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Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Random thoughts from a Brit in the North West. Sometimes serious, sometimes not. Quite often curmudgeonly.

Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 8 November 2020
08 November 2020 @ 11:48

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Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.  

- Christopher Howse: 'A Pilgrim in Spain'*  

 Living La Vida Loca in Galicia/Spain

First none arrived and then 3 come along all at once. . .   Juan Carlos, the disgraced and exiled former king of Spain, is facing a third corruption investigation in a further blow to the reputation of the monarchy.

The Irish dimension . . . The [Mexican] owner of Killua Castle, in Co Westmeath, has been named in the Spanish press as one of two men at the centre of an investigation into the finances of the former king. JC took his latest misress there 3 years ago, it's reported.

Day 2 of EC2, and, yes, there certainly are at least cake shops selling coffee and croissants to go in town. I look forward to the day when they master how to serve black coffee in a container that doesn't burn your fingers off within 10 seconds. And which tastes OK.

There were also one or two restaurants offering take-away food yesterday in Pontevedra city. But the vast majority are shuttered,But the vast majority are shuttered, though there'll surely be more open today. But my problem will be that luras (Gallego for calamares) are not so good when cold. And they lose heat pretty quickly. I'd have to eat them immediately in the main square to enjoy them and this goes completely against Spanish cultural norms. I've already had some stern looks for eating a croissant and drinking a coffee as I walked. Though not simultaneously, of course. So I sat down on the steps of church to finish the croissant, before chucking the coffee. Conceivably less unacceptable to the locals.Especially if they assumed I was a gypsy, there to beg. Desperate times, desperate measures.

Cosa de España . . . The blinds shop was again closed yesterday and the blank sheet was still flapping on the door. I've told them I’ll pay in cash if they send someone to my house for it.

María's Falling Back chronicle, Day 54 

The UK

Hmm.  . . Biden will now wage war on Brexit as the British outpost of Trumpism. The next few months will be rocky for Downing Street. Johnson's Brexit agenda is seen by the new president and his team as trans-Atlantic Trumpism. If Donald Trump carries on legal guerrilla warfare against Biden, Anglo-American relations will suffer. If he goes gracefully, the Biden team might decide to adopt reconciliation all round. Trump defiant means the war of 2016 could spread across the Atlantic as a Biden Administration sees Brexit as part of that battle. 

Fingers crossed, then. The ones that aren't burnt, of course.

The USA

There was only one possible reflection on that extraordinary broadcast from the Trump bunker last Thursday night. How did this ludicrous, dangerously ignorant man ever become president of the United States? That is not a rhetorical question. We need to know how and why this was possible, not only for the sake of America’s political future but for ours, too.

So . . . Trumpism. What is it and will it live on, whatever the character and eminent failings of the man who created it? See the article below. 

Spanish

There's polar views here in Pontevedra on whether many Spaniards say 'Contra mas' instead of 'Cuanto mas'. My own observation - from an admittedly smallish sample of 8 - was that those who said it was vulgar but common - if you see what I mean - have lived outside Galicia. Whereas those who’d only lived here said they’d never heard it. But, then, last night a Madrileña friend who lives  here told me it was typical of Gallegos. 

Finally

Am I the only one who finds the BBC’s classical music channel - Radio 3 - to be obsessed with the human voice, as opposed to instruments? And Classic FM to be obsessed with only a small selection of ‘favourites’? The former doesn’t run ads but all the same . . .

THE ARTICLE 

His wild swing missed but Donald Trump has beaten America into his image:

Is the outgoing president the worst in US history? For all his erratic, divisive behaviour, he will shape the country for decades to come:   Robert W Merry, journalist and publishing executive, and author of Where They Stand: the American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians The Times 

You cannot argue with history. It goes its own way and buries its own dead. Often it renders its judgments with slow deliberation, and sometimes it alters those judgments over time to make things interesting. But it always has the last word. This is particularly true of history’s verdicts on American presidents, as reflected in the surveys of presidential scholars that have coalesced over decades into a substantial body of thought on presidential performance. Those surveys represent the closest we can come to history’s judgment.

I predict it will stamp him as a presidential failure but also a figure of historical significance. This seeming paradox will be lost on many Americans, mostly the paladins of the country’s establishment and the top 10% of its populace in wealth and income, the elite class of highly educated movers and shakers who have benefited from the economic and social policies of the past 40 years while large numbers of Americans have suffered. While considering Trump’s presidency a nasty nightmare, this elite class has consoled itself with the thought that when he goes, Trumpism will go with him.

It won’t. In his first campaign and presidency, Trump has pulled together a knot of political adherence that will linger long after his departure. Thus did the 45th president transform the debates and faultlines of American politics. The closeness of his re-election bid, far more impressive than the polls and pundits had predicted, can be attributed in part to his striking capacity to galvanise the devotion of millions of Americans agitated by what they consider the failings of the country’s leadership class.

Yet the establishment paladins and the top 10% might console themselves with the reality that he could never build upon that knot of political sentiment and create the kind of governing coalition that every president needs for success — and for re-election. He lacked the intellectual tools, political acumen, rhetorical touch and perhaps the fundamental decency to effect that. Therein lies his failure.

Trump’s presidential approval ratings, as reflected in public opinion surveys, accentuate both his deficiency in office and his dialectical significance. His record of approval is intriguing, because it fluctuated only in a narrow band of modest but ironclad political esteem, largely from a low of about 39% to a high of 43%. The approval quotients of most presidents fluctuated far more widely and often reached much higher levels, depending on how things were going in the country. Barack Obama’s ratings went from a low of 40 to a high of 57. George W Bush had a gaping range of 27 to 71. Bill Clinton’s was 37 to 61. Ronald Reagan’s yearly average in the Gallup poll fluctuated from 43 in the recession year of 1982 to 60 in 1985-86, when the economy was soaring and the Iran-Contra scandal had not yet emerged.

This tells us that Trump touched a nerve of powerful sensation when he crafted his 2016 campaign as an assault on the nation’s elites and the Washington establishment. Both main parties had embraced an ethos of globalism, lenient immigration, free trade, anti-nationalism, identity politics and cultural liberalism. This was the outlook of nearly all elite institutions, including the Democratic Party, top universities, influential think tanks, mavens of popular culture, the big banks, big tech, big corporations, and most of big media. But more and more Americans were beginning to chafe under its influence.

They still do, which is why Trump’s approval rating still had a floor on election eve of about 39% and why he pulled about 70 million votes to his banner in last Tuesday’s balloting. Almost no matter what he did, his supporters saw him as standing between themselves and the political forces they consider inimical to their interests.

The historian Walter Russell Mead, of the Hudson Institute and Bard College, writing shortly after the 2016 election, identified these Trump voters as “Jacksonian” — named for the country’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson — meaning they reject the elite concept of America as dedicated to the fulfilment of a universal mission of global betterment. Rather they see America’s governmental role as fulfilling “the country’s destiny by looking after the physical security and economic wellbeing of the American people in their national home”.

Mead wrote that these people came to feel besieged, their values under attack and their future threatened. Then came Trump — “flawed as many Jacksonians themselves believed him to be” — who “seemed the only candidate willing to help fight for [their] survival”. That is what got him elected, and it is what gave him consistent approval ratings, however modest.

A more recent take on all this came from John J Mearsheimer, of Chicago University, in a provocative speech delivered to an audience of the American Political Science Association and reprinted in the journal PS. Mearsheimer shares Mead’s perception of a rising wave of populism in America, but he puts it in terms of liberalism. Equals v nationalism. He sees liberalism as focused intently on the sanctity of the individual and of the individual’s right to have as much freedom as possible in his or her personal life. Also, liberalism is universalist in outlook, meaning its adherents believe its core principles apply to all mankind, everywhere and at all times, and that America’s mission, therefore, is to spread those principles. That is why they are globalists and do not care much for sturdy borders or nationalist sensibilities. Humanitarian war-making, however, is a natural part of their ethos.

Mearsheimer sees nationalists, by contrast, as particularists, believing people are “born into and thrive in social groups that mould their identities and command their loyalties”. And the most significant of all social groups is the nation. That is why nationalists care about civic cohesion, the idea of a unique culture, territorial integrity and sovereignty.

These two “isms” are contradictory in many respects and hence often in conflict. But they can sometimes become nicely intertwined in ways that create a harmonious balance. That has been the case in America for much of its history.

It has not been the case, however, in the post-Cold War era, when liberalism rose to near hegemonic influence in the American polity. Then it unleashed a frontal attack on nationalism, seeking eventually to marginalise or even nullify it. And it seemed to be working. Liberalism, with almost no serious opposition, pushed with abandon its tenets of individualism, universalism, the virtue of the transnational elite, the sanctity of identity thinking and America’s missionary zeal overseas. As the historian Jill Lepore, a universalist liberal herself, wrote: “It appeared to some globalists that nationalism had died.

It hadn’t. Mearsheimer believes liberalism can go only so far in threatening nationalism in any polity before the forces of nationalism fight back hard. Trump served as the vanguard of the nationalist pushback. Mead and Mearsheimer believe he somehow saw instinctively what no other politician of either party perceived: that Jacksonian nationalism represented a nascent force in American politics waiting to be activated and exploited. Mead calls it “the truly surging force in American politics”, while Mearsheimer posits that when liberalism and nationalism truly collide, “nationalism wins almost every time, because it is the most powerful political ideology in the modern world”.

Perhaps. But establishment forces in America have been doing all they could to kill it, along with the Trump presidency. In this effort they have received considerable help from Trump himself, and here is where we get to his presidential failure.

No president can succeed in office unless he builds upon his core support and pulls together a governing coalition. Nate Silver, the political analyst and polling-data-cruncher, has written that a president seeking a second term probably will not succeed unless he captures an approval rating of at least 49% at election time. That means Trump needed to get his approval quotient up by seven or eight percentage points to succeed.

How could he have done that? Through accomplishment, by getting things done. By historical standards, though, Trump’s performance record was thin. He seemed to think that his words could define his actions, whereas in politics, only actions define actions. He was the president of conservative talk radio, of bombast and braggadocio, of the phony brutality of video games, of reality-TV. He not only did not talk to those Americans who were not already in his camp, 60% of the electorate, but also consistently insulted them.

Meanwhile, as history will record in its unsentimental way, he did not accomplish what he was elected to do. He campaigned against those “forever wars” that have kept America bogged down in the Middle East. But, while he avoided American involvement in new wars, he has not extricated the country from the old ones. US troops remain in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Trump’s truculence towards Iran and his effort to join Israel and other regional nations in isolating Isis in its own neighbourhood could spark a hostile reaction that would draw America further into the Middle East quagmire.

Or consider immigration, the most incendiary of the country’s wedge issues. Civic anxieties have magnified substantially in recent years as the proportion of foreign-born residents has reached historic highs and as more and more Americans have lost faith in the willingness of the nation’s elites to deal with the issue in good faith. Having established his credibility with those increasingly anxious voters — however obnoxiously — Trump was positioned to fashion a comprehensive solution showing compassion for many illegal residents (particularly the “dreamers” brought to America as children through no fault of their own) while taking stern measures to stem further inflows.

But that would have necessitated a capacity for the president to talk to the American people as Franklin Roosevelt or Reagan did, in lucid, explanatory language designed to persuade through reason and logic. Trump could not do that, and so he resorted to executive actions that will promptly be reversed by his successor. The acidic issue will continue to eat away at the nation.

On healthcare, Trump promised to “repeal and replace” Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but the Republicans could not come up with a credible replacement, and Trump lacked the leadership to pull the party together on the issue.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and Trump could not muster the kind of forthright, coherent, consistent leadership needed in such a crisis, with the result that he looked clueless, hapless and incapacitated. The episode revealed something about the president, missed by many of his critics but captured with acuity by Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times. In debunking the notion that Trump represented some kind of mortal threat to the republic, Douthat noted that Trump, unlike some past presidents of note (Jackson, Lincoln, FDR), did not seek to use the Covid crisis to enhance his authority. “Great men and bad men alike seek attention as a means of getting power,” Douthat wrote, “but our president is interested in power only as a means of getting attention.”

Just so. And attention-starved presidents cannot succeed in the office because they cannot step back from themselves sufficiently to grasp the imperatives of the nation, even if they possess the capacity to address those imperatives, which Trump does not.

History will not be kind to this man. Most likely it will not place him at the bottom of the heap with James Buchanan, Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce and Andrew Johnson. But he will not be much above those losers. He will get credit perhaps, as he should, for stepping out of nowhere and grasping some troubling emergent realities of American politics at a time when no one else could see them. But, if Mead and Mearsheimer are correct that Jacksonian populist nationalism represents “the truly surging force in American politics”, and that nationalism, in competing with liberalism, “wins almost every time, because it is the most powerful political ideology in the modern world”, then Trump’s White House occupancy will go down in history as one of the greatest missed opportunities in the annals of the American presidency.

* A terrible book, by the way. Don't be tempted to buy it, unless you're a very religious Protestant.



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