The Trump card

Washington, DC

Money matters in American politics. It’s not enough to win – as Mitt Romney will tell you over a non-alcoholic beverage – but it does buy oxygen and influence.

Money – and lots of it – explains why Donald Trump is able to present himself as a candidate for the world’s most powerful, and most sought after, political office, as the rest of the world looks on bemusedly (except maybe the Italians, who are used to Trump equivalents running the place).

But it doesn’t explain the poll results, which at the latest counting actually had Trump a number of points ahead of the rest of the GOP field. According to Fox News, if an election were held last week, Trump may actually have been the Republican nominee – a scary thought, especially for those of us that are not Hillary fans.

Now, before you start yelping about the credibility of a Fox poll (especially 18 months out from the final vote), the point is that Trump is being viewed by many Americans, at least at this stage, as potentially plausible.

Like many of society’s ills, we in the 24-hour media cycle are partly to blame. Journos love nothing more than a candidate that requires no introduction, particularly if they are strong on spicy rhetoric and weak on policy. Trump is a win, win, win in the age of the 10-second soundbite.

If I was to be slightly conspiratorial about it, the more left-leaning media in the US and elsewhere (i.e. pretty much everyone not owned by Murdoch) loves the clownish candidates even more when they come from the Right. Trump makes the whole GOP field look unprofessional and forces them to bicker among themselves in a fashion more appropriate to Trotskyists than conservatives.

In the past few days Trump’s positive numbers may have taken a hit. Describing the entire Mexican citizenry as ‘rapists’ didn’t seem to water down his popularity (worryingly) but calling out former presidential hopeful John McCain’s military service record has been universally slammed. 

But Trump’s opponents would be foolish to assume his campaign will simply fizzle out, and Australians have the perfect piece of evidence to act as a cautionary tale.

Besides perhaps his inflammatory comments about Wendy Deng and his brief cameo alongside Al Gore, most Americans will probably not be aware of a bloke called Clive Palmer.

They should google him ASAP.

trump palmer

The similarities with Trump are many: both are self-funded (and well-funded at that); both seem more interested in making the headlines than making any real contribution to the public policy process; both know that wooing the media is the key to campaign momentum and both pay little heed to hairdressing conventions.

Many Australians ruled Palmer out as an unelectable buffoon, but he was able to get a motley crew of Senators elected under his name in the previous Australian parliament and even scored himself a seat in the House of Reps (no easy task in the major party-dominated world of antipodean politics).

Two years on, Palmer’s political capital has all but expired – and his ironically named Palmer United Party has disbanded into a collection of rogue independents – but not until after he was able to make a dangerous and demonstrable impact on policy.

From financial and environmental regulation to the nation’s tax code, a billionaire with seemingly no principles or convictions (who had already been expelled from a major party’s membership) was able to hold the legislative system to ransom, taking sides with an almost willy-nilly populist approach, aiming to help no-one but his own vast (though apparently diminishing) business empire.

All it took to achieve this powerful position was a few outspoken remarks and media-aimed stunts, like rocking up to Parliament House in a Rolls Royce. Oh, and a truckload of cash, of course. 

If the American people don’t want to see the White House turned into a Comedy Central roast, they would be well advised to tune out and ditch Trump faster than you can say ‘bad hair day’.

Published on 23 July 2015

Ready for Orion

Houston, Texas

If you’ve ever wondered why it has been half a century since the world has been truly captivated by a space mission, one particular fight on The Hill (DC slang for Congress) may shed some light. Like all taxpayer-funded initiatives, NASA’s budget is perennially contentious. But the political argy-bargy of late has not been so much about how much federal dough the agency is allocated, but what it spends the money on.

According to the Republicans, the Obama administration has been funnelling a lot of NASA’s resources into studies of Planet Earth – issues such as climate change for example – rather than space exploration.

“Are we focusing on the heavens in NASA or are we focusing on dirt in Texas?” asked colourful Coloradan senator Cory Gardner in a speech to the House recently.

If this is really the case, then the Republicans are right to throw barbs. Don’t get me wrong, studies of Earth are hugely worthwhile. In fact, Attenborough’s Life series is perhaps as valuable a gift to the world from the British people as NASA is from the Yanks.

But Kennedy and Johnson would be turning in their respective graves to see that not once since the Moon Landing have humans (and Americans more pertinently) touched down on a new world in our solar system.

Having said that, NASA would be within its rights to tell the pollies to f off, as it completes the closest and most successful Pluto flyby. 

pluto

Pluto. Source: nasa.gov 

Perhaps more significantly, the agency is also gearing up to launch the much-anticipated Orion mission. Following a successful test run in December 2014, this summer, NASA will launch a two-year mission that will hopefully see astronauts walk on Mars for the first time. 

Walking around the sprawling Johnson Space Center – the ‘Houston’ in ‘Houston, we have a problem’ – there is a sense of activity and optimism ahead of this monumental mission.

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A video narrated by Patrick Stewart tells visitors matter-of-factly about ‘when’, not if, astronauts touch down on the red planet, indicating NASA is glass-half-full despite squabbling on The Hill.

A few days after visiting the centre, I took a trolley tour around downtown Dallas, visiting the sites of JFK’s assassination and the cops’ subsequent pursuit of Lee Harvey Oswald. The 150-kilo tour guide didn’t want to be drawn on any JFK conspiracy theories. “I’ll stick to the FACTS thank you sir,” he sprays in a deep Texan drawl, rebuffing the questions raised by my high school history teacher.

But he was happy to talk about just how much the Moon landing meant to Kennedy and to all Americans at that time, giving them a sense of national (and human) pride.

Space exploration is important because it helps us contextualise our place in the universe, the almost incomprehensible luckiness of existence, like no other human pursuit. For my part, I’ll be following Orion closely and cheering it on.

But NASA better get a move on, or it’ll have a band of angry politicians (not to mention the Chinese) nipping at its heels. 

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Published on 23 July 2015

Independence envy

Galveston, Texas

Despite joining the Union relatively late in the piece, Texas is today perhaps the spiritual home of American patriotism. While Galveston Island is physically removed from the mainland, there is little separation anxiety present on the Fourth of July 2015 on the strip of dark sand locals call ‘Surfside’. Star spangled golf carts parade along the beach, vigorously beeping and tooting their national pride, while mammoth utes and SUVs jostle for prime position. The rest of the world often caricatures Texas as a backwards place of single-minded evangelicalism and outmoded conventions. But a glance across the beach at Galveston tells a different story, one of a sophisticated and pluralistic modern America. Oil tycoons, armed services personnel, doctors and young swimmers all share the waves and volleyball courts in seeming harmony, all revelling in Americana on this important day regardless of race, creed or status. While environmentalists back home may have been perturbed about the proximity of the giant beastlike vehicles to the potential marine life, monster trucks aside the scene was one of liberty, equality and fraternity (not that many Texans would appreciate being likened to the French national motto!)

Patriotism is probably the most prescient emotion on display (if it can be described that way) but also striking is the unashamed, unabashed joy displayed by almost all of the beach-goers. Where Europeans may go to the coast to be seen and Australians observe the beach as a place of almost sacred serenity, these Texan holidaymakers are there to have a good time, noisy, unpretentious and refreshing. It is perhaps no coincidence that the founders placed such emphasis of ‘pursuit of happiness’ when drafting the document celebrated on this day.

There is also clearly a strong sense of community. Island local Denise, a country club legend and pina colada enthusiast, tells me that following the devastation of Hurricane Ike a few years back, Galveston residents paid for the restoration themselves, turning down offers of federal aid. “We look after our own,” she says, reflecting a commitment to independence that goes well beyond the banners adorning her balcony.

Watching an impressive fireworks display above a Galveston Bay inlet a few hours (and cocktails) later, I could not help but be overcome by a feeling of melancholy when I contemplate my own dear country’s independence, or more accurately, lack thereof!

Over the years I have flirted with constitutional monarchism, believing the Westminster system to be truer to the Australian promise to keep the bastards honest. But watching those around me proudly endorse their own severed ties to Europe and confident embrace of the New World quite frankly made me jealous. An Aussie independence day would no doubt give the Texans a run in the fun department, even though our outward displays of national affection are likely to be more subdued.

Not giving a shit is an inextricable part of the Australian character – it is the reason we don’t sing songs at sporting events despite our sports obsession. But sometimes, it also means there is a disincentive to be proud, to put in effort with streamers and t-shirts and facepaint like the Galvestonians.

Perhaps becoming a Republic would help us be a little more Texan in our celebration. But as long as Kate Middleton keeps producing these damn cute offspring, this is probably an increasingly distant prospect.

galveston fireworks

Source: Houston Chronicle 

Published on 6 July 2015

Preface: G’day USA

In 1831, the French government dispatched philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville to assess why American democracy had thrived while the European polities were seemingly heading in the opposite direction. In 2015, a foreign writer with a similar name has dispatched himself to discover whether the American dream is still alive and well in the so-called Asian Century.

In coming months, this blog will provide a chain of notes, anecdotes and experiences aiming to provide a picture of US politics and culture as it heads into a potentially transformative presidential election cycle.

Naturally, it will also reflect upon Australia’s place in the coming world order, offering a comparative analysis without the BS (hopefully).

Any opinions are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of any associated entities or stakeholders.

Cheers