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
As 2017 draws to a close, the world has seldom been so binary. You either love Donald Trump or you loathe him. You either adore Brexit or abhor it. This polarisation has been fostered by the giant online social networks of our time and the phenomenon that students of networks know as “homophily”. In plain English: birds of a feather flock together.
Facebook encourages you to like or not like what you see in your news feed. Twitter allows you to retweet or like other people’s tweets or block those users who offend your sensibilities. Pretty soon you are in a filter bubble inhabited exclusively by people who share your view of the world. The result is a paradise not just for fake news but also for extreme views.
In the wake of the exposure of Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator, shrill voices insist all men are potential rapists. Since the death of a (white) protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, other zealots insist all white people are racists. White men must therefore be racist rapists. Dare to dissent from this new doctrine and you will only confirm the hypothesis — because you would say that, wouldn’t you, if you were a racist rapist.
In this binary world, there is not much room for ambivalence. I have had a tough time this year explaining even to friends why I can like some aspects of the Trump administration while at the same time disliking others. And I wish I’d had a bitcoin for every time someone has complained that my position on Brexit has flip-flopped. No: I’m just ambivalent.
I had a great deal of sympathy last year with those voters who expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo by voting for Brexit or Trump. But I was also keenly aware there would be significant difficulties with both these populist ventures, as has indeed proved to be the case. This was not flip-flopping. This was what used to be known, in a bygone era, as nuance.
A good occasion for more ambivalence is the Trump administration’s new national security strategy (NSS), published last week. As usual, there were plenty of commentators ready to denounce it and to predict the imminent end of days, similar to the calamities supposed to follow the ending of net neutrality — the policy requiring internet service providers to treat all data equally — and the passage of the Republican tax cuts. In reality, this new NSS is a great improvement on the last administration’s essays in “strategic patience”.
Gone are the highfalutin but vacuous proclamations of virtue that were Barack Obama’s presidential signature tune. Instead we have a muscular and unambiguous identification of the principal threats to America and a clear commitment to meet those threats by force if necessary.
The idea that this document will destroy the “liberal international order” supposedly established in 1945 and unleash the Third World War is absurd. On the contrary, it was high time to call out China, which has become increasingly brazen in its assertion of power, not only in the South China Sea but further afield too.
This was Obama’s 2015 NSS: “The scope of our co-operation with China is unprecedented . . . The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful and prosperous China. We seek to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world. We seek co-operation on shared regional and global challenges . . . While there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation.”
Compare and contrast with the 2017 edition: “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favour . . . China gathers and exploits data on an unrivalled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance.
“It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying . . . China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.”
I know which I prefer. I also agree wholeheartedly that it was naive to assume — as the past three administrations tended to — that including Russia and China “in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners”.
A new report on China’s “sharp power” by the National Endowment for Democracy shows just how wrong this was.
Those who worry about the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin last year ought to welcome the NSS’s tough talk about Russia. Those who feared Trump would terminate Nato should be reassured.
My concern about the NSS is simply that it is a fundamentally old-fashioned document. Its main preoccupations are with threats posed by established nation states — China, Russia, North Korea, Iran — to America and its allies. The document says much less about the new threats that all nation states now face.
Earlier this year I participated in an eye-opening conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, California, convened by the former secretary of state George Shultz. At the age of 97, Shultz remains astonishingly forward-looking. As he argues, cyber-warfare has the potential to disrupt vital infrastructure without warning. A new strain of influenza could devastate the world’s population with astonishing speed. Nano-technology could fundamentally alter the calculus of conflict by threatening conventional forces with overwhelming swarms of hostile devices.
Climate change is conventionally cited as the principal common danger facing all the world’s states. But it is only one of a number of such dangers and by no means the most proximate. The new NSS alludes to some of these threats, but it does not make clear how America is going to combat them. Coming in the wake of a tax bill that significantly reduces the federal government’s tax base for the foreseeable future, the NSS can make only vague commitments to increase expenditure on national security.
The new NSS is therefore just another aspect of Trump’s administration about which it is right to feel ambivalent. It’s an improvement on the bromides of the Obama era. But it falls a long way short of explaining how America can be made great again.
As the authors of NSS 2017 note, however: “China, Russia and other state and non-state actors recognise that the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either ‘at peace’ or ‘at war’, when it is actually an arena of continuous competition.”
This insight applies equally well in the realm of domestic politics, where binary thinking is the enemy of rigorous thought.
And if you like only parts of what I’ve just told you, that’s just fine with me.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)
Each of us decides, at some point in our lives, which dramatic genre we inhabit. Is your life a tragedy? A comedy? As an academic, I aspire to live my life as a rather exalted BBC documentary, but somehow it always gravitates back to sitcom. I have friends who shoot for Hollywood costume drama but inevitably wind up in low-budget soap opera.
Some American presidencies have been authentic tragedies: certainly John F Kennedy’s. Indeed it would take an Aeschylus to do full justice to the Kennedy family’s version of The Oresteia. Other presidencies have been more comic: Aristophanes would have enjoyed Bill Clinton’s tenure, not least because Clinton had the genially bawdy personality that the Athenian playwright liked to give his heroes.
With good reason, Henry Kissinger quoted Shakespeare at Richard Nixon’s funeral, for Nixon’s self-destruction was an authentically Shakespearean tragedy. But what will Donald Trump’s presidency turn out to be? If you believe the prophets of US tyranny, it is already a tragedy — a ghastly combination of Coriolanus, Macbeth and Richard III. I’ll take the other side. This, my friends, is a comedy. It may even be a full-blown farce.
Last week’s special election in Alabama verged on slapstick. Having failed to prevent Roy Moore from becoming the Republican candidate for the Senate seat vacated by attorney-general Jeff Sessions, Trump also failed to get Moore elected — in a state that is about the reddest of the red. In the month before the vote, a succession of women came forward to accuse Moore of having sexually assaulted or at least harassed them when they were in their teens. One was just 14 at the time. Yet Trump, urged on by his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, backed Moore.
The high point of the comedy for me was Moore’s cowboy-style arrival at his polling station on horseback, but there were other sublime scenes: the moment his wife cited as evidence of their enlightened outlook the fact that one of their lawyers “is a Jew”; or when a supporter admitted that he and Moore had once visited a brothel while serving in Vietnam, though of course they had not tarried once they realised the girls were “young . . . probably very young”.
Earlier this year I suggested that the half-life of populism might be as short as 12 months. As we approach the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration as president next month, I realise I should have said 11.
True, the US economy continues its extraordinarily prolonged post-financial-crisis expansion. Growth for this last quarter of the year is estimated by the Atlanta Federal Reserve to be 3.3%; the New York Fed says almost 4%. As Trump reminds his Twitter followers on a weekly basis, the stock market is at a “Record High”, up by more than a quarter since his election. We are close to full employment.
The economists can bicker about how much or little of this can be attributed to the Trump administration in a year when global growth has been so buoyant. They can also bicker about how many Americans are feeling the benefit when the lion’s share of income growth is concentrated at the very top of the social heap. But this is definitely not the economic disaster predicted by some of them a year ago. (Let’s not forget the Nobel laureate Paul Krugman’s prophecy on election night that the stock market would “never” recover from a Trump victory, which was wrong by 11am the next morning.)
The only debate worth having is whether or not this recovery can be sustained all the way to 2020 now the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates and ending the large-scale bond purchases (“quantitative easing”) that were its most creative response to the financial crisis. My guess is that Trump gets one more good year but that 2019-20 will be a different story.
The point is that, as far as his own popularity is concerned, these economic indicators seem irrelevant. Trump’s average approval rating at the time of his inauguration in January was 44%, roughly tied with his disapproval number. Today he is down to 37% approval, against 58% disapproval. It is worth repeating that no president of the modern era started his first year so unpopular and none saw his approval rating fall so far in the subsequent months. The argument grows increasingly plausible that no one is doing more to restore the health and vitality of American liberalism than Trump.
Now consider the contribution to his demise that has been made by his own party in Congress. A year ago the House Speaker Paul Ryan was giving stirring speeches in Washington about all the great things Republicans were going to do now they had achieved unified government. They would repeal Obamacare. They would pass comprehensive tax reform. They would slash burdensome regulation.
Well, it’s now December and Obamacare is still with us, while comprehensive tax reform is a deformed monstrosity of a bill that, in essence, cuts the corporate tax rate, reduces personal income tax for higher earners, shrinks certain welfare programmes and nevertheless increases the deficit by at least $1 trillion (£750bn) over the next 10 years. Probably the corporate tax cut will boost growth somewhat. But this is shaping up to be a political disaster. In one recent poll by Marist, 52% of respondents said they expected the bill to hurt them, versus 30% who thought it would help them. Fully 60% said the wealthy would be the bill’s principal beneficiaries, against 21% who said the middle class would benefit most.
Obamacare was unpopular when it was first introduced; this is worse. The probability is therefore rising that the Democrats will win back the House next November. It is also becoming imaginable that they could take back control of the Senate, where Trump’s majority is now 51-49, owing to the debacle in Alabama. At this rate, the Dems will be drafting articles of impeachment this time next year.
Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller presses ahead with his inquiry into the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. I am not certain if there is a smoking gun that Mueller will find. But I am increasingly sure Trump is going to try to shut down the inquiry by firing Mueller as he fired the former FBI director James Comey. When that moment comes, we shall discover whether the founding fathers succeeded in devising a constitution that could not be overthrown, no matter how unscrupulous the president, or whether these are indeed the last days of the republic.
“If it weren’t all so tragic,” my friend Andrew Sullivan wrote last week, “we’d be laughing our asses off.” I think he is probably right that it’s too early for laughter, but abroad they are already chortling. “You are interesting guys,” President Vladimir Putin apostrophised American lawmakers last week, in one of his interminable press conferences. “Are you normal at all?” I heard the same kind of thing in Beijing earlier
Comedy or tragedy? Perhaps, in this case, it depends on where you sit in the theatre.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)
In Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, a political crisis strikes Great Britain when the monarch loses his marbles. You may recall Nigel Hawthorne’s riveting performance in the role of King George in the film version, at first indefatigable, if irascible, in performing his royal duties, then suddenly struck down by wild, raving lunacy.
“I talk and talk and talk,” he tells the queen forlornly in a moment of lucidity. “I hear the words so I have to speak them.” And the more the king raves, the more plausible the case becomes that his place should be taken, if only as Prince Regent, by his paunchy eldest son.
Historians continue to debate whether George III’s madness was the result of porphyria or some other affliction. Bennett suggests — doubtless fancifully, but it makes for good drama — that the root cause was shock at the rebellion of the American colonies (“a paradise . . . lost”).
Well, what goes around comes around. For these days it is in America that the question is asked with increasing frequency: is the head of state off his head? In a new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, 27 psychiatrists and other mental health experts — including Judith Lewis Herman of Harvard Medical School and Bandy Lee of the Yale School of Medicine — warn that “anyone as mentally unstable as Mr Trump simply should not be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency”.
Forget about special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry and the prospect of Trump’s impeachment should the Democrats win the House of Representatives in next November’s mid-term elections. These days liberal America is poring over article 25 of the constitution, which states that if the vice-president and a majority of the cabinet inform Congress in writing that the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”, then Mike Pence takes over. And if Trump insists he is fine, just fine, he can be overridden by a two-thirds majority of both houses.
The madness of King Donald is not news in Washington. But until last week the story in Britain was Trump’s badness, not his madness. Then, on Tuesday and Wednesday, the president retweeted three posts from the deputy leader of the fascist splinter group Britain First, each featuring a video purporting to depict Islamic violence.
When Theresa May expressed her disapproval, Trump shot back: “Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!” (Fine, just fine.)
Unfortunately, Trump addressed this response to @theresamay instead of @theresa_may. With one tweet he thereby directed the attention of his 44m Twitter followers — and hence the entirety of the world’s news media — at the hapless Theresa May Scrivener, 41, of Bognor Regis, West Sussex, along with her husband, children and six Twitter followers. (Some readers may believe that the last words of George III were allegedly “Bugger Bognor”, but that was George V.)
Not having read The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, the British political class reacted in the old-fashioned way. In the Commons, opposition MPs lined up to denounce President Trump as a “fascist”, “stupid” and “racist, incompetent or unthinking”. The British ambassador in Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, made representations to the White House. Plans for Trump to visit London in January were shelved.
Do keep up. The president is mad, not bad. Or, if he’s bad, it’s because he’s mad. Just the other day he was telling people that the infamous Access Hollywood tape is fake. Last weekend he was fantasising that he had turned down Time magazine’s proposal to make him — for the second year running — Person of the Year. It’s only a matter of time before, like Hawthorne’s King George, Trump is seen running around the Rose Garden in his nightgown trying to rescue Melania from an imaginary flood.
The counterargument to all this comes from my good friend Bret Stephens. Far from being mad, he argues, Trump is cunningly exploiting the power of social media to drive his political opponents into their own form of madness, to mobilise his loyal supporters in Middle America — who love all this — and to distract everyone else’s attention from all that is going wrong on his watch.
I have a slightly different view. Like Bret, I don’t think Trump is nuts — not as nuts as King George, at any rate. He’s just crass and always has been. Unlike Bret, however, I don’t think Trump is failing. He has just secured a major legislative breakthrough, a package of corporate and personal tax cuts that are as popular on Wall Street as they are hated by Democratic economists.
Yes, I know. Fewer than 40% of Americans approve of the president. The Democrats are ahead in the polls with a reasonable shot at electoral success next year. But the US economy is growing at about 3.5%. The stock market is at record highs — up nearly a quarter since Trump’s election. And, although I have my doubts about adding to the deficit, respectable economists insist the Republican tax bill will benefit not just the rich but also working and middle-class families by boosting investment and growth — and that the Trump administration’s push to reduce burdensome regulation will have even more positive effects.
As for foreign policy, the moment of truth in the North Korean missile crisis draws ever nearer after Kim Jong-un’s long-range missile test last week. China must act or America will. In the Middle East, meanwhile, Isis has been defeated and, as part of an astounding revolution from above, the Saudi crown prince has turned on the jihadists.
The problem is that, in his incorrigible crassness, Trump consistently drowns out the signal of meaningful policy achievement with deafening yet inconsequential noise.
In this, unfortunately, he is not abnormal in the least. On the contrary, he is the incarnation of the spirit of our age. His tweets — hasty, crude and error-strewn — are just one symptom of a more general decline in civility that social media have encouraged. Fact: according to a recently published paper by researchers at New York University, a tweet is 20% more likely to be retweeted for every moral-emotional word (such as “hate”) that it uses. On Twitter and Facebook extreme views are second only to fake news.
One of many problems with the decline of civility is that uncivil discourse is so difficult for the remaining civil people to take seriously. As a result, serious issues — such as Islamic extremism or the North Korean threat — become trivialised and civil people assume, wrongly, that it is Trump we should really worry about.
Mahatma Gandhi is said to have been asked once what he thought of western civilisation. He replied, wittily, that it would be good idea. In these days of western un-civilisation, I find myself in agreement. The problem is not the madness of King Donald, nor even his badness. By George, it’s his infernal rudeness.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)