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Sensemaker, 2 November 2020

Monday 2 November 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Trump said his campaign would be “going in with lawyers” to try to stop officials counting postal ballots after polls close in the US tomorrow (more below).
  • Turkish rescue workers are still searching for survivors three days after a magnitude 7 earthquake destroyed buildings in Izmir, killing more than 80 people.
  • Johnny Depp lost his libel case against the Sun, whose claim that he beat his ex-wife, Amber Heard, was found to be “substantially true”.

Lockdown 2.0. Boris Johnson faces dissent in his cabinet, rebellion on his backbenches, dismay in the UK’s business community and total indifference from a virus spreading faster than in his experts’ worst case scenario.

His response, formally announced to MPs today, is a month-long partial national lockdown for England that leaves schools open and comes – Labour says – at least two weeks too late.

The government has taken to calling Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, Captain Hindsight. In fact Starmer had the foresight to call for a lockdown last month when Johnson was promising there wouldn’t be one, and in any case being right after the event doesn’t make you wrong.

Even allowing for the mental and physical health cost of locking down, people will die as a result of Johnson’s hesitation, as they did in the first wave. But better late than never:

  • This decision was taken after warnings to Number Ten of higher death rates than at the peak of wave one and of ice rinks being used as morgues if no national action was taken.
  • It was taken despite resistance from Tory MPs who insist on misunderstanding the point of a lockdown. Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, said the second was proof that the first hadn’t worked. This is nonsense. The first did work. It brought the death rate down from more than 1,000 a day to a few dozen. The government’s predicament now is a result of its failure to use the time bought by that lockdown to establish a working test, trace and isolate system.

This failure would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

  • The Sunday Times reported (£) yesterday that one reason the NHS app designed to alert people exposed to the virus had alerted so few was that the risk threshold had been set too high and not adjusted for five weeks.
  • In England, test results are still taking up to five days to come through, by which time they are all but useless.
  • The rapid-turnaround tests promised by Johnson on Saturday to make a reality of his mass testing “moonshot” are not approved for the public to interpret themselves, according to the Guardian, and are not for people without symptoms.

The whole point of mass testing is to test everyone, especially people without symptoms, because one reason this virus is so infectious is that it is transmitted by people without symptoms. Even so, the government has ordered 20 million of these tests.

By the way, the dissent in Johnson’s cabinet comes from Michael Gove, who answered honestly when asked if this lockdown could last more than four weeks. He said it could.

In the app today… Listen to our latest Slow Newscast, in which Ceri Thomas and Hattie Garlick investigate why JK Rowling has allowed herself to be drawn into an almighty public argument about trans rights, and try to measure its impact on trans rights arguments and the Harry Potter business empire. Sign up for tomorrow’s lunchtime open news meeting and Wednesday’s 90-minute “What Now?” ThinkIn to digest the US election.

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Furlough 2.0
Paul Johnson of the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons the decision to extend Britain’s furlough scheme by another month, paying up to 80 per cent of furloughed workers’ wages, will cost about £10 billion. The support will be welcome to employers, and to employees who might otherwise have lost their jobs. But what then? “It’s going to be a jobs disaster,” one unnamed Tory minister tells the Times. A jobs disaster just before the Christmas that the new lockdown seems timed in part to protect? If we’re heading for cliff edge after cliff edge, are we also heading for furlough extension after furlough extension at £10 billion a pop?

New things technology, science, engineering

Trace together
Here’s a glimpse of the future, which of course has already come to Singapore. Instead of a “world- beating” test and trace system that fails on every count, the city state has a “trace together” system that is mandatory and works and therefore allows people to live relatively normal lives. There’s an app, but there are also “trace together tokens” for people who don’t have smartphones, like children. They wear them round their necks. One way or another, all Singaporeans are now required to check in with their phones or tokens at all public venues, including cinemas, restaurants, workplaces, schools and shopping malls. These places are all open for business. The only question the Straits Times has is whether the tokens are being distributed efficiently enough.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Dirty dutch
Tulips, edam, canals, bikes, weed… and carbon. I offer only a limited apology for the reductionist labelling, because while we don’t normally associate the Netherlands with pollution, perhaps we should. With a lot of carbon-intensive industry and Europe’s biggest container port, the Dutch are the continent’s fifth-worst carbon emitters on a per capita basis, ahead even of coal-fired Poland. The government’s main environmental advisory body says it needs to double its rate of carbon emissions reductions over the next ten years to reach its goal of a 49 per cent reduction relative to 1990 by 2030. That said, the goal is 9 per cent more ambitious than the EU’s, and the country is already about a third of the way there. Why 9 per cent, not 10? I’ve no idea. Answers welcome.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

American healthcare
“Untreated illness and uncertain care fill our politics with unnecessary fear and rage,” writes Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale University in the Atlantic. His piece is about the issue that defined the Obama presidency and will probably determine the fate of Trump’s: healthcare, challenged now by Covid in the only rich country that doesn’t regard access to decent healthcare as, in some sense, a right. Snyder’s argument is that this makes Americans less free than they think they are (and than Europeans). From this side of the ocean at any rate, it’s persuasive.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

That election
Tomorrow we’ll bring you a thorough guide to what to be ready for between midnight and inauguration day in the US on 20 January next year. For now, let’s just note that:

  • in all final “high quality” polls (as mainstream media outlets like to call those they put their own names to), Trump was still significantly behind Biden in the national vote and somewhat behind him in every swing state he needs to win to stay in office;
  • Trump claimed to be confident of winning nonetheless, and businesses across the country have boarded up their windows in case he doesn’t and his supporters decide to take out their frustration on plate glass;
  • the Texas Supreme Court rejected a Republican bid to disqualify 120,000 votes cast in roadside collecting bins put there for the purpose;
  • the US Supreme Court upheld Pennsylvania officials’ right to continue counting postal ballots after polls close tomorrow.

Trump called the Supreme Court’s Pennsylvania decision “CRAZY” (his caps), even though vote-counting after polls close – sometimes long after – is routine in most democracies and instant results are never actual results, only news organisations’ projections. Trump was also forced to deny reports that he planned to declare victory pre-emptively on the night if the race looked close. In the states that count, with a day to go, it does look close.

opinion: matthew d’ancona

Even if Biden wins, the battle is just beginning

Trump’s defeat would guarantee nothing. The seeds that grew into his presidency are still embedded in US politics.

“You’re going to have bedlam in our country.” So said Donald Trump of his expectations for tomorrow’s US presidential election and its aftermath at a rally in Newtown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday.

Scarcely inspiring as closing campaign arguments go, you might say: no “New Frontier”, no “Morning in America”, no appeal to the “better angels of our nature”. But it was, at least, the authentic Trump, never too shy to invoke “American carnage”, praise the “very fine people” among white supremacists, or tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.

In his first inaugural address in 1981, Ronald Reagan declared the orderly transfer of power in the US electoral system to be “nothing less than a miracle”. Almost four decades later, faith in that miracle is deeply diminished, thanks to another Republican president who has made very different use of Reagan’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

The National Guard has “regional response units” on standby in case of unrest this week. Shops and businesses have been boarded up in anticipation of disorder. A legion of lawyers stands ready to contest the count in every conceivable way.

In the final week of campaigning, Trump has shown remarkable physical resilience for a 74-year-old who was still in hospital suffering from Covid-19 less than a month ago. He looks to me like a man limbering up for a fight, rather than throwing his last few punches in the 12th.

Even if a clear winner does indeed emerge tomorrow night and the loser concedes defeat swiftly, this contest – fought in the shadow of a pandemic that has already claimed the lives of 231,000 Americans – has traumatised the nation’s soul like no other in modern times.

“Campaign in poetry, govern in prose” – for once, Mario Cuomo’s well-worn dictum has not held true. There has been no poetry in this race, which has been, at its core, a contest between two forms of desperation: the desperation to end Trump’s presidency and his desperation to prolong it.

What is at stake could hardly be more basic. This is not an argument between left and right, between libertarianism and big government, between the case for change and the incumbent’s request for four more years to finish the job. It is a struggle between infantilism and adulthood; between constitutional order and Trump’s flagrant indifference to the republic’s founding text that he swore in January 2017 “to support and defend”; between angry isolationism and America resuming its role within the family of nations. This president has reduced politics to instinct, blame and tribalism. Only his unambiguous defeat will do.

In which context, there is bleak comedy in the resort of normally rational Americans to the superstitious notion that even saying “Trump will probably lose” out loud could jinx the entire thing. People I have known for years inside the Beltway – hard-bitten politicians, seminar smoothies, cynical pundits – have been reduced to talisman-clutching horoscope-readers (“A tall orange man will play an important part in your life this week…”). They have been seriously spooked by a lone Des Moines Register poll published on Saturday that showed Trump seven points ahead of Biden – but only in Iowa.

Why so tremulous? Partly because the political-media class in America is still suffering from PTSD after failing to predict Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016. And partly because Trump, always a performer, has so successfully accelerated the annexation of politics by the entertainment industry – a world about which, as the great screenplay writer William Goldman teaches us, “nobody knows anything”. What power does a stable poll lead have against the dramatic impact of a horrible twist in the final scene? That is what they fear.

Two words of warning: first, if Biden wins tomorrow, you will see long screeds in the media about “what this means for the UK”. Read them if you like, but bear in mind the overarching reality that Brexit has made this country intrinsically less important to whomever occupies the Oval Office for the next four years.

I do not believe that Biden – a fixture in Washington for half a century – would be anything other than pragmatic in his approach to the UK, mindful of its contribution to Nato, and the fortuitous combination of the British presidency of the G7 and UN Security Security Council, and its hosting of the COP26 Climate Conference in 2021. It’s just that, post-Brexit, the UK is no longer, in any sense, America’s “gateway” to Europe – a diminution in geopolitical clout that we have chosen for ourselves.

I have no doubt that President Biden would happily go for a walk with Boris Johnson in the woods of Camp David as a nice photo-op. I just don’t think he would pay all that much attention to what the Prime Minister said.

Second: Trump’s defeat would not signal the end of Trumpism. Remember in 2016, when we were assured that senior moderate Republicans would rein in the president-elect? How did that work out?

In practice, the GOP is now little more than a database serving a cult of personality. The Republican National Convention in August even dispensed with the traditional pre-election platform – the US equivalent of a party’s manifesto. Its policy in 2020 is what emerges from Trump’s Twitter feed: a wretched abdication of collective responsibility by the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Worse, Biden has yet to offer a persuasive response to the converging forces that spawned Trump: blue-collar despair, economic insecurity, fear of pulverising global change, and hatred of the coastal elites. And there are plenty of smoother Republicans – Tom Cotton, Senator for Arkansas, Josh Hawley, Senator for Missouri, and Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State – waiting in the wings to cherry-pick from Trump’s raw populism and nativism in future campaigns.

They would do so in the knowledge that he has packed the benches (and not only the Supreme Court) with conservative judges, energised a network of heavily armed militias (whose violent potential has already been seen in Kenosha, Portland and elsewhere), and galvanised a formidable digital network of like-minded far Right activists.

Whatever the president’s fate may be – four more years in the White House, four years in prison, or something in between – there will be an enduring taste for his politics among a significant number of Americans, especially in the recessionary times that lie ahead.

My favourite story of the Trump presidency does not directly involve him. It concerns Tucker Carlson, star presenter at Fox News, and Steve Bannon, the President’s former chief strategist (arrested and charged with fraud in August), arguing over which of them should head the presidential ticket in 2024 when Trump stands down. It’s funny because it’s ludicrous. But it’s also funny because – since Trump’s election – anything is possible.

Do not misunderstand me: I hope that Biden wins tomorrow, and that a reasonable, decent person will once again be leader of the free world. But I take nothing for granted, even if he does prevail.

If he does, we should celebrate, but do so with great vigilance. There is no pendulum in 21st-century politics, no guarantee that we have reached rock-bottom. Hard as it is to accept, we are all aboard the swerving juggernaut of history, careering between hope and fear, towards uncharted terrain and limitless battles.

the week ahead

02/11 – prime minister Boris Johnson addresses parliament on new national Covid-19 measures; High Court judgment due in the legal claim brought by Johnny Depp against the Sun; business secretary Alok Sharma and Labour leader Keir Starmer speak at the CBI Annual Conference, 03/11 – select committee session takes place on the future of public service broadcasting; former prime minister David Cameron and chair of NHS Test of Trace Dido Harding speak at the CBI Annual Conference; Office for National Statistics publishes annual statistics measuring employee earnings, 04/11 – UK vaccine task force chair Kate Bingham appears at select committee session on the lessons learnt from Covid-19; MPs vote on new lockdown in England, 05/11 – bonfire night celebrated across the UK; second national lockdown in England set to come into effect; London mayor Sadiq Khan gives evidence at the Grenfell Tower inquiry, 06/11 – ONS release due on the social impact of Covid-19 on Great Britain, 07/11 – FA Cup first round, 08/11 – Remembrance Sunday

02/11 – Joe Biden in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and Donald Trump in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, for the final day of the presidential election campaign; low-cost airline Ryanair publishes quarterly results, 03/11 – US election day; French prime minister appears before Covid-19 inquiry, 04/11 – initial hearing takes place for men charged over plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer; Travel company Expedia publishes quarterly results; 05/11  shares begin trading in Jack Ma’s Ant Group IPO; former Bank of England governor Mark Carney speaks at the IMF annual conference; G7 health ministers hold conference to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic, 06/11 – US Covid-19 advisor Anthony Fauci addresses the Oxford Union, 07/11 – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony takes place, 08/11 – new Bolivian president Luis Arce inaugurated

And finally… Forget Amazon. Order your books from Bookshop.org and keep your local independent bookshop in business in the process. Even in lockdown. Especially in lockdown! Why didn’t anyone think of this before?

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell