Donald Trump Sr. at Citizens United Freedom Summit in Greenville South Carolina May 2015 by Michael Vadon 13

Buffoon. Joke. Jerk. Those are just some of the descriptions of the current front-runner for the Republican Party nomination for president of the United States. From his fellow Republicans, that is. Beyond the party, Donald J. Trump has been lambasted as a bigot, misogynist, and racist. Yet none of this has seemingly hampered the popular appeal of his quixotic quest for the White House.

Should we take the Trump phenomenon seriously? The answer is, emphatically, yes. Laugh at or loathe him, Trump has been the Heineken candidate, reaching parts of the electorate no other candidate can reach. And whilst it remains to be seen whether he can translate his support in the polls into votes, Trump already dominates 2016 in singular fashion. There exists no precedent in the modern era for a political novice setting the agenda so consistently that the media focuses in Pavlovian fashion on whatever subjects Trump raises. From stopping illegal immigration through a ‘beautiful’ great wall with Mexico to a moratorium on all Muslims entering the US, no-one has commanded attention like the New Yorker. Moreover, not only have other Republicans felt compelled to follow his lead but even President Obama’s final State of the Union was essentially an extended rejoinder to the Donald.

So, what underlies the success? Anger, authenticity, media savvy, populism, and timing.

An unapologetically redemptive force

First, most Americans think their country is on the wrong track. Among white working class Americans – the core Trump constituency – stagnant wages, real income decline, and loss of a once-dominant status in a nation transforming economically and culturally underlies disillusion. For Americans regarding ‘their’ country as in need of taking back and among those fearing the US is in terminal decline – polarised and gridlocked at home, discounted and challenged for primacy abroad – Trump represents an unapologetically redemptive force: a visceral, primal scream from the heart of white American nationalism.

Second, Americans broadly view their government as ineffective and political system as corrupt. Running for Washington by running against it, on a platform of incoherent but potently opaque policy positions, no-one – for those wanting to change Washington – embodies the outsider like Trump. Moreover, uniquely, his personal fortune insulates him from charges that he can be ‘bought’ by vested interests. When Trump talks about knowing how to work the system as a businessman, he is credible. Add to that an outspoken willingness to speak directly, bluntly and without fear of causing offence and millions of Americans view the Donald as a truth teller. Like businessmen in politics before him, Trump promises that what he did for himself he can do for America, and that ordinary Americans will once more partake of the increasingly elusive American Dream.

Social media mogul

Third, Trump has exploited his formidable media knowledge with astonishing shrewdness. Outrageous statements, outlandish claims and telling personal insults – seemingly spontaneous but carefully pre-planned and road-tested – compel ratings. Social media abets the creation of an alternative reality and echo chamber from which the distrusted mainstream media are excluded. Disintermediation – cutting out the middle man – compounds Trump’s celebrity status to forge what his 5 million Twitter supporters perceive as a personal link to their politically incorrect champion.

Fourth, Trump – for whom id, not ideology, is all – upends conservative orthodoxy. A New York native who was for most of his life pro-choice on abortion, pro-gun control and a donor to Democrats, Trump is no staid Mitt Romney. In rejecting free trade deals and ‘stoopid’ Middle East wars, pledging to make allies from Saudi Arabia to South Korea pay for US protection, committing to punitive taxes on Wall Street and preserving entitlement programmes for the average Joe, Trump’s anti-elitism is scrambling a party establishment fearful of an anti-government populism it unleashed but cannot control.

Finally, if Obama won the presidency in 2008 as the ‘un-Bush’, what more vivid an antithesis to the current lame duck could be imagined than Trump? After seven years of the most polarising presidency since Richard Nixon, Trump promises to restore the art of the deal – something the US Constitution mandates for successful governing, and AWOL since 2009 – at home and abroad alike.

Can Trump triumph?

Can Trump prevail in the Republican demolition derby? The odds are still against him. After all, most Republicans do not support him and he has been first in national polls in large part because the ‘establishment’ vote has been so fragmented among Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie. But if Trump can win or come second to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus, and then top the New Hampshire and South Carolina polls, the prospects of him securing the nomination are 50-50 at worst. By the time of the Republican Party convention in Cleveland, Ohio in July, if not well in advance, no one may be laughing other than the Donald.

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Rob Singh is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck. His new book, ‘After Obama: Renewing American Leadership, Restoring Global Order’ will be published by Cambridge University Press in May. Prof Singh recently appeared on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Long View which focused on ‘Donald Trump and the Politics of Celebrity’


In special extended essay Birkbeck’s Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos examines David Cameron’s (Re) negotiation techniques:

The outcomes of the British government’s attempt to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership of the European Union and the referendum that will follow are highly uncertain but the renegotiation reveals quite a lot about Prime Minister David Cameron. For a start, the decision to renegotiate relates much less to the UK’s interests than it does to Prime Minister Cameron’s inability to modernise his own party and face down its increasingly vocal right wing. He now spends most of his time talking about and dealing with the last issue he said he wanted his party to talk about when he became leader of the Conservative Party more than a decade ago. More importantly, the way in which he is going about a crucial part of this renegotiation reveals that – far from what one would expect from a self-proclaimed moderniser – key policy decisions pay little heed to evidence.

Of all the EU-related issues that Mr Cameron raised in his letter to the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, the treatment of EU citizens in the context of the UK’s welfare benefit system (i.e. monies that UK-based workers receive if they meet certain income-related criteria) is, by far, the thorniest and the one that has attracted the largest amount of media attention both in the UK and beyond. Fanning the flames of populism in relation to what he calls “welfare tourism”, Mr Cameron has repeatedly stressed that he wants to stop these benefits “acting like a magnet”, creating incentives for other EU nationals to settle in the UK under the EU’s fundamental principle of free movement across the borders of its member states which ensures that moving from, say, Warsaw to London for work is no different to doing so from Montgomery, AL to San Francisco, CA.

As a public policy issue, EU nationals’ access to the UK benefit system has at least four partially overlapping facets. One is fairness (equality before the law irrespective of nationality or, as Jeremy Corbyn rightly put it, “if somebody is working, paying taxes, doing a job just like anybody else, then surely they deserve access to exactly the same benefits as anybody else”), the second is public finance (since it relates to expenditure or, in the case of tax credits, the non-collection of potential revenue), the third is the labour market (the availability and cost of labour) and another one is migration (the relationship between benefits and a migrant’s decision to come to the UK). Fearful of UKIP’s emotive, divisive and populist rhetoric and recent electoral results, Mr Cameron has explicitly focused only on the latter aspect of the aforementioned issue, partly as a result of the high salience of immigration in the UK (which, as Simon Tilford rightly points out, reflects the failure of successive governments to take appropriate action). Mr Cameron’s decision has two implications.

The first is that this is certainly not a case of evidence-based policy making. Quite the opposite is true for we know – from academic research – that the benefit system is not the reason why other EU nationals come to the UK. This research shows that amongst EU nationals from eastern European countries that have joined the EU since 2004 (i.e. the main focus of the current debate in the UK), ‘the vast majority […] were attracted to the UK […] by the chance to build a “normal life” for themselves and their families’, and not the opportunity just to claim benefits. In the words of one leading expert ‘EU migrants come here overwhelmingly to work – in fact their employment rates are considerably higher than for either natives or non-EU migrants’.

Moreover, further research shows that when it comes to benefits for people who are out of work, ‘migrants from both within and outside the EU are less likely to claim benefits than UK nationals. DWP statistics [NB: the government’s own statistics] show that as of February 2015, just over 5 million people were claiming welfare benefits; of those, about 370,000 (7.2 per cent) were non-UK nationals (at the time that they registered for a National Insurance number; and of those, only 114,000 (2.2 percent of the total) were EU nationals.  Since those born abroad make up 16 percent of the working age population, and those born in the EU make up about 6 percent, it can be seen that migrants of both types are considerably less likely to claim out-of-work benefits.’

The issue of evidence in relation to what Mr Cameron calls “welfare tourism” is not new. The EU affairs Select Committee of the House of Lords wrote to the first Cameron administration’s immigration minister as early as September 2013 expressing concerns about ‘the lack of information you were able to provide on the extent of the abuse of free movement of workers.’ Even more embarrassingly, when the European Commission queried the British government on accusations made in relation to “benefit tourism”, the response was: “We consider that these questions place too much emphasis on quantitative evidence”, perhaps because they know that the British public’s perceptions are wrong in relation to a whole array of quantifiable issues including the scale of immigration, crime, welfare fraud etc.

When (in November 2015) Mr Cameron did use figures to justify his party’s stance, the UK’s Statistics Authority accused the government of trying to avoid scrutiny by not disclosing important sources and calculations that could have helped independent analysts assess the figures and when (two months later) a government minister was asked to produce figures showing that “benefit tourism” encourages EU migrants to come to the UK, he reportedly did not produce any.

In addition, given the Guardian’s revelation that HM Revenue and Customs, the UK’s tax collection authority, ‘defines “non-UK families” as those where at least one adult in the claimant family is a migrant, meaning that mixed families where one partner is a British national are classed as immigrants’, it became clear that the number of in-work benefit claimants would be artificially inflated precisely because of the definition used. When the HMRC was asked (on the basis of the UK’s Freedom of Information legislation) to reveal ‘how many British nationals claiming tax credits are being counted as migrants’ because of that definition, it failed to provide an answer.

Finally, when asked (again on the basis of the UK’s Freedom of Information legislation) in December 2015 to reveal how many recently issued National Insurance numbers are active (i.e. are associated with recent tax payments or benefit claims) so as to gain a more accurate understanding of how many EU nationals have migrated to the UK and how many are in the workforce, the HMRC refused to do so, because – as it claimed –‘following the General Election, there is an active negotiation process at an international level in which UK Ministers and officials are engaged to secure support from the European Commission and other Member States for changes in EU law governing EU migrants’ access to benefits in the UK, in line with the Government’s manifesto commitments. The information is being used to inform the development of policy options as part of the negotiation process and therefore relates to the formulation of Government policy. HMRC continues to believe that releasing information in the form requested would, at this stage, be unhelpful to the negotiation process.’ (emphasis added)

This is not the first time Mr Cameron makes key decisions without a sound basis on evidence. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that he led for five years conducted a very wide-ranging review of the balance of competences between the EU and the UK. That review ended by concluding that – by and large – the balance is right. No wonder the British public has not heard him say much about it since then, as the House of Lords pointed out. This might be linked to the fact that at least some of its content was not to his ministers’ liking. Furthermore, prior to the onset of the financial crisis he had promised to match the Labour government’s spending plans. Yet shortly after the onset of the crisis he accused the Labour government of not ‘fixing the roof when the sun was shining’ although there is no evidence that UK governments had been profligate until then.

There is a second, much more disturbing potential consequence of his stance on the issue of migration from EU countries. Even if Mr Cameron manages to convince the UK’s EU partners, he will ultimately fail to achieve his declared policy objective which is to reduce the attractiveness of the UK for other EU nationals, especially those from central and eastern European countries, after he has – of course – declared ‘victory’. This would not be the first time a British Prime Minister declares victory of this kind. Both Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher made exactly the same exaggerated declaration in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s concealing from the British public the fact that on both occasions the final result (of the renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership in the first case and the UK’s contribution to the EU’s budget in the second) was closer to what the UK’s European partners had wanted. Nevertheless, this time has the potential to be far more dangerous for the UK. The way Mr Cameron has been dealing with this important issue is bound to further erode public trust in politicians and fan the flames of populism (of which there is no shortage in the UK), because as long as the British economy keeps generating jobs – irrespective of how safe or well-paid they are – it will keep attracting the young and often well-educated central and east Europeans that it has been attracting since the mid-2000s.

I am not at all advocating a different way to achieve Mr Cameron’s declared intention (quite the opposite, since the intention is wrong). Even if one ignores the broad range of immaterial benefits that openness brings with it, there is ample academic research proving the financial contribution that these people have made in the UK. For example, it has been demonstrated that

‘Those from the European Economic Area (EEA – the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) had made a particularly positive contribution in the decade up to 2011, contributing 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits. Immigrants from outside the EEA contributed 2% more in taxes than they received in the same period, the report showed. Over the same period, British people paid 11% less in tax than they received.’

Politicians who – unlike Mr Cameron – care about the Old Continent’s long-term prospects ought to engage in an EU-wide debate on the redistribution of resources that needs to take place so as to enable local communities where these people settle to cope with increasing demands placed on schools, hospitals etc. But holding that debate requires – not playing to the gallery, which is in part what Mr Cameron has chosen to do – but having a different kind of leader, one who is prepared to fight against mistaken perceptions.

This piece was originally published on Open Democracy.


david_bowie_by_alexwomersley-d5g9foa                                           Image courtesy of Alex Wormersley

 As with almost everything about David Bowie, no one is sure exactly what his politics were. The Mirror claims he turned down an OBE and a knighthood in the 2000s. In 1977 he is quoted as saying ‘the more I travel and the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable’. Nevertheless, many have seen ways in which Bowie’s career could provide lessons for how we do politics.

David Bowie rarely indulged directly in politics or political slogans. His lyrics seemed to deal obliquely with it across his career-from ‘Now the workers have struck for fame’ in ‘Life on Mars’, his 1996 song ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ to the album Diamond Dogs, based on George Orwell’s 1984. However, direct ‘interventions’ seemed rare and a little unclear, as with his plea for the union and Scotland to vote No to independence in 2014, sent via Kate Moss, or this rather entertaining acceptance of a Brit award in 1996 from a young Tony Blair. This didn’t, of course, stop his fans who seem, on the whole, left-wing (and also fans of scrabble, Patrick Moore and Monty Python, according to YouGov).

But Bowie was not apolitical. In the 1970s Bowie challenged entrenched gender and sexuality stereotypes at a time when few would. Jarvis Cocker has said how Bowie sent out the message that it was OK to be different while the Mirror speakers of how the singer’s ‘radical, gender-busting personas turned traditional conservative views upside down and widened what was acceptable in society’. He also wrote about the world around him, describing events from the space race to divided Berlin (the German Foreign Ministry today publically thanked him for helping to bring down the Berlin Wall).

At the same time, his championing of different cultures pushed all sorts of new ideas into society-look over his top 100 books, covering everything from a memoir of Stalin’s Gulags to Viz magazine. He popularised of whole kaleidoscope of new sounds and visions to new audiences, from German electronic music to Soul, while also experimenting with what people insist on calling ‘world music’. And his message reached a huge, diverse number of people.

In this way, David Bowie was a very political animal, in the same way that Elvis Presley or the Beatles were. None of them urged ‘revolution’ or told people how to vote. Elvis was rather conservative, John Lennon asked to be counted ‘out’ of the revolution (or maybe ‘in’-he wasn’t sure) and David Bowie was too wide-ranging or elliptical to join any one party. But like these other musical legends, in challenging convention, the Man Who fell to Earth tore down barriers and opened up new worlds. David Bowie made people think differently about the world around them. And that is very political.