The first signs of rust on Macron’s iron hand

 Those who liken the president to Napoleon should remember Boney's fate

He is young. He is handsome. He is slim. He is dapper. He is socially liberal but economically conservative. In more ways than one, Emmanuel Macron reminds me of Michael Portillo in his prime in the mid-1990s - except Portillo's bid to become prime minister went horribly awry. He was condemned to reinvent himself as a television talking head. Macron is now president of France.

Whenever someone is trying to persuade me that liberal democracy is in crisis and that populist demagogues and fire-breathing tyrants are taking over the world, I refer them to the talented Monsieur Macron. If Marine Le Pen had won last year's French presidential election, the thesis of a democratic crisis might have plausibility. But Macron smashed her, winning two-thirds of the vote in the second round.

The man certainly has Gallic panache. Last week he paid a visit to Brexiting Britain calculated to inflame the Francophilia of the metropolitan elite, preceding his visit with an inspired offer: a loan of the Bayeux Tapestry. It was, enthused The Guardian's Martin Kettle, "a historic cultural gesture on a par with Egypt's loan of the Tutankhamun treasures a generation ago". But it was also, he warned darkly, a coded diplomatic message: "Bad things can happen if a nation does not keep its promises to its neighbours" - and "England does not always win".

The obvious response is, of course: "Donnez-moi un break." Full marks to The Sun for its inspired Bayeux parody - the "Bye-EU Tapestry" - complete with "Boris de Mop", "Goveus de Speccy" and "Faire Theresa". Yet even the Brexiteers' favourite red-top paid grudging respect to Macron, depicting him as "Hunkie Macron the Gaul".

In recent weeks the French president has been ubiquitous. Eleven days ago he was in China. Last month he visited Algeria, Qatar and Niger. He is as active in Middle Eastern and African diplomacy as in European. And everywhere we see the combination of what Napoleon called the "iron hand in a velvet glove". In the words of Thomas Carlyle, he is "soft of speech and manner, yet with an inflexible rigour of command".

We saw precisely that combination in Britain last week. At Sandhurst, Macron amiably announced Anglo-French military co-operation in Mali and Estonia. On Brexit, however, we felt the iron fist. If the UK wants access to the single market, said Macron, it will have to continue to contribute to the EU budget and acknowledge European jurisdiction. In his words: "Be my guest" - which all Brexiteers know means: "Be Norway." The alternative, he said, would be a deal "closer to the situation of Canada".

So has France at long last - after the embarrassment that was François Hollande - found a new Napoleon, or at least a new Charles de Gaulle? Though not remotely a military man, Macron certainly rose through the ranks of French politics with Bonaparte-like speed: an énarque - a graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration; a civil servant at the Inspectorate General of Finances; a banker at the French branch of Rothschild; the youngest minister of the economy since Valéry Giscard d'Estaing; and then, at the tender age of 39, president.

There was surely a conscious allusion to La Marseillaise in Macron's choice of name for the new political party he conjured out of nowhere: La République En Marche!. (And march it did, all the way to a majority in last June's elections to the national assembly.)

Even the man's love life is like something from Stendhal. At the age of 15 he fell in love with one of his teachers, Brigitte Auzière, who was 24 years his senior and married with three children. To end the relationship, Macron's parents banished him to Paris. It was no good. The couple married in 2009.

Any normal man older than 40 naturally wants Macron to fail. There was a brief moment of hope when his approval rating plummeted last autumn, but it has since recovered to above 50%, much to the chagrin of all whom he has surpassed.

The sole comfort I can offer is that the Frenchman Macron most closely resembles is not an emperor or a general but another president who sought to rule from the centre. If he is anyone's political heir, he is the son of Giscard d'Estaing. Indeed, their early careers were almost exactly alike. Both men defected from their original political parties to found new ones. Both rose to the pinnacle of power at an unusually early age: Giscard was 48 when he narrowly won the presidency in 1974. And just as Giscard surprised his former Gaullist colleagues with leftward-leaning policies - for example, legalising abortion - so Macron is presiding over a far more right-wing government than his early record led most people to expect.

France's sclerotic, overregulated labour market is being liberalised. The fiscal deficit is being reduced through cuts in public spending, even as taxes on income and wealth have been reduced. And Macron has embarked on a programme of privatisation, beginning with the sale of the government stakes in Renault and the energy company Engie. All of this is vehemently denounced by the veteran leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, which only makes Macron and his conservative prime minister Edouard Philippe seem the more reasonable.

In 1984 Giscard published a book with the title Deux Français Sur Trois - two French people out of three - arguing that this was the margin of popularity a president needed to reform France. Macron started out with precisely that majority. Yet the latest polls suggest he is now hovering closer to one out of two. And a recent U-turn suggests that the fist inside the velvet glove may be made of a substance softer than iron. Ever since the 1960s there has been a plan to build a new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes in western France. But last week the government announced that it will not, after all, proceed with the project, leaving the site in the hands of the eco-warriors.

Giscard's tragedy, which haunts him to the present day, was that he failed to secure re-election. Will Macron share his fate? The conventional answers are "Not if the French economy keeps on responding positively to the medicine he is administering" and "Not if Paris and Berlin re-establish their old partnership on all European questions". Yet I keep thinking back to Michel Houellebecq's brilliant satirical 2015 novel, Submission, published by a macabre coincidence on the same day as the massacre by jihadists of staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Houellebecq's plot foresees, correctly, that a mainstream politician wins the presidency in 2017. Yet five years later only an alliance between the centre left, the centre right and the Muslim Brotherhood can defeat Le Pen. As a result, the Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Ben-Abbes, becomes president of France.

Today, as the talented Macron packs his velvet glove and prepares to head to Davos, Submission seems an absurd flight of fancy. But Giscard lost to François Mitterrand. Napoleon ended up on St Helena. And Portillo is on This Week with Andrew Neil.

Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

Social networks are creating a global crisis of democracy

 Silicon Valley once promised its digital revolution would topple dictators – but now it's disrupting the free world instead. Niall Ferguson asks: What have we done?

"Esc!" It's the key on the top left of the keyboard that you hit frantically when your laptop crashes. Confronted by the ghastly reality that some of their proudest creations – Google, Facebook and Twitter – helped propel Donald Trump into the White House, the tech titans of Silicon Valley are hitting esc like panic-stricken sophomores whose term papers have frozen before they clicked on the "save" icon.

"Content moderators" are being hired by the thousand. Fake accounts are being closed. The News Feed is being "fixed." Esc, esc, esc. But that page is still frozen. And it will take more than esc to fix this. More like ctrl+alt+del.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. For a time, it seemed as if the internet was on democracy's side, helping the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square or Kiev's Maidan topple terrible tyrants.

"Current network technology … truly favours the citizens," wrote Google's Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt in their 2013 book The New Digital Age. "Never before have so many people been connected through an instantly responsive network," with truly "game-changing" implications for politics everywhere.

Mr. Cohen and Mr. Schmidt's 2010 article "The Digital Disruption" presciently argued that authoritarian governments would "be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cellphones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority."

The "real action" in what they called "the interconnected estate" could be found in "cramped offices in Cairo" as well as "on the streets of Tehran. From these locations and others, activists and technology geeks are rallying political 'flash mobs' that shake repressive governments, building new tools to skirt firewalls and censors, reporting and tweeting the new online journalism, and writing a bill of human rights for the internet age."

Even more euphoric was Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and chief executive of Facebook. In 2015, he called the internet "a force for peace in the world." Connecting people on Facebook was building a "common global community" with a "shared understanding" of the problems confronting humanity.

Oh, happy days. Oh, glad, confident morning. Sadly, over the past two years, it has gradually become apparent that internet may pose a bigger threat to democracies than to dictators.


A Facebook logo looms behind Mark Zuckerberg at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS


For one thing, the growth of network platforms with unprecedented data-gathering capabilities has created new opportunities for authoritarian regimes, not least in China and Russia, to control their own populations more effectively.

For another, the networks themselves offer ways in which bad actors – and not only the Russian government – can undermine democracy by disseminating fake news and extreme views. "These social platforms are all invented by very liberal people on the west and east coasts," said Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump's digital-media director, in an interview last year. "And we figure out how to use it to push conservative values. I don't think they thought that would ever happen." Too right.

Having initially dismissed as "a pretty crazy idea" the notion that fake news on Facebook had helped Mr. Trump to victory, Mr. Zuckerberg last year came clean: Russians using false identities had paid for 3,000 Facebook advertisements that sent implicitly pro-Trump messages to Americans before and after the election. By some estimates, between 146 and 150 million users – more people than voted – had seen posts from accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a pro-Kremlin organization, including around 16 million users of Instagram, which Facebook owns.

One analysis of six Russia-linked Facebook pages found their posts had been shared 340 million times. And those were just six of 470 pages that Facebook had identified as Russian. Trolls with false identities had also used Facebook Events (the company's event-management tool) to promote political protests in the United States, including an Aug. 27, 2016, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in a rural Idaho town known to welcome refugees.

In May, 2016, two Russian-linked Facebook groups had organized simultaneous opposing protests in front of the Islamic Da'wah Center of Houston. "Heart of Texas," a bogus group claiming to favour Texas secession, had announced a noon rally on May 21 to "Stop Islamification of Texas." Meanwhile, a separate Russian-sponsored group, "United Muslims of America," had advertised a "Save Islamic Knowledge" rally for exactly the same place and time. This wasn't the kind of global community Mr. Zuckerberg had envisaged.


After the 2016 election, Facebook unearthed examples of a Russian misinformation campaign whose posts were shared millions of times on the social network. Here are two examples presented as evidence to Congress last year.

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES PERMANENT SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE


This is not just an American story. To an extent that is not well enough appreciated, it is a global crisis of democracy. Similar efforts were made, albeit on a smaller scale, to influence the outcome of the British referendum on European Union membership – mainly via fake Twitter accounts – as well as last year's elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. And the fact that the Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election has since become the focal point of multiple inquiries in Washington – which may even pose a threat to the legitimacy and longevity of Mr. Trump's presidency – does not mean that similar things are not going on in other countries even as you read this article. Canadians have good reason to worry about how social media could impact the 2019 federal election. When Facebook and Twitter told MPs last year that they could increase public engagement in the debates between party leaders, some people wondered how much of this would be provided by Russian bots.

Yet the most alarming revelation of the past year is not the importance of Russian fake news, but its unimportance. Former president Barack Obama implicitly acknowledged that in his recent Netflix interview with David Letterman. Having swept into the White House in 2008 as the first candidate of the social media age, Obama acknowledged that he had "missed … the degree to which people who are in power, special interests, foreign governments, et cetera, can in fact manipulate [social media] and propagandize."

However, the former law professor made no attempt to lay all the blame on outside forces. "What the Russians exploited," he said, "was already here … [The fact that] we are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR. That's what's happening with these Facebook pages, where more and more people are getting their news from. At a certain point, you just live in a bubble. And that's part of why our politics is so polarized right now."

What happened in 2016 was much more than just a Kremlin "black op" that exceeded expectations. It was a direct result of the profound change in the public sphere brought about by the advent and spectacular growth of the online network platforms. In many ways, the obsessive focus of the American political class on the Russian sub-plot is a distraction from the alarming reality that – as the European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager argued earlier this month – the big tech companies, and the way their services are used by ordinary people, pose a much bigger threat to democracy. It is the threat from within we really need to worry about – not the threat from Putin.



A polarization problem

We are nearly all addicts. The website eMarketer estimates that adult Facebook users in the United States spent roughly 41 minutes a day on the platform in 2017. And that's just our favourite app. The average smartphone user clicks, taps and swipes that insidious little device an amazing 2,617 times a day.

And we don't just passively read. We engage. We like. We retweet. We reply. We comment. Now, it must be admitted that most of what we write is inane. In Canada, the five most-commonly used words in Facebook status updates are: "day," "hangover," "loud," "ticket" and "word." ("Hangover" is ranked 7th in Britain and 8th in the United States – make of that what you will.)

But a fair amount of what we engage with online is news. Two-thirds of U.S. adults are on Facebook. Nearly half – 45 per cent – get news from Mr. Zuckerberg's platform. More than one in 10 Americans get news from YouTube, while roughly the same proportion (11 per cent) get news from Twitter. In Canada, 51 per cent of people get their news from digital sources first.



As a recent Harvard paper co-authored by Gary King demonstrates, the network platforms essentially amplify news from established news outlets. As they do so, however, a strange thing happens. Whether one looks at blogs or at Twitter, social media tend to promote polarization. Liberal bloggers link to liberal bloggers, rarely to conservative ones. Liberal Twitter users re-tweet one another, seldom their conservative counterparts. And tweets on political topics – gun control, same-sex marriage, climate change – are 20 per cent more likely to be retweeted for every moral or emotional word they employ.

Note also that political Twitter is not for everyone. As Daniel Hopkins, Ye Liu, Daniel Preotiuc-Pietro and Lyle Ungar have shown, by analyzing nearly five million tweets generated by four thousand Twitter accounts in August, 2016, it is "very conservative" and "very liberal" users who are most likely to tweet political words.



We see a similar phenomenon when we analyze the Facebook followers of U.S. legislators. In both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the pattern is clear: The more ideologically out there you are – whether to the left or the right – the more followers you are likely to have.

In this context, it becomes apparent that Russian fake news represented a drop in an ocean of inflammatory political commentary that was overwhelmingly indigenous. Between March, 2015, and November, 2016, 128 million Americans created nearly 10 billion Facebook posts, shares, likes and comments about the election. Remember how many Russian ads there were? That's right: a paltry 3,000.

According to new research by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, Andrew Guess of Princeton University and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter, roughly one in four Americans saw at least one false story in the run-up to the presidential election. But fake stories were just 1 per cent of the news Hillary Clinton supporters read, and 6 per cent of the news Trump supporters read.

Remember, too, that not all the Russian-sourced news was fake. The tens of thousands of e-mails hacked from the accounts of John Podesta and other Democrats were as real as they were confidential. But it wasn't the Russians who were driving the traffic on the Breitbart website to record highs. It wasn't the Russians who explained to the Trump campaign how they could use targeted Facebook advertising to compensate – with precision – for what they lacked in dollars. It was Silicon Valley: its big data, its algorithms, its employees.


PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A matter of priorities

Don't take it from me. Take it from former Facebook staff who have spoken out in the past year. Antonio Garcia Martinez, the former Facebook engineer and author of the book Chaos Monkeys, put it starkly: "I think there's a real question if democracy can survive Facebook and all the other Facebook-like platforms," he said in an interview. "Before platforms like Facebook, the argument used to be that you had a right to your own opinion. Now, it's more like the right to your own reality."

Facebook's propaganda was all about building a global community. But in practice, the company was laser-focused on the bottom line – and highly resistant to outside criticism. Sandy Parakilas, who worked as an operations manager to fix privacy problems on Facebook's developer platform in advance of its 2012 initial public offering, has said that the company "prioritized data collection from its users over protecting them from abuse."

"When I was at Facebook," he said last year, "the typical reaction I recall looked like this: Try to put any negative press coverage to bed as quickly as possible, with no sincere efforts to put safeguards in place or to identify and stop abusive developers." The policy was to "react only when the press or regulators make something an issue, and avoid any changes that would hurt the business of collecting and selling data."

Perhaps the most scathing assessment came from former vice-president for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya. "I think," he told an audience of students at Stanford's Graduate School of Business in December, "we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. … The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no co-operation: misinformation, mistrust. And it's not an American problem – this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem."

 

Chamath Palihapitiya speaks out about social media’s harmful effects on society

Mr. Palihapitiya said he felt "tremendous guilt" about his own part in this because he believed he and his former colleagues "kind of knew something bad would happen." He is not alone in feeling guilty. Facebook's first president, Sean Parker, has talked in similar terms. Another early employee told Vanity Fair, "Most of the early employees I know are totally overwhelmed by what this thing has become. They look at the role Facebook now plays in society … and they have this sort of 'Oh my God, what have I done' moment."

True, in recent months Facebook has scrambled to respond to all this recrimination. On Sept. 21, for example, Mr. Zuckerberg pledged to work "pro-actively to strengthen the democratic process." Facebook would require that all political ads disclose which page paid for them and ensure that each ad is accessible to everyone. Later last year, he announced plans to clamp down on "bad content and bad actors" by doubling the number of employees and contractors who handle safety and security issues to 20,000 by the end of 2018. And just last week, he announced an overhaul of the News Feed to prioritize "meaningful interaction" between users over the kind of media-generated content that advertisers like.

But if you think this kind of self-regulation is going to fix democracy's social-media problem, then I have a bridge to sell you. For one thing, it would take at least an order of magnitude more people to achieve meaningful monitoring of the vast amount of content that Facebook's two billion-plus users produce and share every day. For another, none of this alters the company's fundamental business model, which is to sell advertisers the precision targeting that Facebook's user data allows. Political advertising may henceforth be identified as such, in the way that it is on television. But just how much less effective will that make it?

Google says it will curate its "News" search results more carefully, to rank established newspaper sites above bulletin boards such as 4chan or Reddit, which are favourite channels for alt-right content. Anyone who thinks that will stop people reading fake news hasn't found the "scroll down" button on their keyboard.



A new kind of politics

The reality is, no matter how Facebook, Google and Twitter tweak their algorithms, a new kind of politics has been born. It can no more be unborn than the new kind of politics born when television revealed how much better-looking John F. Kennedy was than sweaty Richard Nixon, with his five o'clock shadow. Or how easily Lyndon Johnson could make Barry Goldwater seem like a man who wanted to drop atomic bombs on little children.

There are now two kinds of politicians in this world: the kind that know how to use social media as a campaign tool and the ones who lose elections. All over the world, the distinction is clear. The populists of the right and of the left understand the power of social media. The moderates who occupy the centre ground, with few exceptions – Justin "Selfie" Trudeau is one of them – are still playing by 1990s rules.

Among the few indicators that Mr. Trump had a good chance of beating Ms. Clinton were his enormous leads on Facebook and Twitter throughout the 2016 campaign. Applying similar metrics around the world yields startling results. Take Britain, for example. The Leave campaign's victory in the 2016 referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union owed a great deal to its pioneering use of Facebook advertising. Yet the principal political beneficiary of Brexit – the woman who became prime minister shortly after the referendum, Theresa May – is a social-media loser, with little more than half a million Facebook followers and even less on Twitter. By comparison, the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn – a grizzled populist of the left in the style of Bernie Sanders – has 1.3 million followers on Facebook followers and 1.7 million on Twitter (numbers as of Jan. 18). No other British politician comes close. Boris Johnson is often mentioned in the same breath as Mr. Trump, but all the two men really have in common is big hair. Mr. Corbyn has four times more Twitter followers than "BoJo."



Britain has no election scheduled for 2018 – although it is possible Ms. May's woefully weak government could fall as the economic costs of Brexit make themselves felt and the harsh realities of the EU's divorce terms become apparent. Elsewhere, however, electorates are preparing to vote in general elections, notably in Brazil, Colombia, Italy and Mexico. These contests will give us a chance to see how far the new politics has spread.

Start with Brazil, a country whose political elite has been battered by corruption scandals that led to the impeachment of the Workers' Party President Dilma Rouseff and probably disqualify her predecessor, Luiz Lula da Silva, from running this year. But who cares? Lula has three million Facebook followers and just 189,000 Twitter followers. Far ahead of him on social media is Luciano Huck, the entrepreneur and television star, host of the hugely popular Saturday night TV show Caldeirao do Huck. With 17 million Facebook followers and nearly 13 million on Twitter, Mr. Huck is in a league of his own in Brazilian politics.

A Huck candidacy would be the Brazilian equivalent of Oprah Winfrey (FB 11.6m, TW 41.4m) running for president in 2020. He is not a populist; he's just popular. In second place, however, comes Jair Bolsonaro (FB 5m, TW 0.8m), the former army parachutist whose political positions make Mr. Trump seem like a lily-livered liberal. Mr. Bolsonaro is an unabashed defender of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. Name any politically incorrect position; Mr. Bolsonaro has taken it. "I would never rape you," he once told a female politician, "because you do not deserve it."



Italian politics was in many ways the experimental laboratory for the kind of candidate who combines wealth and celebrity with political incorrectness. Silvio Berlusconi has claimed, not without justification, to have been the prototype Trump. Despite a criminal conviction, Mr. Berlusconi is still a political player, though more of a kingmaker than a candidate these days. Yet he is behind the times (FB 1m, TW 19,300). The King of Twitter in Italy is former prime minister Matteo Renzi (FB 1.1m, TW 3.34m), although on Facebook he trails the populists: the two Five Star Movement leaders, Beppe Grillo (FB 1.9m, TW 2.5m) and Luigi di Maio (FB 1.1m, TW 0.3m), as well as the Northern League leader Matteo Salvini (FB 1.9m, TW 0.6m).



In Mexico, the best-known populist – Andrés Manuel López Obrador, universally known by his initials as "AMLO" – is a man of the left. On social media (FB 2.3m, TW 3.5m), AMLO is far ahead of the likely PRI nominee José Antonio Meade (FB 0.3m, TW 1m) and his PAN (National Action Party) counterpart Ricardo Anaya Cortes (FB 0.9m, TW 0.4m). True, AMLO is not the most followed Mexican politician: Rafael Moreno Valle, the former governor of Puebla, is now neck-and-neck with him on Facebook. Only just behind AMLO on Twitter is the mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera. But neither Moreno Valle nor Mancera is going to be a presidential candidate.



Politics on Colombian social media also leans left. There, the leading figure is Gustavo Petro (FB 0.9m, TW 2.8m), the former mayor of Bogotá, who as a young man belonged to the guerrilla group the 19th of April Movement and who made his political reputation as an opponent of the conservative presidency of Álvaro Uribe.

The inescapable threat

It used to be that all politics was local. Today, perhaps, all politics is becoming social, in that social media have emerged as the crucial battleground of modern elections. Just a few years ago, that would have seemed like a good idea. What could be more democratic, after all, than enabling politicians to communicate their messages directly to individual voters, and to hear back from them in real time? The only thing to worry about was whether or not online speech was truly free – the core preoccupation of Freedom House's annual "Freedom on the Net" survey.

But what if the biggest threat to democracy is not online censorship or surveillance, but the near-total absence of regulation of politics on social media? The public is beginning to sense this. A new Gallup-Knight survey, published last week, revealed that 57 per cent of Americans think that the way sites choose which stories to show to users presents "a major problem" for democracy. Just less than half of those interviewed favoured regulation of how the network platforms provide news.

The difficulty is knowing what form regulation should take. As Sam Lessin – another former Facebooker – has argued, the real transformation of the public sphere is that a candidate "can for the first time effectively talk to each individual voter privately in their own home and tell them exactly what they want to hear … in a way that can't be tracked or audited."

Forget fake news, Mr. Lessin argues. Forget the "feed bubbles" and "echo chambers" that have dominated the discussion in the United States. The real challenge is not that the public sphere has grown polarized. The challenge is that it has been so fragmented by misnamed social media that it is no longer a single public sphere.

"It has been a foregone conclusion for a long time," Mr. Lessin concludes, doubtless remembering the inspirational Zuckerberg speeches of the pre-2016 era, "that the internet has been a vehicle for moving us toward speaking one common language and being able to work together to solve the great problems of our era. … The sad reality is that the most exciting attempt to bring our world together is putting us at risk of not being able to trust what we see or hear" – but (and this is the point he missed) voting for the most engaging candidate anyway.

Hit "esc" all you like. This is the real – and inescapable – threat facing every democracy today.

 

 

Rages, scandal, chaos: it’s a normal White House

 The shape of Trump's tenure is not unique; just look at Clinton's first year

"Once Trump came into the Oval Office with a newspaper folded into quarters showing some story based on a leak from the White House. 'What the f*** is this?' Trump had shouted. Presidential flare-ups were common enough, but Trump often would not let an incident go, roaring on for too long before calming down."

"A joke among Trump's aides was that it was better to f*** up really big rather than have a series of daily minor mistakes, since Trump identified with the celebrated, all-points f***-up."

"The White House problems . . . were organisation and discipline. The staff was too often like a soccer league of 10-year-olds."

You are probably thinking - and I really don't blame you - that you have read more than enough about Michael Wolff's explosive bestselling book Fire and Fury, the core thesis of which (that President Donald Trump is a retarded man-child) received fresh support last week from the president's own potty mouth and Twitter feed.

In fact, all three of those quotations are taken from another book about another president's first year in office - The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, which Bob Woodward published in 1994. I just changed the president's surname.

A recurrent theme of The Agenda is Bill Clinton's explosively bad temper. His press spokesman George Stephanopoulos told Woodward that "he had seen and experienced Clinton's temper tantrums . . . many times . . . Others called them 'purple fits' or 'earthquakes'. Stephanopoulos simply called it 'the wave', an overpowering, prolonged rage that would shock an outsider and often was way out of proportion to what caused it."

We know from Wolff that Trump is also capable of "rages".

"Typically these would begin as a kind of exaggeration or acting and then devolve into the real thing: uncontrollable, vein-popping, ugly-face, tantrum stuff. It got primal."

And: "At points on the day's spectrum of adverse political developments, he could have moments of, almost everyone would admit, irrationality. When that happened he was alone in his anger and not approachable by anyone." This, writes Wolff, was Trump's "fundamental innovation in governing: regular, uncontrolled bursts of anger and spleen". Nope. Twitter hadn't been invented in 1993 so Clinton's outbursts were confined to his inner circle.

My point is not that Clinton is like Trump, of course. My point is that the presidency will infuriate even the best of men. Show me a presidential biography and I'll show you - with a few notable exceptions - eruptions of fury. Yet each presidential biographer makes the mistake of presenting this as a significant character trait of his subject, rather than appreciating that it's structural: the job is inherently maddening.

So let's leave aside personality for a moment and consider a structural interpretation of the past 12 months. I submit that most presidencies have the following characteristics in the first year. The White House operates much like a royal court in the time of Shakespeare - an analogy suggested to Wolff by Steve Bannon, but not a new one. The president is the focal point; access to him is power.

In his first 12 months, however, he is a powerful novice. Those he appoints to key positions are also often new to government. The other branches of government - Congress, the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve - operate according to different rules. The president needs to work with them or at least to avoid their opposition. But to do that he needs experienced insiders, not his campaign sidekicks.

Meanwhile, the press exists in a symbiotic relationship with the government, needing the news it generates, communicating its actions to the voters who elected it, but also seeking to shape those actions by the stories it publishes. Somewhere out there, too, are the other governments of the world, sizing up the new guy.

Irrespective of the president's personality, the Clinton and Trump administrations had the following five traits in common during year one:
" a painful transition in personnel from campaign people to Beltway operators
" because of poor co-operation with Congress, failure over healthcare reform and narrowly won success over taxation (hikes for Clinton, cuts for Trump)
" a fixation on a particular financial market as a metric of success (the bond market for Clinton, the stock market for Trump)
" excessive involvement of family members in policy-making (Hillary/"Javanka")
" lousy press coverage.

In other words, Wolff could have written Woodward's book and vice versa.

Indeed, Wolff could have made the events narrated by Woodward sound so much worse. James Carville, Clinton's campaign manager, was dating Mary Matalin, a Republican spokeswoman who called Clinton "a philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger". Zoë Baird, Clinton's nominee for attorney-general, had to withdraw because of tax evasion. Not only did the first lady play an absurdly large role in formulating healthcare policy; Clinton even put a relative in charge of the White House travel office. Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel and an intimate friend of the Clintons, shot himself dead in a Virginia park six months after the inauguration. Now that's what I call fire and fury.

As for Trump and the media, we've seen the movie before. Things were so bad in 1993 that Hillary tried to move the press out of the White House into the Old Executive Office Building. Just as Trump jettisoned Sean Spicer, so Clinton sidelined Stephanopoulos. In neither case did the press coverage improve. Still to come in Clinton's case were David Hale's revelations about Whitewater and the allegations about the president's liaisons with Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Juanita Broaddrick. Still to come was the Chinese attempt to meddle in US elections (the Russians have taken over that role).

Context matters, as well as structure. Another reason the Clinton and Trump White Houses resembled one another in year one was that neither had to contend with a crisis as big as George W Bush (9/11) and Barack Obama (the financial crisis).

I know what you're thinking. Trump is crass. Clinton is charming. Trump doesn't read. Clinton was a Rhodes scholar. Trump is a racist. Clinton's best buddy was Vernon Jordan, a former civil rights lawyer. All true. But does any of that really matter in terms of historical outcomes?

How, after all, did the Clinton era unfold after its first, chaotic year? The president's party lost control of the House of Representatives in year two. He still got re-elected but - as scandal after scandal surfaced - the other side impeached him, although he survived and, with the economy booming, even saw his approval rating rise.

I cannot guarantee Trump's fate will be identical to Clinton's. But what makes you so sure it won't be the same old Shakespearean drama - just with a different cast?


Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

In Praise of Hierarchy

 Established, traditional order is under assault from freewheeling, networked disrupters as never before. But society craves centralized leadership, too.

ILLUSTRATION: PETER OUMANSKI

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we now live in a networked world, where everyone and everything are connected. The corollary is that traditional hierarchical structures—not only states, but also churches, parties, and corporations—are in various states of crisis and decline. Disruption, disintermediation, and decentralization are the orders of the day. Hierarchy is at a discount, if not despised.

Networks rule not only in the realm of business. In politics, too, party establishments and their machines have been displaced by crowdfunded campaigns and viral messaging. Money, once a monopoly of the state, is being challenged by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which require no central banks to manage them, only consensus algorithms.

But is all this wise? In all the excitement of the age of hyper-connection, have we perhaps forgotten why hierarchies came into existence in the first place? Do we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure?

True, few dare shed tears for yesterday’s hierarchies. Some Anglophile viewers of “The Crown” may thrill at the quaint stratification of Elizabeth II’s England, but the nearest approximations to royalty in America have lately been shorn of their gilt and glamour. Political dynasties of the recent past have been effaced, if not humiliated, by the upstart Donald Trump, while Hollywood’s elite of exploitative men is in disarray. The spirit of the age is revolutionary; the networked crowd yearns to “smack down” or “shame” each and every authority figure.

Nevertheless, recent events have called into question the notion that all will be for the best in the most networked of all possible worlds. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter , told the New York Times last May. “I was wrong about that.”

Far from being a utopia in which we all become equally empowered “netizens,” free to tweet truth to power, cyberspace has mutated into a nightmare realm of ideological polarization, extreme views and fake news. The year 2016 was the annus horribilis of the liberal internet, the year when the network platforms built in Silicon Valley were used not only by Donald Trump’s election campaign but also by the proponents of “Brexit” in the United Kingdom to ends that appalled their creators. In 2017, research (including some by Facebook itself) revealed the psychological harm inflicted by social media on young people, who become addicted to the network platforms’ incessant, targeted stimuli.

The printing press helped build a network that bolstered Martin Luther’s leadership of the 16th-century Protestant Refomation challenging the established Catholic Church PHOTO: STOCK MONTAGE/GETTY IMAGES

The printing press helped build a network that bolstered Martin Luther’s leadership of the 16th-century Protestant Refomation challenging the established Catholic Church PHOTO: STOCK MONTAGE/GETTY IMAGES

Most alarming was the morphing of cyberspace into Cyberia, not to mention the Cyber-caliphate: a dark and lawless realm where malevolent actors ranging from Russian trolls to pro-ISIS Twitter users could work with impunity to subvert the institutional foundations of democracy. As Henry Kissinger has rightly observed, the internet has re-created the human state of nature depicted by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where there rages a war “of every man against every man” and life (like so many political tweets) is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

We should not be surprised. Neither history nor science predicted that everything would be awesome in a world of giant, online networks—quite the contrary. And now that it becomes clear that a networked world may be an anarchic world, we begin to see—as previous generations saw—the benefits of hierarchy.

The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek (hierarchia, literally the “rule of a high priest”) and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels and, more generally, to characterize a stratified order of spiritual or temporal governance. Up until the 16th century, by contrast, the word “network” signified nothing more than a woven mesh made of interlaced thread.

 

‘Unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world.’

 

For most of history, hierarchies dominated social networks, a relationship exemplified by the looming Gothic tower that overshadows the Tuscan town of Siena’s central piazza. This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control and communication. Historically, they began with family-based clans and tribes, out of which more complicated and stratified institutions evolved: states, churches, corporations, empires.

The crucial incentive that favored hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient. Centralizing control in the hands of the “big man” eliminated or at least reduced time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might at any time escalate into internecine conflict. The obvious defect of hierarchy—in the mid-19th century words of Lord Acton, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—was not by itself sufficient to turn humanity away from the rule of “big men.”

There have been only two eras of enhanced connectedness, when new technology helped social networks gain the upper hand. The second is our own age. The first began almost exactly half a millennium ago, in 1517, and lasted for the better part of three centuries.

When the printing press empowered Martin Luther’s heresy, a network was born. Luther’s dream was of a “priesthood of all believers.” The actual result of the Reformation he inspired was not harmony, but 130 years of polarization and conflict. But it proved impossible to kill Protestant networks, even with mass executions. Hierarchy had to be restored in the form of the princely states whose power the Peace of Westphalia affirmed, but this restoration was fleeting.

Like the Reformation, the 18th-century Enlightenment was a network-driven phenomenon that challenged established authority. The amazing thing was how much further the tendrils of the Enlightenment extended: as far afield as Voltaire’s global network of correspondents, and into the depths of Bavaria, where the secret network known as the Illuminati was founded in 1776.

In Britain’s American colonies, Freemasonry was a key network that connected many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and the crucial “node” in the New England revolutionary network, Paul Revere. At the same time, the American revolutionaries—Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette—had all kinds of connections to France, land of the philosophes. The problem in France was that the ideas that went viral were not just “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but also the principle that terror was justifiable against enemies of the people. The result was a descent into bloody anarchy.

Ambassadors attending the Congress of Vienna in 1815 reset hierarchical order in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars.

Ambassadors attending the Congress of Vienna in 1815 reset hierarchical order in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. PHOTO: UIG/GETTY IMAGES

Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and early 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to relearn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy. At the Congress of Vienna, the five great powers who defeated Napoleon agreed to establish such an order, and the “pentarchy” they formed provided a remarkable stability over the century that followed.

Just over 200 years later, we confront a similar dilemma. Those who favor a revolutionary world run by networks will end up not with the interconnected utopia of their dreams but with Hobbes’s state of nature, in which malign actors exploit opportunities to spread virus-like memes and mendacities. Worse, they may end up entrenching a new but unaccountable hierarchy. For here is a truth that is too often glossed over by the proponents of networked governance: Many networks are hierarchically structured.

Nothing illustrates this better than the way the internet has evolved from being an authentically distributed, decentralized network into one dominated by a few giant technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google—the so-called FANGs. This new hierarchy is motivated primarily by the desire to sell—above all, to sell the data that their users provide. Dominance of online advertising by Alphabet and Facebook, coupled with immunity from civil liability under legislation dating back to the 1990s, have create an extraordinary state of affairs. The biggest content publishers in history are regulated as if they are mere technology startups; they are a new hierarchy extracting rent from the network.

The effects are pernicious. According to the Pew Research Center, close to half of Americans now get their news from Facebook, whose incentive is to promote news that holds the attention of users, regardless of whether it is true or false, researched by professional journalists or cooked up by Russian trolls. Established publishers—and parties—were too powerful for too long, but is it really a better world if there are no authorities to separate real news from fake, or decent political candidates from rogues? The old public sphere had its defects, but the new one has no effective gatekeepers, so the advantage now lies not with leaders but with misleaders.

The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the threat posed by Cyberia, where jihadism and criminality flourish alongside cyberwarfare, to say nothing of nuclear proliferation. Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy, despite its gridlocked condition throughout the Cold War.

It is easy to be dismissive of the UNSC. Nevertheless, whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the 19th century, is a great geopolitical question of our time. The hierarchical Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about a “new model of great power relations,” and it may be that the North Korean missile crisis will bring forth this new model. But the crucial point is that the North Korean threat cannot be removed by the action of networks. A Facebook group can no more solve it than a tweet storm or a hashtag.

Our age may venerate online networks, to the extent of making a company such as Facebook one of the most valuable in the world. Yet there is a reason why armies have commanding officers. There is a reason why orchestras have conductors. There is a reason why, at great universities, the lecturers are not howled down by social justice warriors. And there is a reason why the last great experiment in networked organization—the one that began with the Reformation—ended, eventually, with a restoration of hierarchy.

There is hope for hierarchies yet. “The Crown” is not mere fiction; the hierarchy of the monarchy has continued to elevate the head of the British state above party politics. In a similar way, the papacy remains an object of authority and veneration, despite the tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church. Revolutions repeatedly sweep the countries of the Middle East, yet the monarchies of the region have been the most stable regimes.

Netflix’s popular ‘The Crown,’ starring Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, attests to fascination with the modern British monarchy and its continued stabilizing influence.

Netflix’s popular ‘The Crown,’ starring Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, attests to fascination with the modern British monarchy and its continued stabilizing influence. PHOTO: NETFLIX/EVERETT COLLECTION


Even in the U.S., ground zero for disruptive networks, there still is respect for hierarchical institutions. True, just 32% of Americans still have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency and 12% feel that way about Congress. But for the military the equivalent percentage is 72% (up from 50% in 1981), for the police it is 57%, for churches 41%, and for the Supreme Court 40%. By comparison, just 16% of Americans have confidence in news on the internet.

We humans have been designed by evolution to network—man is a social animal, of course—but history has taught us to revere hierarchy as preferable to anarchy, and to prefer time-honored hierarchs to upstart usurpers.

Mr. Ferguson’s new book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook,” will be published by Penguin Press on Jan. 16.

Filter By
Publication Name
325 Article Results