A Family Affair

Austin, TX

I have an embarrassing confession to make: I might be falling a little bit in love with Ivanka Trump.

The trouble for the Clinton campaign is that I suspect much of the American voting public is too.

The 34-year-old mother of three, entrepreneur, Trump Organization executive and eldest daughter of the presidential hopeful arguably stole the show at the recent Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Securing the most coveted speaking slot at the four-day circus, Ivanka formally introduced the nominee while displaying the very traits of class, grace and humility that her father seems to lack. She described herself as “neither a Republican nor a Democrat” and made the Trump campaign’s most compelling pitch yet to undecided independents.

Her brothers, Eric and Donald Jr. also made primetime speeches to the rapturous applause of delegates. On the opening night, their stepmother, Slovenian former supermodel Melania Trump, made remarks that plagiarised parts of a previous Michelle Obama address, sending the media into a frenzy. But ultimately this is an issue that only journalists care about and she too managed to endear herself to the masses.

Trump’s family played an undeniably starring role in the convention. Critics suggest this is because so few of the Republican Party’s biggest names agreed to speak at ‘Trumpapolooza’, but I think it had more to do with the rising popularity (and political capital) of his three eldest children, who are helping to diffuse many of the strongest charges against him.

“If he is a monster, how did he raise such impressive and seemingly well-balanced kids?”

“If he is a misogynist, how is he held in such esteem by his feminist Millennial daughter?”

These are the questions I’m increasingly hearing from moderate, mainstream conservatives that don’t like Trump’s bluster and bravado, his thin skin or coarse tongue, but are beginning to see his successful parenting as a mark of good character.

Meanwhile, over at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia – the city in which the American political project began – family was also a selling point.

Chelsea Clinton (who, awkwardly, is a personal friend of Ivanka Trump’s, having both been raised in the elite confines of the Upper East Side) gave a polished and heartfelt speech introducing Hillary. Though of course, unlike the Trump kids, this was not her first rodeo.

And ‘Slick Willy’ was at his yarn-ripping best, giving the nation a dose of that well-worn Clinton charm offensive. The former president and first lady are now taking their show on the road, bunkering down in a tour bus with folksy VP choice Tim Kaine and his wife. In this they are mirroring their 1992 road trip across America with Al and Tipper Gore (and no doubt hoping for a similar result).

At its very inception, American democracy was a reaction to the hereditary rule and lingering feudalism of Europe. Its revolution forged a new type of representative politics in which merit, not lineage, was meant to be the deciding factor in attaining success.

And yet, dynasty has come to play a powerful role in American politics. Indeed, much of the past two decades have been dominated by just two families: the one that took the stage in Philly on Thursday night and the blue-blood ivy-leaguers turned Texan cowboys known affectionately ‘round these parts as the ‘Bush clan’.

Given that he easily fended off a challenge from one Bush – and arguably the most talented one – and the rest of the party’s “establishment”, Trump has been successful in pitching himself as an outsider. And compared to Hillary Clinton, he undoubtedly is.

But I now wonder whether historians might look back on this most recent GOP convention not so much as an important moment of anti-establishment sentiment – which it may well be – but as the birth of the next American political dynasty.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has maintained that it was his idea to run for office, in order to “make America great again” and that his offspring would take the reins of the company in his absence. But the more I see of the Trump kids, the more I’m convinced it was them who encouraged their old man into the race, easing the path for their own political ambitions.

For three young execs ostensibly running one of the world’s most famous conglomerates, they spend a hell of a lot of time on the campaign trail.

Don Jr, who is now addressing rallies across the US almost as big as his dad’s, has already been asked about a potential run for Mayor of New York, which he refused to rule out.

Eric has become a mainstay of the nightly TV pundit panels, very effectively staying on message about his family’s background as businesspeople and not “crooked DC politicians”.

And Ivanka was reportedly influential over her father’s decision to sack campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, after the controversial politico was accused of physically assaulting a female reporter.

Should The Donald lose to Hillary Clinton in November, and his historic campaign go down the drain, don’t assume his dream of a Trump White House goes down with it.

I know which of the three I’d be rooting for.

trump dynasty

Image source: New York Magazine

Published on 30 July 2016

Context in Colombo

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Between 1983 and 2009, as much of Asia cast off colonial and communist shackles and began relentlessly pursuing peace and prosperity, Sri Lanka was engulfed in a civil war that claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Aside from tea and its national cricket team – the ever-determined Lions whom I think it’s fair to say most Aussies have a soft spot for, particularly when they beat India, their giant rival to the north – the island formerly known as Ceylon rarely grabs international attention.

But while it might not have dominated headlines, the decades-long conflict between the native Sinhalese population and the separatist Tamils – who emigrated from southern India during the Middle Ages (hardly recent imposters) – has left visible scars on this otherwise tropical paradise.

Its cities and townships clearly haven’t developed at pace with geographical neighbours and though the Sri Lankan people seem industrious and hard-working, few seem to be enjoying the spoils of economic growth that so many Asians have now come to know.

A disastrous tsunami and earthquake in 2004 made the already-precarious situation notably worse. I was shocked to see the state of the Galle International Stadium, one of cricket’s most storied grounds. Aside from an oddly-placed washing machine and the occasional faded advertisement, its rooms and stands were bare and crumbling, the musky stench of water damage still lingering.

Here to give a speech on the US election, a comparison between the two nations could not be avoided.

Having laid out my assessment – as I do throughout this thread – that the world’s superpower is at historic levels of division currently, some audience members could not help but be cynical.

Dr Sarath, a smiley Sinhalese economist living in Shanghai, was quick to respond.

“Yes I agree, this election is very interesting and a Trump win would have a profound effect on global financial markets,” he opened diplomatically. “But to a Sri Lankan, America doesn’t seem quite so divided.”

I was about to retort that the number of US gun murders between 1983 and 2009 would dwarf 100,000 but thought the better of it, not wanting to get into a tasteless size-up between two atrocities.

Moreover, the good doctor’s point was well made: America might have its problems, but overall its citizens are still richer, healthier and safer than most places on Earth.

It was the kind of important perspective that so often accompanies travel in the developing world.

In his autobiography, the brilliant writer and raconteur Christopher Hitchens explained that he liked to spend some time each year in a country less fortunate than his own, in order to come by these kinds of contextual epiphanies. Upon reading that – in Africa at the time mind you – I was inspired to emulate Hitch’s maxim, something I’m happy to say I’ve more or less achieved so far (thanks mainly to a worryingly laissez faire attitude towards credit card debt).

And having seen a fair bit of the third world in recent years, the one thing that seems to separate those that are flourishing from those that are yet to find their way in the post-colonial age is the strength of institutions and rule of law. Wherever politicians can get away with more, and can more readily intervene in the affairs of the people without accountability, the worse the state of its economy and lower its standards of living I have generally found.

Sadly, this has been the case for Sri Lanka. Too many of its leaders have succumbed to the divisive rhetoric that has postponed reconciliation between the Tamils and Sinhalese, whether out of genuine xenophobia or, more likely, as way of mobilising the masses. Others have stuck their fingers deep into the communal honeypot, plundering without the inconvenient fear of being brought to justice.

Even the man credited with ending the war, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is now under suspicion of corruption and this morning I picked up the local English language rag to see that his son Namal has been arrested on charges of fraud. He will likely be let off scot-free, but even the fact that the police took action against such a VIP is promising.

Every country has its developmental issues, but the notion that rule of law transcends the power of any man (or woman) is central to its ability to grow and provide peace for its people.

That’s why so many Americans are worried about their current presidential prospects, whether it is Hillary Clinton’s lax treatment of confidential emails or Donald Trump’s shock claim that the constitution may “take a back seat” if he occupies the White House.

They would be wise to brush up on recent Sri Lankan history. Or maybe take a little trip to somewhere less fortunate.

sri lanka

Image source: Agence France Press

Published on July 18 2016

Black and blue lives

Cleveland, Ohio

The streets of Cleveland may have been a sea of unity following the Cavs’ historic NBA championship, but signs suggest the harmony will be short-lived. As this majority African-American city prepares to host the Republican Party’s national convention this week, tensions are running high. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement had made clear its intention to fiercely protest the convention and the party’s presumptive nominee in particular (as is its constitutional right). But given the rowdy and sometimes violent nature of anti-Trump demonstrations at less significant events the local cops here are on high alert for the main event.

The situation is not native to northern Ohio. Across America’s cities right now, civil unrest is intensifying and blood is being spilled.

On July 7, five police officers were murdered by a single shooter at a BLM rally in Dallas, held in response to a number of recent police killings of young black males. The very next day, five citizens were shot at a candlelight vigil in downtown Baltimore, as spontaneous demonstrations sprouted – some peaceful, others less so.

And now another three cops have been gunned down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the same city in which Alton Sterling was killed by police last week.

These horrific events have reopened a national sore that has steadily grown more infected. Unrest in the country’s urban centres is at fever pitch, as is distrust between law enforcement and the communities they are tasked with serving.

Over the past year I’ve hesitated to wade into this thorny issue, recognising that having not grown up in this country I needed time to try to understand the depth of feeling and range of perspectives about the dire situation in America’s poorest precincts. Or, to adopt the popular adage of the ‘regressive left’, perhaps I wanted to “check my privilege”.

It is a topic that touches on some of society’s most difficult considerations – race, criminal justice, violence and mental health, poverty and income disparity, welfare and corruption, the role of the family and state, the legacy of slavery and colonialism – and not a day goes by that you don’t hear a headline, argument, lamentation or jibe trying to make sense of the madness.

On one level, the unrest seems to stem from a tragic and extreme form of miscommunication. Many African-Americans, particularly the youth of the poorest communities, have tried to tell the story of overzealous and sometimes brutal policing for decades. But believing their efforts have fallen on deaf ears, they have now resorted to more militant tactics to demand attention, manifested in the BLM movement, which has grown from a hashtag to an influential cultural and political force in a shockingly small amount of time.

I gained an eyewitness account of the communicative chasm when attending some seminars last year at the Leadership Institute; a DC think-tank Hillary Clinton once famously claimed was at the crux of the alleged “vast right wing conspiracy”. Having remained relatively quiet throughout the morning’s debates and deliberations, Jordan, a young black guy from Kansas City, Missouri – not far from the infamous Ferguson where a BLM protest got very out of hand in 2015 – suddenly found his voice. From the rear of the room, he interjected in a conversation about criminal justice reform to provide some personal insight.

“Excuse me,” Jordan timidly began. “I appreciate all y’all’s points of views but I gotta tell you that I get stopped by the police for no reason almost every day and it can be very frustrating.”

Jordan is not a gang-banger but a Young Republican that works at a bank. His words were not offensive, embellished or politically charged. He politely offered relevant facts of his own personal experience.

And yet, the response he received was as telling as the tale itself.

The room exploded in a frenzy of head-shaking, finger-pointing, cynicism and denial. The message was immediately clear: Jordan was wrong and the other attendees (most of whom were white, upper-middle-class politicos who have likely never been to Kansas City, Missouri) simply knew better. If this was the reaction to a well-spoken, well-groomed, self-identified conservative I could only imagine the brick wall he would have faced, had he been clad in a do-rag and baggy jeans instead. He just wanted to be listened to, and instead left the meeting feeling more dejected and disillusioned than when he arrived.

The point of this anecdote is not in any way to justify or excuse the disgusting and evil slaughter of police officers, but rather to illustrate a real world example of the kinds of everyday exchanges that have fuelled the violent frustration playing out on the streets.

No amount of victimhood justifies murder and much of the anti-cop hysteria is the overblown symptom of social and traditional media hype. But for those for whom uttering the words “black lives matter” is a step too far, perhaps at least acknowledging that the inhabitants of the ghetto might actually be the most qualified people to testify on the subject would be a decent start to fixing this mess.

At the same time, I do understand the concerns of those who will say I’m being too soft on a political movement that has advocated vandalism and violence. For every story of excessive force by a law enforcement officer, there are many more of wanton lawlessness and crime by angry young citizens and of police doing their job appropriately, even heroically. The sad reality is that for many white middle class Americans, their only experience of black youth is the negative memory of a past mugging or burglary (or more likely, the Chinese whispers of a friend of a friend who has had such an ordeal). Focusing on these cases might unfairly taint the other law-abiding members of these communities – those brave kids who turn down the trappings of “thug life” and hit the books or batting cages amid the sound of gunfire – but they do exist and they have helped entrench the battlelines.

Finding solutions to these deep-seated divisions is not easy, but will likely require a combination of criminal justice and economic reform, new approaches to policing and the more important shifts in public sentiment and perception – all of which are easier said than done but now possess some urgency.

What is more obvious is that the status quo in the low income inner cities is not sustainable.

Decades of government funds and programs have failed to improve lives and have arguably made them worse. Rather than its stated purpose to lift people up, the welfare state has created a cycle of hopelessness and dependency that is a far cry from the “hope and change” promised by politicians.

So instead of fortifying their conference this week and sending in the troops, maybe Republicans could instead open their doors to the disenfranchised and downtrodden, and offer them a positive alternative to the failure and corruption they have known, rather than being the “elephant not in the room”.

But this would require them to stop talking and listen, an activity that doesn’t come naturally to the man who will be nominated in Cleveland this week.

blue lives

Image source: DeviantArt.com

Published on July 14 2016