Tag Archives: election2016

Lucifer’s gambit

Austin, TX

You know a US presidential election campaign is desperate for headlines when it announces a running mate in April.

This week, Ted Cruz named former rival and Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as his vice-presidential nominee, confirming rumours circulating in political corners of the Twittersphere for days. The announcement came despite the fact that he is not yet the Republican nominee and that he would have to overcome the seemingly immovable force of Donald Trump in order to be anointed.

While choosing a running mate prior to nomination is not unprecedented – Ronald Reagan announced his veep pick before the 1976 convention (and went on to lose to Gerald Ford) – it is definitely unorthodox. Making this announcement before you are the nominee, especially when you’re not even winning, runs the risk of looking arrogant or pathetic to an already fed-up primary electorate.

But it was a risk Ted Cruz’s campaign had no choice but to take. And, insofar as it removed Trump’s mug from the airwaves the morning after he had a clean sweep of decisive wins across five north-eastern states, it was a risk that seems to have paid off.

Carly Fiorina was a smart play on a number of fronts. Though she was raised here in Austin, she spent most of her life in California, where she ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010. Ties to the ‘golden state’ are worth a lot right now, with 172 delegates up for grabs on June 7.

Her personal story is compelling, as a self-made cancer survivor who shattered the glass ceiling in the then-masculine world of Silicon Valley and rose to the very top of a global tech powerhouse.

Her stint at the helm of HP may be contentious, having overseen an expensive merger with Compaq that Fortune Magazine called an outright “failure”, but at least she has a record of business leadership – unlike Cruz and so many other politicians. In a climate where those with commercial experience are favoured and career politicians (regardless of their public service record) are shunned, this is a tick for the new Cruz ticket.

More importantly, before dropping out of the 2016 race, she was perhaps the most effective attacker of both Trump and Hillary Clinton, a truly epic debater that displayed a deep understanding of both economics and foreign affairs.

However, given the steam with which the so-called ‘Trump train’ is now accelerating, it will probably take more than a surprise VP announcement to turn things around for Ted Cruz.

Whatever you think of the Texas senator, you have to feel for him. He has literally spent his entire life fighting what he calls the “Washington cartel”, railing against the now-unpopular party moderates and advocating a platform of solidly conservative principles. Arguably a little too conservative for the purposes of the general election, but this usually counts for a lot in a GOP primary.

In fact, Cruz is so detested inside the ‘beltway’ that John Boehner, former Speaker of the House of Representatives – who is pretty much a cartoon of an out-of-touch Washington elite – publicly referred to him as “Lucifer in the flesh”. You’d imagine that having someone like Boehner have a go at you, in a climate where the party’s base  is more pissed off than in it has been in decades, would be a political Godsend.

And yet, even Cruz is considered too much of an insider in this outsider’s election cycle.

Sure, he went to Harvard and Princeton and worked for George W Bush, but Trump inherited millions, went to Wharton and had the Clintons at his wedding. Both of these resumes seem equally ‘Establishment’ to me.

And herein lies the political genius of Donald Trump. He is able to effortlessly hog the limelight and define the narrative of his opponents in a way that works in his favour, regardless of the facts.

Somehow, he is able to convince people, for example, that it is Cruz that is “Lyin’ Ted” even though Trump’s own campaign manager has admitted his whole persona and platform is nothing more than an act.

Cruz might be “Lucifer in the flesh”, but it will take more than a little devilishness to derail the Trump train.

cruz lucifer

image source: VICE

Published on 29 April 2016

Celebrity heads (of state)

Fort Lauderdale, Florida

This morning the American news cycle has taken a brief respite from the now mind-blowingly heated GOP primaries to reflect on Hollywood’s night of nights.

Leonardo Di Caprio won his elusive Oscar – one that those of us who are Baz Luhrmann fans think is long overdue – thereby giving media consumers a more appealing alternative to Trump’s spray-tanned and surly mug.

He used the spotlight to call for action on climate change, describing it as the “most urgent threat facing our entire species”, in a speech warmly welcomed by zika mosquitos, cancer cells and violent Jihadists.

Musician Sam Smith fumbled a shout-out to the LGBT community by falsely declaring himself to be the first openly gay Oscar winner and host Chris Rock peppered the whole evening with (often hilarious) references to the #OscarsSoWhite melodrama.

The tireless foray of actors and singers into the world of legislative advocacy can often be cringe-worthy (if not downright hypocritical), but it’s understandable that those in show business take an avid interest. After all, what is the use in power un-wielded?

The ties between art and politics are as old as time itself. While this year’s Academy Awards were perhaps a little more pointed than ceremonies past, it is Hollywood’s influence on politics (and not the other way around) that is the more noteworthy trend.

Oprah Winfrey’s backing all but clinched Barack Obama’s nomination in 2008, taking the wind of out the sails of the Clinton Machine just as endorsements of Bernie Sanders by stars like Will Ferrell, Danny DeVito and Spike Lee have done  again in this race (although admittedly not to the extent of the Queen of TV, who is so far staying Mum on the 2016 election).

Republicans have also taken a few pages from the winners’ playbook, with a battle emerging early for the endorsement of the Robertson Family, stars of a popular reality TV show about duck hunters in Louisiana (Trump got a nod from Willie Robertson while the patriarch Phil went for Cruz).

And then there is the ‘Orange Menace’ – Donald J Drumpf – as anyone who follows social media is now calling him.

As I write, his face and hairpiece have once again reclaimed their rightful spot on the television screen above me here in the Fort Lauderdale airport.  He has just received an endorsement from a bunch of NASCAR drivers – there go poor Leo’s chances of a climate action groundswell.

Celebrity culture is in large part why Trump is experiencing so much success (for those that are tuning into US politics only peripherally right now, he is killing it in the recent primaries, with a CNN poll now putting his support at more than twice his closest competitors Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz).

Yes, he is tapping into some deeply-held fears and anxieties of the working masses. Yes, he is demonstrating an unexpected political talent, outmanoeuvring the apparatchiks and controlling the news cycle. But he is also just really famous.

Before living here, I didn’t realise quite how famous Trump is. The Apprentice was NBC’s highest-rating show after Friends in its early seasons and his brand is more widely recognised than that even of fellow hopefuls with names like Bush and Clinton.

In a country where voting is voluntary and party primary elections open to the general public, the importance of name recognition cannot be underestimated.

While this is arguably more democratic than the Australian system for example (where candidates are still selected in the smoky backrooms of Chinese restaurants) it also allows for high profile people to attain positions of power with very little policy experience or party support, able to mobilise and motivate large throngs of voters.

Let’s not forget that it was a public primary system that saw Arnold Schwarzenegger elected as Governor of one of the world’s largest economies, and fellow former actor Ronald Reagan before him.

Trump doesn’t have Arnie’s affable nature or The Gipper’s old school charm, but he does have a comfort with the medium of television and, more importantly, a direct relationship with voters that the others cannot emulate.

Even when candidates come from a more traditional politico background, the 24-hour press and a voting public with ever-diminishing attention spans demand they become celebrities overnight, condensing inspiration into 10-second soundbites and selling out stadiums to build precious ‘momentum’. Once considered beneath the prestige of the office they seek, appearing (and getting roasted) on the late night talk shows is now mandatory for presidential candidates.

Had he chosen a different path in life it’s not hard to imagine Obama, for example, making a teary plea for social justice while accepting an Oscar. His telegenic coolness was undoubtedly a factor in overcoming his more experienced but less likeable primary opponent. He mastered Hollywood-style campaigning and by all accounts, it’s here to stay.

Many pundits and GOP elders are up in arms that Trump has ‘hijacked’ their party and the campaign. They claim his newfound adherence to conservative principles is all an ‘act’, the latest ego exercise of a reality TV superstar.

Should he not occupy the White House this time next year (and we all have to acknowledge there is now a chance he will) there’s always the 2017 Academy Awards.

trump oscar

Published on 29 February 2016


Teflon Don

Austin, Texas

John Gotti was known as ‘Teflon Don’ for his ability to evade criminal charges, but compared to Donald Trump the notorious mob boss looks more like quicksand.

Trump embodies an unprecedented political phenomenon.  The 24-hour and increasingly hysterical media cycle has made most elected officials overly cautious, condemning them to weasel words and what Orwell called “newspeak” for fear of slipping up and derailing their career.

And yet, the new rules of engagement – where a gaffe could be fatal and the outrage police are always on high alert – seemingly don’t apply to Teflon Don.

Consider a select few of the gems from this campaign:

He inferred that all Mexican immigrants are “rapists”. Regardless of your views on border security, this is vicious and unwarranted description of the grandmothers, children and upstanding citizens – not to mention rape victims – that are no doubt included among the millions of Mexico-born American residents.

He called out former presidential hopeful John McCain as a fraud, despite the Arizona senator’s distinguished record of military service including as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton (a youth starkly at odds with Trump’s own pampered and perfumed Upper East Side upbringing).

And of course, just this week his latest thoughtful contribution to public policy: a ban on all Muslim travel to the United States – originally including Muslim Americans currently abroad – despite religious freedom being a fundamental theme of the founding documents and moderate Muslims and allied Arab heads of state being absolutely crucial to defeating radical Islam. Even Israeli PM Bibi Nethanyahu, who has spent his life fighting Jihadists while Trump was renovating apartments on Park Avenue, has decried the proposal as ill-conceived.

In all of these cases, and countless more, Trump’s game plan is the same: make a headline-grabbing announcement and then water it down – a flip-flop that would see any other candidate relegated to yesterday’s news.

Compare his treatment with that of Mitt Romney, who, despite being a far more suitable candidate for president, had his shot at the White House all but sunk when he (arguably accurately) explained that 47 per cent of Americans are dependant on government handouts and pay no income tax – a far less offensive and outrageous statement than Trump’s Gestapo-esque proposal that Muslims display ID badges.

The media’s complicity in the Trump freak show is astounding. As other – more serious – candidates are forced to fly around the country making their case to anyone who will listen and fighting for scraps of precious airtime, Trump descends the escalator in his palatial skyscraper and meets his fawning (or at least encouraging) press buddies in his own lobby.

Some of the more conspiratorial conservatives suggest the media pays so much attention because they are hell-bent on a Hillary win and know Trump is damaging the Republican brand.

While this may be true of MSNBC and other Democratic mouthpieces, a more likely scenario is that they are simply enjoying the much-needed ratings, as reality TV fans tune into cable news in unprecedented numbers.

One of the most common praises of Trump is that he ‘calls a spade a spade’. His political incorrectness appeals to many liberty-loving folks, not just in the GOP base.

I’m all for freedom of speech and don’t believe offending people should be a crime, but that doesn’t mean we should celebrate crass and piggish behaviour – like mocking a physically disabled journalist with base-level humour even the most insecure 12-year old class clown wouldn’t laugh at. You can rebel against PC orthodoxy without being an arsehole.

The other often-heard piece of admiration is that he is a “businessman and not a politician”. But this narrative is also problematic. Stacked up against other contenders, Trump hardly epitomises the American dream.

Carly Fiorina rose from secretary to CEO and beat cancer along the way.

Ben Carson was raised in the ghettos of Detroit, broke and fatherless, and became one of the world’s foremost neurosurgeons.

Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich all grew up in immigrant households and sought public office despite their foreign names in order to give back to the nation that has offered their families so much.

All of these stories are more emblematic of the American ethic – and the Republican message of social mobility through incentive and ingenuity – than Trump’s own life in an elitist Manhattan bubble, the son of a minted property developer who left him millions.

In some ways Trump is more representative of everything we hate about politicians than politicians themselves: he is a complete egomaniac, has no discernible or genuine philosophical beliefs, is obsessed with the media, out of touch with the everyday coffee-table discussions of Americans and will say whatever it takes to get his manicured mitts on the levers of power.

With all of this in mind, how the hell is he not only still around but leading in the polls?

The only reasonable conclusion is that the voters are not being serious, they are ‘taking the piss’ as we say Down Under.

Sure, there is a distinct group within the conservative heartland that like the ‘tough guy’ persona and the xenophobic message, but this group is not big enough to have him where he is, otherwise there would never have been an Obama presidency.

As I travel around the country I often hear everyday citizens lament the ludicrously extensive 24-month presidential election cycle, and the fever pitch reporting of it.

Perhaps Trump is the American people’s way of seeking revenge – a plaything they can throw to the media and postpone the serious debates between the likes of Clinton and Rubio and Cruz that will surely come.

Or maybe Trump is the real deal and it is me that is out of touch.

I am a dangerous foreigner, after all.

trump dragon

A roadside mural in western Colorado depicting ‘Donald the Dragon-Slayer’. Photo credit: AJ Stolte

Published 10 December 2015

Cuban missiles

Washington, DC

When it comes to America’s icy relationship with Cuba, all signs are pointing to a thaw. The Obama administration seems hellbent on accelerating the reunion many have speculated would follow the death of the Castros (apparently they’re both still alive).

Just this week, secretary of state John Kerry hoisted the stars and stripes over Havana for the first time in over 60 years, signalling the first step in the ‘normalisation of diplomatic relations’.

Given the scandals surrounding Hillary’s email server and the ongoing Trump show, this historic event has perhaps not been given the media attention you would think.

But despite being overshadowed in the cycle, two recent media-blitzers are unlikely to have missed the news: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. 

cruz rubio

Rubio and Cruz. Source: Breitbart

In my not-so-humble opinion, these are the two presidential contenders that made the most strides in last week’s Fox GOP debate in Cleveland.

Sure, Trump managed – predictably – to steal the headlines, and pundits have suggested the stock has risen for fellow non-politicians Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson (and I agree).

But of the truly plausible contenders for the nomination (i.e. those palatable to the Republican Establishment that will ultimately decide the party’s candidate) the two Cuban-Americans and longtime Castro critics stood out.

A handsome, smooth-talking Floridian, Marco Rubio has what it takes to win elections in the modern game. While he is a traditional ‘Reagan conservative’ – tough on crime and sceptical of government – he is the candidate that is most like Obama (in a good way). 

He has charisma in bucketloads, a positive message and the potential to reach out to non-traditional Republicans, including the youth vote that had such impact in 2008’s ‘hope and change’ campaign. One old school DC operative I spoke to described him as “lightning in a can”. 

Compared with Trump’s divisive and ugly description of Mexicans as rapists and thugs, Rubio’s immigrant story and seemingly genuine intention to ‘give back to America’ is refreshing and reeks of authenticity – a priceless attribute in a politician (despite so many of them having tried to buy it).

He is even an NWA fan, which could potentially warm him to some Democrats and independents, though is hardly a plus with the Republican base. It makes me like him more anyway.

Cruz is the Rubio for those that criticise Rubio as too inexperienced, too Obama-like, even too liberal (despite the latter’s opposition to abortion even in the cases of rape and incest). 

While he has a similar ethnic background, Cruz invokes his father’s staunch Christianity – he was a Baptist preacher – more than his Cuban roots. Cruz is hoping he can muster enough Tea Party support and disaffected Trump fans (once The Donald’s momentum inevitably collapses) to ride into the nomination. In the debate the other night, the former Texas solicitor-general showed he has the eloquence and crowd-raising skills to potentially get it done.

With the unpopular nuclear deal with Iran in the backdrop and the word ‘appeasement’ being thrown around, the normalisation of Cuban relations is sure to rear its head more prominently in the campaign as time goes on.

If their debate performance is anything to go by, the raising of the US flag on Cuban soil may just be the beginning of a new era between the two neighbours, and one of the island’s sons may be headed for the Oval Office. 

flag raising havana

Source: Associated Press

This article was published on 16 August 2015

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