2016: not such a good year (part 3: Tromps, Trumps, Russia, China)

Victorious underdogs  With some already noted exceptions, it was the year of the underdog. In the AFL, the Western Bulldogs pulled off an extraordinary Grand Final victory, the fruits of ex-Slater & Gordon man Peter Gordon’s remaking of the club. By contrast, the Court of Arbitration for Sport confirmed the suspension for 12 months of 34 past and present Essendon players, including Jobe Watson. That club won only 3 games and wooden spooned. Watson had to hand back his Brownlow Medal.  The doping scandal was more or less over.

Then the Chicago Cubs won the oddly named World Series in American baseball, breaking a 108 year drought. In Basketball, the Cleveland Cavaliers improbably took the NBA title from the Golden State Warriors, one of the most dominant teams ever in the competition. In English football, Leicester won the premier league competition despite the bookies having them at 5000-1 at the beginning of the season, an extraordinary upset. It was described as a sporting miracle.

(America topping the medal table in the Rio Olympics, which cost US$4.6 billion and were the first held in South America, was not exactly an upset. UK came second and China third. A team of Kuwaiti athletes competed as stateless individuals, and another team of refugees participated. Australia came 10th with 29 medals, a poor result compared to previous years. Chloe Esposito’s gold in the women’s modern pentathlon was the most interesting Australian result. Tonga’s oiled up topless flag bearer created quite a twitter flutter. A North Korean and a South Korean posed for a selfie together. The diving pool went a very strange green. An Eyptian woman played beach volleyball in a hijab. An Ethiopienne smashed 14 seconds off the the world record in the 10,000 m run. Sir Mo Farah, a Mogadishu-born Briton fell over and still won the men’s 10,000 m run, again.)

Pundits, wise in retrospect, have decided that the pulse of which 2016 was in fact the international year was that of the white working class underdog. It swung Brexit and the US presidential election, they say. Julie Szego was insightful about it here, suggesting that the intelligentsia of the media, commentariat, political class, academics and professionals simply never speak to the folk who voted Mr Trump in, and so they missed the mood. And the explanation for why the white working class would choose a billionaire who is a narcissistic fraudster is that they admire self-made wealth but detest the professional class of which Ms Clinton is a totem.

(The same cannot be said of Australia: Dan Ilic hitch-hiked from Hobart to Cape York in the lead up to the Australian election talking to ordinary people and broadcast his observations on ABC. He was astonished by the disengagement of middle Australia from politics, but admired the engagement of immigrants for many of whom voting in an election contested between largely uncorrupt non-military non-religious fanatic types was a kind of wet dream. He said many Australians conceive of Australian elections as presidential and were principally alienated from the old parties by their insistence on knifing each other in revolving leadership battles.)

Brexit Seventy-two percent of registered voters in the UK voted in the Brexit referendum. The Brexiteers outnumbered the Europhiles by 1.3 million or 3.8%. Considered region by region, London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay and the rest of England, and Wales, voted to leave. That may make Scottish independence more likely and spawned serious discussion of London (a major French city going by the number of French who live there) becoming independent from the rest of the UK, a la Singapore. Mind you, 1.5 Londoners voted to Brexit. If Marine Le Pen wins in France in this year’s elections, she wants to Fraxit which would probably be curtains for the EU.

Jo Cox, a Labour MP was assassinated in the lead up to the vote. She had worked for Oxfam and as an MP campaigned on issues relating to the war in Syria. They were obviously not to the taste of a white working class man who shot her, a mentally unstable unemployed gardener with extreme right wing white supremacist inclinations.

The otherwise extraordinarily successful prime minister, David Cameron, resigned, as did Nigel Farrage the smooth leader of UKIP, the anti-immigration right wing party. Both unexpected. Boris Johnson, the canny and disheveled Mayor of London pictured above, so good at playing the populist clown, was dudded in a leadership battle, so Teresa May took the top job. Also unexpected.

Did you hear that just a couple of weeks before the Brexit vote, the African Union announced plans for a pan-African passport, essentially creating something like the European Union across Africa?

Countering the tilt towards fascism, the Portuguese socialist Antonio Guterres was chosen as the next Secretary-General of the UN, in the same year as Boutros-Boutros Ghali died. For the first time, candidates had to make public their pitch for the top job. Guterres was Portugal’s prime minister before spending a decade as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He changed the focus of the agency from refugees as strictly defined in the Geneva Convention to ‘people on the move’, including from civil war and natural disaster. He was also instrumental in bringing the UN into the East Timor crisis following the independence referendum.

It follows that Kevin Rudd’s bid did not succeed, unsurprisingly given Cori Bernardi and friends’ victory over Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the question of whether the Liberal government would nominate him for the job after the Prime Minister Turnbull had, according to Mr Rudd, told him that Australia would support his candidacy. Nor did women’s bids, including Helen Clarke’s. Nor did the Eastern European bid. All a bit of a surprise, including that Russia and China would allow this man at the top.

At this point it is as well to observe that the world is a complex place the course of whose history is nowadays unpredictable, and grand narratives cannot be constructed from British shaking off the long-hated EU and the election of Donald Trump because half the voters could not be fagged voting. When Francis Fukuyama penned ‘The End of History‘ he probably did not envisage 9/11, Julian Assange, or the combination of Putin and Trump. The Italian PM resigned too, for example, having failed to achieve constitutional reform proposals which were regarded as sticking it up the political orthodoxy of the nation. He came into office on a programme similar to Mr Trump’s, to tear down the establishment. Satyajit Das uses this to suggest, hopefully perhaps, that nothing much will change in 2017.  That may well end up being true despite the tumult of the first week of Trump’s United States of America.

Non-maintstream media players were certainly more ascendant than ever in 2016. First, there was Getup! which campaigned vigorously in the Australian election. By the look at this oddly self-congratulatory video, given who won what in 2016, the white middle class is prominent in its members. Getup!’s #letthemstay campaign certainly seems to have reaped results in the arena of Australian refugee policy. Hard right MPs directly targeted by Getup!’s campaigns were voted out in the election. Minister Dutton almost lost his seat and must be relieved that his boss, Prime Minister Turnbull secretly donated $1.75 million of his wealth to the Liberal Party in a successful effort to swing the election minutely in the Coalition’s favour.  Minister Dutton himself funded the Coalition campaign to the tune of $25,000 and must be happy that he did.

Prime Minister Turnbull personally invested much effort into cutting a deal with the Obama administration to put even more out of sight the poor bastards in the offshore jails on Nauru and Manus Island.

Then there were the fake news sites which most of the people wondering how Donald Trump became the President elect never saw. This story about Hilary Clinton’s satanic network, just by way of example. Foreign players like this far right Northern Irishman with a soft spot for Vladimir Putin were casting their fake news lures right into American lounges, from remote computer screens.  Which brings us to Trump, whose chief strategist is Steve Bannon the CEO of the alt-right website Breitbart News.

Tromps, Trumps But for Donald Trump, I may not have included the Tromps but I could not resist the alliteration. We never really got to the bottom of the red currant farmers from Silvan who fled in what some speculated to be a rare case of folie a quatre: a shared psychosis. If you believe news.com.au, the parents:

‘shared the unfounded belief that their home was being targeted by random people. These unidentified individuals did not steal or damage, rather, they spread dust around the house, scattering lint everywhere as they walked in the couple’s shoes as they slept.’

Where to start with Donald Trump? I could not believe it. The exit polls and the pundits got it wrong, again, like they got last year’s UK election wrong, and Brexit wrong. A man who three Harvard psychiatry professors are worried suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, who has never been in government or even in politics before, was for the first time elected President. Almost half of eligible voters didn’t even bother to vote. But more Americans voted for President Trump than for any previous Republican candidate.

(Of course they didn’t actually vote for Trump, but for ‘electors’ who said they would vote for Mr Trump. Since their names did not actually appear on the ballot papers, you might think this a pedantic lawyer’s point, but I mention it because there were 7 ‘faithless electors’ who voted for candidates other than those they had said they would. Indeed a Harvard law professor set up a scheme to provide anonymous pro bono advice to electors whose enthusiasm for voting for Mr Trump was tenuous. Three Clinton electors voted for Colin Powell (bet you didn’t know he was a candidate) and another Clinton elector from Washington voted for Faith Spotted Eagle (bet you didn’t know she was a candidate).

Many, many women voted for Mr Trump, despite the release of footage of him saying to Billy Bush of one woman:

‘I moved on her, actually. You know, she was down on Palm Beach. I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it. I did try and fuck her. She was married. … I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, “I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture.” … I moved on her like a bitch.’

It’s crass but it’s also very difficult to work out what he was saying.  ‘Furniture shopping’? ‘Moved on her like a bitch?’ Then he said of another woman:

‘I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.’

Tic Tacs put out a statement. Mr Trump’s first public response was that ‘this was locker room banter’ and ‘I apologise if anyone was offended’. Later, he said during a Presidential candidates’ debate that contrary to his bombastic talk, he had never actually successfully sexually assaulted anyone, which made him sound like a liar.

But that prompted Kristin Anderson to say that Mr Trump, a stranger, had reached up her skirt and grabbed her by the pussy while she was talking to her friends at a nightclub, and Rachel Crooks to say he just started kissing her on the lips one day upon being introduced. Nine others made their stories of assault or creepy propositioning public.  Mr Trump said of two of the accusers something which he intended to be understood as that he would not have sexually assaulted them because they were too ugly.  Mr Trump has used threats of lawsuits to great effect throughout his career.  He said during a Presidential candidates’ debate that he would prosecute Hilary Clinton and put her in jail if he won office. He said his accusers were all liars and he would sue them after the election campaign.  One of them, represented by the well-known lawyer Gloria Allred, has sued Trump instead, for defaming her by calling her a liar.  That’s going to be one to watch.

As I said, the media (whom President Trump’s man Steve Bannon has referred to as ‘the Opposition’) got it all unimagineably wrong. Scarily wrong when you consider this razor-sharp article on the reporting of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. One man who is almost certainly not a socialist ratbag is Prince Charles. He warned that what he was seeing with rhetoric associated with Brexit and the Trump campaign had ‘deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the 1930s’.

It is widely believed that Russian intelligence agencies manipulated the US election.  Mr Trump said this was fake news for most of the campaign, but finally admitted that it was probably the Russians who hacked the Democrats’ emails.  Mr Trump’s fellow billionaire President Putin really dislikes Clinton, and his government’s people lured in Hillary’s campaign chairman with a phishing email which a Clinton IT guy erroneously declared not to be suspicious. (It seems the plot of Luc Besson’s ‘Nikita’ is regularly played out in Russia.) Then they dumped them onto Wikileaks during the campaign.  Julian Assange repeatedly asserted that his source was not ‘the Russian government’, apparently choosing his words lawyerly.  Ironically, the emails revealed that Hillary thought having a billionaire on the ticket as VP (Bill or Melinda Gates for example) might be an idea, and also considered Apple’s Tim Cook.

Russia is miffed about sanctions imposed by the US over its invasion of Ukraine which, if lifted, would please President Putin and ExxonMobil alike, the latter because the sanctions are preventing it from pursuing its partnership with the Russian energy giant Rosneft to drill oil in the Arctic, up near Franz Joseph Land.

Robert Manne, a former editor of Quadrant and a great hater of communist style state authoritarianism, has analysed the evidence in ‘The Muscovian Candidate‘ and says there are reasons to not to disbelieve all of the private intelligence dossier on Mr Trump’s links to Russia put together by the former head of MI6’s Russia desk, Christopher Steele. Namely, that Steele is highly regarded, and it is unlikely that all of the many contacts he relied on were lying or misunderstood things. That dossier was commissioned by Republican opponents of Mr Trump’s candidacy and later funded, after Mr Trump won the Republican nomination, by a wealthy Democrat. But then it was given to the FBI.  It says the Russians filmed Mr Trump watching prostitutes urinate on one another, apparently an act of defilement of the bed in which Barrack and Michelle Obama had stayed in on a previous trip to Moscow. What a honey trap! Golden showers are weird, but defiling a bed the then President of the United States had once slept on is even weirder.

Less salaciously but more importantly given that Mr Trump’s sexual deviancy was old news were reports in the dossier that Russia provided the Clinton emails and promised not to use against Mr Trump the ‘kompromat’ file including the golden showers in return for Mr Trump sidelining Ukraine as an election issue and passing on the results of US spying on Russian oligarchs resident in the US.  The most explosive allegation is that Mr Trump, through his lawyer, discussed the possibility of taking a 19% share in Rosneft in return for an end to sanctions imposed as a result of what happened in Ukraine.

The US intelligence agencies showed a summary of the report to Obama and Putin having investigated its authenticity.  They did not form the view it was authentic, but were sufficiently unsure about its inauthenticity to ignore it.  Trump later dismissed it, when Buzzfeed published the whole thing, as the fantasy of a ‘failed spy’.  But Trump got the intelligence agencies way offside during the campaign, for example by writing the word ‘intelligence’ with quote marks around it in tweets.  And there are multiple separate US investigations into the details of President Trump’s bromance with President Putin currently underway.  Manne seems to think there may well be an impeachment before too long.  But then a Russian intelligence type, who is speculated to have been one of Christopher Steele’s sources, was bumped off recently.  If ever there was a scenario calculated to interest conspiracy theorists, this is it.

Even to the most casual observer, there are some stark facts which do not depend on the veracity of the dossier.  Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort resigned after admitting he had in the past taken millions of dollars from the pro-Russian former president of the Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. It seems these were fees for lobbying work done for Yanukovych. Rex Tillerson, President Trump’s secretary of State, has an Order of Friendship from Russia (though so do a lot of Americans), close links with President Putin, and was for the last decade the CEO of afore-mentioned ExxonMobil which is in bed with Rosneft.

Trump repeatedly told the world how much he loved Wikileaks, which was mind-buckling, and now makes things difficult for Trump, Obama having pardoned Chelsea Manning, which makes things difficult for Julian Assange who said he would accept extradition to the US if Ms Manning were released from jail.  You could not make this stuff up. Though Assange responded to a question about which candidate he preferred by saying the question was like “asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhoea?”, Robert Manne documents how Assange in fact supported Trump, presumably because he approves of Trump’s isolationist foreign policy on the assumption it will result in less US military adventures abroad, and is a blanker slate to work with in order to achieve radical change.

If the Trump administration continues to carry through one of his signature policies, 30 million Americans, mostly without college degrees, are predicted to lose access to health insurance.  Not what we would think of as private health insurance, but what we take for granted, like Medicare.

President Trump has nominated for appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States an arch-conservative anti-abortionist as the late Justice Scalia’s successor, Neil Gorsuch. Key liberals like Ruth Bader Ginsburg must have come to the notice of the Grim Reaper at 83 years of age (c.f. Justice Kennedy, 80, and Justice Breyer, 78). Three more deaths and Trump would have appointed four of the 9 justices, with the others appointed by George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

China Trump is a dove towards Russia and a hawke towards China in a way which does not really make sense, until it dawns on you that Trump probably  just likes white people better. While everyone else is talking about the war on terror, or the war on drugs, or the war on the stinking swamp that is establishment Washington, China is conducting a war on law.  Given Trump’s firing of his Attorney-General for ‘betraying’ America by casting doubt on the legality of Trump’s visa ban for nationals of certain Muslim states where he does not have business interests, it seems unlikely that Trump’s animus towards Xi Jinping flows from the latter’s war on law.

I wrote at length about a super-spunky Tibetan woman who paid a people smuggler to take her to the Dalai Lama in the Indian Himalayas and told the story of the torture and death of her uncle, one of the most revered Tibetan Buddhist lamas still in Tibet. I mentioned the 2015 arrest of many of China’s brave human rights lawyers. Only one has returned to practice. The wife of one lawyer has made a documentary on the war.

And they continue to disappear. University of Melbourne alumnus Philip Alston is the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Naturally, China is a special focus for a man in such a position. He went to China.  Lawyer Jiang Tianyong cooperated with him, presumably because of his representation of / advocacy for the disappeared lawyers.  China belatedly confirmed the lawyer’s detention in November. Read the transcript of the blunt propaganda video issued by the Communist Youth League Central Committee a few weeks ago. The lawyer had represented the Tibetan prelate Jigme, who in an act of extraordinary bravery put up from inside Tibet a Youtube video without any attempt at anonymity, recounting his previous imprisonment and railing against the barbarity of the Chinese military. For example (at 18’01”):

‘In the barn next to the monastery, they [the military] have made effigies out of straw and dressed them in Tibetan robes and hats. The Chinese soldiers use them for bayonet practice.’

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