Populism has lost its meaning

Use of the word populism has become more popular says Sylvia Stead, public editor of the Globe and Mail:

      Rodrigo Duterte. Image: Youtube

“There has certainly been a surge in references to ‘populist’ and ‘populism’ in The Globe. Ten years ago, each word had 317 mentions in the paper. Then there was a surge around Toronto mayor Rob Ford. In the past 12 months, the combined number of mentions rose to 1,310. And clearly the increase over the past year reflects a growth in both true populism and the appearance of populism.”

However, its meaning has become less clear. Public historian David Finch says: “the definition of populism is at odds with the racist, narrow minded, reactionary point of view of the minority now claiming to represent the majority.”

It used to mean something, such as grass-roots democracy or working class activism. Those movements are fundamental, not of the left or the right. The Reform Party was a grass-roots movement that was swallowed by the Conservative Party. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation had agrarian roots before it evolved into the New Democratic Party.

So-called populist leaders have little in common except for raw ambition,.

There are the populist wannabes like Conservative leader hopeful Kellie Leitch.  She tried to exploit the fear of immigrants in her pitch for Canadian Values. Some Canadians feared that immigrants would take their jobs, or end up being terrorists who would kill them in the streets. Instead of addressing those concerns by pointing out that immigrants actually create jobs and that most home-grown terrorists aren’t immigrants, she reinforced those fears. It was a thinly disguised attempt to emulate the power-grab in the U.S.

There are self-aggrandizing fools. There is no doubt that Donald Trump’s supporters represent working-class discontent. These formerly middle-class industrial workers have seen their incomes slip into the rank of the working poor. They awoke from their slumber to find that, while globalism has brought them cheap goods, it has sent their jobs elsewhere. Trump’s vitriol against Mexico and Canada resonates with them. Trump has no appreciation of the working class. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has clawed his way to fortune by climbing over the backs of his constituents. Calling Trump a populist leader is an insult to the genuine concerns of his base.

There are regressive, reactionary leaders like Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines. Duterte has exploited the concerns of ordinary people over deadly drugs. Duterte encourages vigilante squads to kill drug dealers. Those squads end up killing the very people who worry about drug abuse -innocent Filipinos accused, found guilty, and executed on the spot.

If not populists, what are we to call these autocratic leaders? We can certainly call them xenophobes. The vote on Brexit and the second-place showing of Marine Le Pen in France demonstrates that. Perhaps no one word will do. Instead we will have to use full sentences, even paragraphs to say what we mean.

While the meaning of populism is less clear, the fundamental concerns of the poor and working class are not. Canadians yearn for leaders who are pure of heart, not opportunists who use them as stepping stones to promote their warped ambitions.

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Trump tweets while Afghanistan burns

President Trump seems only dimly aware the turmoil in Afghanistan. Or maybe he has foreign policy related on the country and is simply unable to articulate it in 140 characters. Most likely, and more disquieting, his contradictory and unintentionally humorous tweets truly reflect his confused views.

trump

On July 23, 2016, two suicide bombers struck Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 80 and injuring 250 in the recent conflict’s most deadly attack. An average of 50 Afghan soldiers are killed a day, another 180 are lost to injuries and desertion. More than 10,000 soldiers died as well as thousands of civilians.

Advisor to the President of Afghanistan, Scott Guggenheim, hopes the new administration can achieve what the Democrats couldn’t:

“It breaks my heart to have to say this, but the Republican government is going to be better than the Democrats for Afghanistan,” he told May Jeong in her investigative report for Harper’s magazine (February, 2017).

“The Republicans will say ‘These guys are fighting radicals; we have to stay engaged with them.’”

The Taliban has an opposing view. A spokesman told Jeong:

“He should withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and unlike other U.S. rulers, he should neither seek any more titles of ignominy for himself and American generals nor worsen American prestige, economy, and military by engaging in this futile war.”

The fog created by Trump’s lack of clarity has created an opportunity for Russia.  Vladimir Putin has reason to cheer the selection of Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who is CEO of ExxonMobil and has met with Putin. Russia is investing in housing and factories in Afghanistan and recently sent ten thousand automatic rifles to Kabul in hopes of strengthening ties. An exit by the U.S. would aid Putin’s grasp for regional dominance.

Trump seems unaware of what his own military has to say. A Republican-led investigation determined that troops will remain at 8,400. The top commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, says: “We have adequate resources.”

While the Republican’s views might be clear, Trump’s foreign policy for Afghanistan remains impenetrable. On one hand is his principle of “America first” which suggests isolation. On the other, he speaks aggressively of the Islamic State: “Their days are numbered.”

Stephen Biddle, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations told Jeong:

“His policies on the campaign trail were so mutually contradictory and changeable that he much harder to predict than an orthodox president would be.” “He talks about Afghanistan only when he’s cornered, and when cornered, he has said he simply wants to get out.”

Trump has more power than either Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama to bring peace to Afghanistan. He has the support of a Republican Congress and expanded executive powers.

But Trump’s war remains at home. He is paralyzed with his war against the media and his decrees by tweet only thicken the fog on foreign policy.

Jeong lives in Kabul and is fatalistic:

“The survivors of the conflict, awaiting the next chapter of diplomacy, have no choice but to be patient.”

Afghans live with hope and patience. That’s all they have with this president in power.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for killing the TPP

It’s a rare thing when the views of president-elect Trump and Canadian activists align as in their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump has vowed to kill the deal the day he is sworn in.

However, the source of loathing couldn’t be more different. Canada is a trading nation and we depend on the flow of goods for jobs. Trump wants to set up barriers to trade and regards such deals as “job-killing.”

Unlike the deal between Canada and Europe, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), we were on the sidelines when the TPP was negotiated. The TPP had little to do with reducing trade barriers. Law professor Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa outlines the other provisions:

“Much of the TPP focused on economic regulation, such as intellectual property enforcement, health regulation and environmental standards. Trade agreements are a poor place to negotiate these issues, which have traditionally fallen within the purview of international organizations that develop consensus-based treaties with broad stakeholder participation (Globe and Mail, November 16, 2019).”

Trump has NAFTA within his sights, too. With the North American Free Trade Agreement threatened by the belligerent president-elect, it’s vital that Canada look elsewhere. Canada already reached a deal with South Korea in 2014 and has engaged in talks with Japan, India and China regarding similar agreements.

Ongoing irritants plague all of these trade deals because corporations insist on corrupting them with their own interests under the label of “free trade.” One of those irritants is the investor-state dispute settlement provisions (ISDS) which allow companies to seek damages from governments when local regulations interfere with profit making.

Canada was stung by an ISDS under NAFTA in which a Delaware-based company proposed expansion of a quarry in the Bay of Fundy. Nova Scotia rejected it on environmental grounds. The federal government rejected it. Then a secret NAFTA tribunal approved it and we are stuck with a bill of hundreds of millions in compensation.

Tribunals aren’t a necessary part of trade agreements when you consider we have a court system. It’s not like we’re dealing with developing countries whose court systems are unknown or viewed as dodgy. CETA is a slight improvement over NAFTA. Members of the tribunal will be appointed by countries instead of corporations giving it the aspect of an international court.

One way to bypass trade deals is for unions to negotiate international agreements that are not susceptible to tribunals. Canadian auto unions have recently bargained deals with the big 3 auto manufacturers worth $1.6 billion. Jim Stanford, former economist for the Canadian Auto Workers and Unifor, and now professor McMaster University is thrilled with the deal which acknowledges superior productivity in Canada:

“Most Canadian auto plants operate at or near full capacity. Combined with advanced technology and work organization, that gives the Canadian industry an important productivity advantage. Output per worker is 10 per cent to 15 per cent higher than it is in the United States (November 21, 2016).”

Trade deals have been muddied by the addition of non-trade provisions, although I doubt that’s what motivates Trump.

Be prepared to walk away from NAFTA

Canada is a trading nation. As such, we need well-crafted trade agreements. NAFTA is not one of those.

Photo courtesy Council of Canadians

Photo courtesy Council of Canadians

Both candidates for president of the United States have indicated that they would renegotiate or tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. Both are reflecting the discontent of the American people from the rust belt. They have seen well-paying jobs evaporate, only to materialize in low-wage countries.

There have been few winners of NAFTA, says Gordon Laxer, founding director and former head of the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta.

“The big winners since 1988 (the year the FTA was signed) have been the global 1 per cent. The big losers have been the lower-income and middle classes in the rich countries. That underlies the populist revolts of Brexit and the presidential candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (Globe and Mail, August 31, 2016).”

Canadians aren’t happy with NAFTA either. An Angus Reid poll revealed that one-third want it renegotiated, one-third are unsure or want it done away, and only one-third want it left as is or expanded.

Canadians have reason to be unhappy. As taxpayers, we have paid $190 million to foreign corporations to settle lawsuits. Under NAFTA, Canada has been sued 39 times mainly over our environmental protection laws. The U.S. has never lost a case.

Disputes are settled, not by judges but by secret tribunals run by exorbitantly paid corporate lawyers who decide what Canadian laws have hurt U.S. corporate interests here.

Then there is the “Mexican exemption.” Mexico wisely refused to agree to the NAFTA clause that required countries to supply the U.S. with the same proportion of energy as in the previous three years –even if it hurts the exporting country.

Unlike Mexico, Canada is not exempt from this so-called proportionality rule. In the event of a sudden loss in our energy production, Canada would have to supply the U.S. even if it meant that we did without. What makes this clause worse is that the U.S. keeps 700 million barrels in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in case of an emergency, while Canada has none.

What Canada supposed to get in exchange was unlimited access to U.S. markets. In other words, we would have free access in times of plenty in exchange for compulsory supply in times of dearth.

Except we don’t even have that now. The agreement to unlimited access was broken when President Obama stopped TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline.

It never crossed the minds of the Canadian negotiators of NAFTA that easy oil would run out and that the difficult tar-sands oil would be priced out of global markets. It never occurred to them that Canada would be burdened with CO2 emissions that would be produced from exported oil.

Canada is a trading nation and the world wants what we produce. We don’t have to settle for a second-class trade agreement. Laxer concludes:

“NAFTA is flawed and outdated. Two of its rules hurt Canada. We must be ready to negotiate hard and to walk away if necessary, using the six-month exit clause.”

Truth in a post-factual world

We live in a world in what’s true is a question of opinion, not a matter of fact. Imagine his guy, his father, and girlfriend sitting around a campfire drinking a few brews near Brockville, Ontario. She says the Earth is flat. The father insists that it’s round. Tempers rise and the father starts throwing things into the fire, including a propane bottle. Firefighters arrive on the scene and police charge the father with mischief.

truth

Wasn’t the fact of a round Earth determined long ago? Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, wonders how anyone can dispute centuries of scientific knowledge based on Pythagoras and Galileo.

“It can seem as if we are living in a world where fact, truth, and evidence no longer exert the rational pull they once did. Our landscape of fake news sites, junk science, politicians blithely dismissive of fact-check, and Google searches that appear to make us dumber, renders truth redundant. We are rudderless on a dark sea where, as Nietzsche said, there are no facts, only interpretations (Globe and Mail, June 19, 2016)”

Truth has evolved over time. Philosophers used to believe in an absolute truth.  Now they offer a more pragmatic version: those that are empirical and falsifiable. If you want to know if the Earth is flat, travel in one direction and see if you fall off the edge.

The Bush era ushered in a new kind of truth, one based on hunches such as “Iraq processes weapons of mass destruction.”

Bush aide Karl Rove explained the new truth to writer Ron Suskind. Rove told the writer he was part of a deluded group, a “reality-based community, who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Rove explained. “We create our own reality,”  “We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do.”

Truth continues to evolve with Donald Trump. He makes President Bush look good.

“The cynical, political aides of George W. Bush argued that they created reality out of power. That position was doctoral-quality compared to the haphazard, say-anything approach of the new Republican regime.”

Bush’s reality was, at least, sensitive to rebuttal. The world according to Trump sees rebuttal as an opportunity to double-down. Correction used to cause shame and confusion. No more.

When Trump arrived in Scotland, it didn’t bother him at all that Scotland hadn’t voted to leave the European Union. Instead, Trump tweeted “Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!”

Shame and confusion are not part of Trump’s repertoire. When a reporter with a deformed hand questioned Trump, he mocked the reporter’s deformity rather than answering the question. “Now, the poor guy,” he said, “you’ve got to see this guy.” Trump curled his arms to mock the reporter.

Conspiracy theories are regarded as sophisticated in the post-factual world. Trump claims to have seen news reports from 9/11 that show “thousands and thousands” of Jersey City residents of Middle-Eastern descent cheering when the Twin Towers fell. Those reports do not exist.

Trump explained

Seen through the lens of politics, the rise of Donald Trump as candidate for president of the United States doesn’t make sense. It’s more comprehensible when seen as a class struggle.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, United States, July 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young   - RTX1KTWT

Contrary to popular opinion, Trump support is strong among liberal voters. A poll by a ABC/Washington Post poll found that 17 per cent of the most conservative voters supported Trump; for somewhat conservative voters it was 24 per cent; and among moderate-to-liberal voters, 27 per cent supported him reports Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail.

The collateral damage of this class struggle is the Republican Party which faces an existential problem. Republicans lost the last election because of lack of support from visible minorities. Trump’s bombast is driving even more of them away. It’s a losing strategy for Republicans which threatens to hollow out the party.

Trump supporters represent an inarticulate howl from a particular underclass called, for lack of a better term, the Disaffected.

The Pew Research Center defines the Disaffected as mostly male, overwhelmingly white, and especially lacking in education. Bewilderingly, they are lukewarm to the very welfare that they depend on.

“Disaffecteds are only moderate supporters of government welfare and assistance to the poor. They strongly oppose immigration as well as regulatory and environmental policies on the grounds that government is ineffective and such measures cost jobs.” Eighty per cent of them said immigrants “are a burden on our country” nearly double the rate of the general American public.

The Disaffected class go with the political flow. In 2004 they tended to vote for George Bush.  By 2005 they were mostly independent. In 2008 and 2012 they voted for Barack Obama. Now they mostly belong to Donald Trump.

With many liberals among the Disaffected, you would think that the Democratic Party would be in trouble as well. But many support the overtly socialist candidate Bernie Sanders. At the heart of this class uprising seeks retribution for perceived injustice.

More than ideology, what they recognize is an outraged voice. The pack recognizes the baying of kin.

The Disaffected are against integration because it failed them. From the rust belts of America, they peer out at better educated, more entrepreneurial, often Muslim immigrants getting what they feel is rightfully theirs. Saunders elaborates:

“It is perhaps easiest to understand the Disaffecteds as a case of failed integration. As the children and grandchildren of the old postwar U.S. white industrial working class, they have followed a trajectory, and fallen into ways of thinking, that are strikingly similar to those of some unsuccessful low-income immigrant groups in Europe: a low educational-attainment rate, lack of entrepreneurial success, reverse social mobility across generations, a tendency to self-segregate into ethnic enclaves and self-policed neighbourhoods, and, now, an increasing tendency to vote for extremist politics.”

When America was great, in the minds of the Disaffected, they could leave high school and get a well-paying factory job for life. It was no accident that destroyed their life style: it was by design.

American politicians since President Reagan have purposely abandoned U.S. factory jobs. Under the sway of libertarians (Stephen Harper was a disciple), the jobs of the Disaffected were sent overseas.

America is now experiencing the blowback from the betrayal of an underclass.