the media. These erstwhile “monsters” are sustaining major damages from their greatest enemy, public scrutiny.
By this time next week, President-Elect Trump will be President Trump. And President Trump and his crew are planning on sailing the American ship of state directly into the path of the biggest monsters at home and around the world. Meanwhile, outsiders will continue to shoot flaming arrows at the sails and anti-Trumpers deep in the system will try to drill holes in the hull from the inside. We truly are in uncharted waters.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.