“He was no whit more respectful or mild towards the senate, allowing some who had held the highest offices to run in their togas for several miles beside his chariot and to wait on him at table, standing napkin in hand either at the head of his couch, or at his feet”— Suetonius on Caligula in The Lives of the Caesars.
It will take a historian with Suetonius’s eye for grotesque detail to do full justice to the presidents of the late American republic when the time comes to chronicle its decline and fall. Readers will need to know the erotic adventures of Bill Clinton’s cigar fully to appreciate the self-indulgence of his reign. They will struggle to grasp the recklessness of the invasion of Iraq if they are not told how George W Bush was manipulated by his vice-president and defence secretary.
And they will miss the fatal flaw of Barack Obama’s presidency if they are not given a sense of his chilly aloofness — his thinly veiled contempt for those voters who “get bitter [and] cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”.
It will certainly not be for his magnanimity or contrition that Donald Trump — the man those very voters helped elect in 2016 — will be remembered. No sooner had he been acquitted by the Senate of the charges brought against him by the House of Representatives than Trump let rip against all those he held responsible for his impeachment.
“It was evil, it was corrupt, it was dirty cops, it was leakers, it was liars,” the president said on Thursday morning at what he called a “celebration” of his acquittal. James Comey, the former FBI director fired by Trump, had been “a disaster”. Robert Mueller’s investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election was “all bullshit”. Adam Schiff, the Democrat who managed the impeachment process, was “a vicious, horrible person”.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was also “horrible”. Mitt Romney — the only Republican senator to find Trump guilty in last week’s vote — was “a failed presidential candidate”. Those present, including leading Republican legislators, cheered this rant to the rafters, napkins in hand.
I dwell on these details because they are characteristic of the atmosphere today in Washington. According to CBS News, Republican senators had been warned: “Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.” The Democratic senator for Ohio, Sherrod Brown, wrote a column in The New York Times headlined: “In private, Republicans admit they acquitted Trump out of fear.” I have a different theory. I believe they acquitted him because they see his re-election as all but certain.
Richard Nixon was forced to resign before it even came to impeachment because polling made clear to the Republican leadership in Congress that he was irreparably damaged in the eyes of voters. In any case, Nixon was already in his second term. The Democrats should have saved impeachment for next year.
Right now, by contrast, Trump is on track for four more years. Those economists who have spent the past three years predicting a recession — dubbed the “Armageddonists” by JP Morgan — look foolish. According to Gallup, 63% of Americans now approve of the way Trump is handling the economy — the highest economic approval for any president since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Among Republicans, Trump has a stratospheric 94% approval rating. With independents he is on 42%.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, the president’s political rivals made the biggest possible mess of the first of the steps they must take to select a candidate to run against him in November. Caucuses are an archaic procedure, but there is nothing wrong with that. The fatal mistake was to introduce smartphone apps into the process. If you’re going to do things the old-fashioned way, stick with paper and pencil.
What has Iowa told us, except that, despite all those millions of dollars of donations from Silicon Valley, the Democratic Party still sucks at technology?
First, Bernie Sanders is the real frontrunner, not Joe Biden, whose campaign is in disarray (the fate that usually befalls early Democratic frontrunners).
Second, if there is to be a dark horse in this race, it will be Pete Buttigieg, the youthful, brainy and gay former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Third, not being involved in Iowa or the other early races may not significantly dent the strategy of Mike Bloomberg to spend his way to the nomination.
Perhaps most importantly, Iowa reminded us how easily close races in American politics can descend into farce and acrimony. I emphasise this because the eventual Democratic nominee will have — contrary to the conventional wisdom that currently prevails in Davos, Aspen, Manhattan and Silicon Valley — at least some chance of beating Trump.
Three of the past five US general elections (2000, 2004 and 2016) have been close — decided by very narrow margins in the electoral college. If (as seems likely) Trump holds on to the bulk of the “Sun Belt” — the band of states stretching from the southeast to the southwest — then this year’s election will once again hinge on Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Here’s Trump’s problem. In these key swing states, between 44% and 49% of 2018 mid-term voters named healthcare as their top issue. Three-quarters of those who did so voted for the Democrats. This isn’t so surprising when you discover that, since January 2017, the inflation-adjusted increase in employee contributions to family health insurance plans has been 24% in Michigan and 30% in Wisconsin.
On this subject, Republicans have no good story to tell. They failed to repeal and replace Obamacare. Now they are held responsible for its “implosion” — Trump’s ill-chosen word back in 2017. Four years ago, voters blamed Democrats for problems with Obamacare by 66% to 23%. Today 61% blame Republicans; only 32% Democrats.
Yes, the economy has been strong under Trump (although it has not added more jobs than in Obama’s last three years). True, no postwar president has lost re-election with unemployment below 7%. And I agree: real median household wages are up — by $2,228 (£1,700) in 2019. But higher health insurance premiums ate a third of that gain, and the trade war another third.
Even in only four years, those three key states have seen demographic changes that are bad for Republicans, shaving the number of white voters without a college degree by about 2 percentage points. So it will be close. Even if they nominate Bernie, it will be close.
Would a Democratic win halt the republic’s seemingly inexorable Roman-style slide towards empire? I doubt it — especially if the general election result is as close as that of 2000. Imagine Iowa writ large. Imagine Mayor Pete again claiming victory before the results are in. Imagine Trump’s reaction. Imagine his party’s reaction (think napkins).
Imagine mayhem — the invariable prelude to empire.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Do you smoke cigarettes, despite knowing the risk that the habit will give you cancer? Do you drive after drinking alcohol, despite being aware that it is both dangerous and unlawful? Do you give speeches about climate change at international conferences, having flown there by private jet? Do you ever sit in a big black car in a traffic jam, when you could quite easily have walked, despite knowing that this, too, is adding yet more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere?
The term “cognitive dissonance” was coined by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger. In his seminal 1957 book on the subject, however, Festinger argued that “in the presence of an inconsistency there is psychological discomfort” and that therefore “the existence of [cognitive] dissonance . . . will motivate the [affected] person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance”. Moreover, “when dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance”.
My own observations of the human species strongly suggest otherwise. On the contrary, I see all around me — as well as throughout history — countless people not merely comfortable with cognitive dissonance but positively flocking towards situations that increase it.
Take the World Economic Forum (WEF), the gathering of billionaires, millionaires, world leaders, do-gooders, busybodies and journalists that takes place each January in the Swiss resort of Davos. The overwhelming majority of people attending this year’s conference would, I have no doubt, affirm their commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions to avert catastrophic climate change, even while on board their Gulfstreams and in their Range Rovers.
I doubt if a single chief executive present at the WEF last week would dare publicly to challenge the view that a modern corporation should rigorously measure and regulate its behaviour in terms of its environmental and social impact, as well as its quality of governance (ESG, for short). As the US Business Roundtable declared last August, firms must now be run not only for the benefit of their shareholders but also for all their “stakeholders”: customers, employees, suppliers and communities. Milton Friedman is dead. Long live Klaus Schwab — founder of the WEF — who pioneered this notion of stakeholder capitalism.
“ESG-omania” (or “ESG-apism”) meant Davos 2020 was an orgy of virtue-signalling on climate change and diversity. To walk down Davos Promenade, the main drag, was to run a gauntlet of uplifting corporate slogans: “Sustainable solutions for Earth, for life”; “A cohesive and sustainable world starts with data”; “Let’s bring sea level and C-level together”.
Each year the WEF’s global risks report tells us what the business elite is most worried about. Ten years ago, the top five risks were “Asset price collapse”, “China economic slowdown”, “Chronic disease”, “Fiscal crises” and “Global governance gaps”. This year? “Extreme weather”, “Climate action failure”, “Natural disasters”, “Biodiversity loss” and “Human-made environmental disasters”.
In this green new world, Davos Man must now prostrate himself before Stockholm Girl: 17-year-old Greta Thunberg, who delivered her latest tirade on Tuesday morning. “We don’t need a ‘low-carbon economy,’ ” she declared. “We don’t need to ‘lower emissions’. Our emissions have to stop. Any plan or policy of yours that doesn’t include radical emission cuts at the source, starting today, is completely insufficient.” She demanded that all participants “immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction”.
The only public objection came from the US Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin. “Who is she — the chief economist?” he asked. “After she goes and studies economics in college she can come back and explain that to us.” Such blasphemy!
Mnuchin’s boss was also present. Four years ago the very notion of Donald Trump was inconceivable at Davos. Three years ago people were stunned by his election. Two years ago they sniggered at him. Now Trump is treated with more respect — after all, he’s still president, impeachment will not lead to his removal and the Davos consensus is that he’ll get a second term. But the applause for the president’s speech was no more than polite and every European participant complained that it was aimed too much at the American electorate. (That made me laugh. Have they no clue what Trump’s campaign speeches are like?)
This is where you might think — if you had read Professor Festinger — that the cognitive dissonance would become unbearable. For privately, after a glass or two of wine, nine out of 10 business people I spoke to admitted that they thought Greta’s speech impossible and Trump’s not altogether bad.
The fact is that the American economy has been doing rather well under Trump — better, certainly, than its European counterpart. Everyone in business knows this. The latest US growth forecasts may point to a slowdown (from 2.3% last year to 2% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund), but that still beats the eurozone (from 1.2% to 1.3%) and Germany (from 0.5% to 1.1%).
As Trump said, in an uncharacteristically restrained speech, American consumer confidence is buoyant, the unemployment rate is the lowest in nearly half a century, taxes on business are down, as is regulation, and the stock market is at record highs. Since his election, the US economy has added nearly seven million jobs. Housebuilding has just hit a 13-year high. Most strikingly, earnings growth has been especially strong for less skilled, lower-paid and African-American workers.
For middle America, Trump’s populist policy mix — immigration restriction, tariffs, easy money and deficit finance — is delivering. In quiet corners of the Davos congress centre you could hear Europeans wishing they could have at least a piece of this American action — and complaining that Greta’s demand for “zero carbon now” was a recipe for zero growth.
Cognitive dissonance is often like this: you say one thing in public and another in private. It was once the basis of life in communist systems all over the world. It turns out to be something capitalists can do just as easily, with very little of the discomfort predicted by social psychology.
But be warned. It is not always the case that private thoughts are right and public ones wrong. If Davos Man has come around to Trump — enough to expect, if not quite to hope, for his re-election — it is no guarantee that he will win on November 3. If January 2016 is anything to go by, you should probably bet against the Davos consensus and have a flutter on Bernie Sanders.
In the same way, if it’s climate change the WEF-ers are most worried about, you should probably brace yourself for a coronavirus pandemic. Talking of cognitive dissonance, what the hell were we all doing at a massive global conference last week? Fact: at least three of the WEF attendees were from — you guessed it — Wuhan.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Cold wars make for odd couples. When Joseph Stalin met Mao Tse-tung in Moscow in December 1949, it wasn’t exactly a bromance. “I have only three tasks here,” Mao complained when the Soviet leader paid him next to no attention. “The first is to eat, the second is to sleep, the third is to shit!”
In the end, Mao got the Soviet backing his new People’s Republic desperately needed. But the price ended up being to fight the Korean War on Stalin’s behalf.
That particular odd couple ended up getting a divorce. By 1960, Mao and Nikita Khrushchev were openly criticising one another. By 1969, Soviet and Chinese troops were fighting a border war.
In this new Cold War, the odd couple consists of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. No two world leaders see one another more frequently. Xi has even called Putin his “best friend”. But compared with the 1950s, the roles have been reversed. China is now the giant, Russia the mean little sidekick. China under Xi remains strikingly faithful to the doctrine of Marx and Lenin. Russia under Putin has reverted to tsarism.
For America and its allies, this new odd couple is even more perplexing than Stalin and Mao. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was not difficult to discern the menace represented by Soviet power. Faced with a choice between Stalin or Harry Truman, Khrushchev or Dwight Eisenhower, most west European leaders didn’t think twice about taking the American side.
Today, however, the power of the People’s Republic of China is primarily economic rather than military. That makes it much harder to resist. Consequently, the Second Cold War has a number of features that make it quite different from the first Cold War.
The first is that America is so intertwined with China that experienced observers, such as the former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, argue that “decoupling” is a delusion. The entanglement is not just about trade and investment. It is also cultural. This year there are close to 370,000 Chinese students at American universities. The grand total of all the Soviet citizens who came to America under the 1958 cultural agreement was about 50,000 over 30 years.
The second big difference is that America’s traditional allies are much less eager to align themselves with Washington and against Beijing. This has become most apparent over Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, which is the world leader in 5G equipment. The US government is warning others not to buy Huawei kit. Yet only a handful of countries — step forward, Australia — have signed up for the boycott. Others, notably the British and German governments, are ducking and weaving (not least because no western competitor can match Huawei on price).
The Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously said that “software is eating the world”, meaning that the principal trend of the past 30 years has been for the programs of Microsoft, Apple and the rest to transform one sector of the economy after another.
But if software did the eating, the meal was cooked and served by hardware. Without Gordon Moore’s law — that the number of transistors on a computer microchip doubles about every two years — we should not have advanced from the crude word-processing programs, browsers and games of our 1990s desktops to the mind-blowingly powerful capabilities of our smartphones today. That is why the Second Cold War is much more a battle over hardware than anything else.
The illusion of the month is that anything significant was achieved with the signing of the “phase one” trade deal between America and China last Wednesday. In reality, the battlefield of the Second Cold War has shifted away from trade to technology.
It is not just that America is leaning on other governments to eschew Huawei’s hardware. It is also leaning on the world’s leading makers of semiconductors, such as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, not to sell their top-of-the-range chips to the Chinese. The same goes for companies selling chip-making machines, such as Holland’s ASML.
Moreover, there are other fronts in the new Cold War besides technology. A key battle is taking shape over capital flows, for example. The US government would like to reduce American investment in China. But the Chinese government is energetically wooing western banks and asset managers.
Then there is the monetary contest I wrote about in September. On the one side, America wishes to maintain an international financial system in which the US dollar is the dominant currency for trade and reserves. On the other, the Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent are rolling out electronic payment platforms superior to anything America has to offer, while the People’s Bank of China is about to launch a digital renminbi.
As the Second Cold War intensifies, the role that Russia can play is quite small. It is not a serious player in either hardware or software. And it is financially marginal: nobody wants roubles, because US sanctions have so effectively isolated the Russian economy.
What, then, does Putin bring to the table, apart from a great stockpile of mostly superannuated nuclear weapons and conventional military forces that have performed adequately but hardly brilliantly in Ukraine and Syria? The answer is an unrivalled talent for hybrid or information warfare.
Last weekend I paid my first visit to Taiwan, a fascinating island where one can see how Chinese history might have gone had the revolution of 1949 not succeeded. Spared the horrors and privations of Mao’s tyranny, the people of Taiwan have built a dynamic market economy and a vigorous liberal democracy.
Yet they are constantly menaced by Beijing, which refuses to acknowledge their de facto independence and thirsts to subordinate them to the Communist Party. The latest form this threat takes is a massive disinformation campaign on Taiwanese social media. It’s a campaign very obviously designed in Russia, assembled in China.
The Second Cold War will have more than one odd couple. If America is to succeed against China as it succeeded against the Soviet Union, Donald Trump — and his successor — must relearn the lessons of late 20th-century diplomacy. Allies matter, and frenemies are pretty good, too.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret flight to Beijing, which set in motion the opening of relations between America and China. It was the pivotal moment of the Cold War, exploiting the Sino-Soviet split by effectively aligning Washington and Beijing against Moscow.
The ultimate goal of American strategy in the 2020s must be to achieve a mirror image of that manoeuvre, driving Putin and Xi apart and drawing Russia into that western configuration which alone can save declining Russia from being swallowed up by rising China.
Donald and Vlad: no relationship has caused Trump more trouble. Will it ever reap a strategic reward? That might just be the Second Cold War’s crucial question.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
The aftermath of the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the mastermind of Tehran’s dirty wars, not only confirmed the weakness of the Iranian government. It also exposed the weakness of Donald Trump’s domestic opponents. The Iranians launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq that house American troops. No lives were lost because the strike appears to have been preceded by a warning to the Iraqi government. But, by mistake it seems, the Iranians also managed to shoot down a Ukrainian Boeing 737 as it took off from Tehran airport, killing all 176 people on board.
No doubt there will be more threats of retaliation. No doubt there will be more missiles fired. And no doubt there will be fewer passengers on planes to Tehran.
Meanwhile, the Democrats fired their metaphorical missiles at the president. They were no more accurate. The only difference was they did more damage to themselves than to any blameless bystanders.
“Innocent civilians are now dead because they were caught in the middle of an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat,” tweeted Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is still in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Joe Biden, who remains the frontrunner in the opinion polls, was not to be outdone. “Anything that Barack [Obama] and I did, [Trump]’s determined to undo,” Biden said during a speech at a private fundraiser in California. “This is the guy who said he wanted to end endless wars in the Middle East,” he went on. But “the end result . . . is we find ourselves more vulnerable”.
Very vulnerable. During a conference with other Democrats on Wednesday, Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar said “everything that is taking place” in the Middle East made her “feel ill”. She continued: “Every time I hear about . . . conversations around war, I find myself being stricken with PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder].” She later tweeted: “Trump is on the brink of dragging us into an endless war.”
On Thursday the House of Representatives approved a resolution that Trump must seek approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Announcing the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the killing of Soleimani “provocative and disproportionate”.
The Democrats have now had three years to figure out Trump and they still haven’t got it. Of course no one could predict with certainty how the Iranians would react to Soleimani’s killing. But what could be predicted was that Trump did not intend to start an “endless war”. On the contrary. I am not sure quite how the Democrats will react when, as I think likely, Trump simply accedes to the wish of the Iraqi government to withdraw the remaining US troops from Iraq and then blithely starts negotiations with Iran. So accustomed are Pelosi and co to accusing Republicans of being warmongers that they cannot fathom how Trump could first take out Soleimani and then take out his own troops.
Yet, as Walter Russell Mead explained in The Wall Street Journal, this is a quintessentially Jacksonian foreign policy move, in the spirit of Andrew Jackson, the president whom the former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon told his old boss to make his role model. Like his supporters in red-state America, Trump has no appetite for the “endless wars” they associate with George W Bush’s administration. But he and they also believe that the United States should retaliate against attacks on Americans. (Nawres Hamid, a naturalised US citizen, was killed by an Iranian-backed militia attack while working as an interpreter near Kirkuk on December 27.)
As Mead put it in his 2001 book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, a Jacksonian believes “that the most important goal of the US government in both foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and the economic wellbeing of the American people”. Neoconservative nation-building or liberal interventionism are not on the Jacksonian menu. It’s all about “Don’t tread on me” — the rattlesnake’s warning on the American Revolutionary War battle flag.
Since mid-2018 I have argued that Trump has an incentive to make Jacksonian foreign policy waves in an election year. It guarantees that he dominates the airwaves, depriving his Democratic rivals of the oxygen of media coverage. It also encourages the Democrats to sound like a bunch of wimps.
Yet there is another influence at work here, besides that of Jackson.
I am certainly not the first person to notice the influence of the Godfather films on the president. The former FBI director James Comey said in 2018 that Trump’s style gave him “a flashback to my days investigating the mafia”. Trump’s way of establishing a tie of loyalty to him, Comey has written, was “like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony — with Trump, in the role of the family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man’.” The jailed Trump lawyer Michael Cohen once described himself as the Trump Organisation’s Tom Hagen, the consigliere played by Robert Duvall in the Godfather films. The jailed Trump adviser Roger Stone once urged an associate who was supposed to testify against him to “do a Frank Pentangeli”.
Trump himself alluded to The Godfather, for example, when he mocked CNN anchor Chris Cuomo by calling him “Fredo” — a reference to the weakest of the Corleone sons. According to CBS, The Godfather is one of the president’s top three favourite movies — after Bloodsport and Goodfellas, and just ahead of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
After the lofty foreign policy doctrines of the past — from Monroe doctrine to the Reagan doctrine — the Corleone doctrine is hardly comme il faut. It is certainly no cause for glee that the most powerful man in the world should aspire to be a mafioso. Yet in the realm of realpolitik, there may be worse figures to imitate than Vito Corleone.
At the heart of Trump’s seemingly erratic approach to international relations are the dream of making Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an offer he can’t refuse; the fond wish to have Kim Jong-un sleep with the fishes; and the fantasy of leaving the severed head of his favourite horse in Xi Jinping’s bed. Trump’s admiration of Vladimir Putin rests on the Russian president’s distinctly Sicilian style.
I quite see why the Council on Foreign Relations deplores all this. But Democrats underestimate at their peril how well it plays in middle America. The Godfather is one of the most popular films of all time, and for good reasons. It is a tale of gangsters, of course — of crime and violence — but it is also one of the great family sagas. And, at its heart, The Godfather is about succession. We all know who the Don is: Donald. The big question is: who’s Michael?
The appearance of Donald Trump Jr’s book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list in November offered a hint. In the wake of the Iranian hit job, its title — Triggered — has a new significance.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford