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Sensemaker: Don Donald

Monday 4 January 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The first doses of the Oxford Covid vaccine were administered in the UK while France faced criticism for one of the slowest vaccine rollouts in the world (more below).
  • A judge said Julian Assange will not be extradited to the US to face spying charges for his Wikileaks data dumps of 2010 and 2011.
  • Rebel primary school heads in parts of England defied government orders to reopen despite surging Covid infection and hospitalisation rates. 

Don Donald

On Saturday the outgoing US president spent an hour on the phone with Georgia’s top election official begging and badgering him to “find” the 11,780 votes it would take to flip the state to his column from Biden’s in an election held two months ago. Yesterday the Washington Post released the recording. Sensemaker has listened to the whole thing so you don’t have to – although don’t let me stop you; it’s extraordinary, and possibly criminal. 

The call showed how Trump works when his back’s to the wall: by confecting an alternative reality from lies, rubbishing the truth and threatening opponents in the manner of Tony Soprano. We knew that, of course. What’s extraordinary is a) to hear it in a private setting and b) that Trump should still have been at it four days before Congress was due to certify his defeat, targeting a state that would not have changed the overall result of the 2020 election even if it were flipped. The question is: why?

Follow the money. Trump has raised more than $200 million since his defeat by promoting baseless theories that he won, and the smallprint attached to the donations says they can be used for future campaigns and legal bills as well as fighting to overturn the 2020 result.

The 2022 midterms have begun. There were frequent references in the call to tomorrow’s two Senate run-off elections in Georgia, which will determine the fate of the Biden presidency by deciding which party controls the Senate. But Wednesday preoccupies Trump even more because that is when he will be taking the names of senators and congressmen and women who support his plan to contest the electoral college vote count even though it’s a formality. A dozen Republican senators and more than 100 members of the lower House will do just that, not because it will bring Trump another term (it won’t; it will just force a two-hour debate) but because they face re-election in 2022 and are running scared of Trump’s base. It’s a loyalty test for each of them and a gauge more broadly of the enduring strength of Trumpism.

Bottom line: This call has cut-through in a way that Trump’s calls to Ukraine about Hunter Biden never did. The 60 million-odd Trump voters who still mistrust the election result will listen and applaud, but elected Republicans supporting Trump now are playing with fire. With their support he could split the party over the next four years and hand the 2024 election to a Democrat. In the meantime they are strengthening Democrats’ arguments for reform of the electoral college that generally gives their party a head start in presidential elections. As a study in institutional self-harm, this rivals Brexit.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Chinese tech
On Saturday the FT filled two pages with thumbnails of the world’s 100 most successful companies in the year of Covid. It’s unsurprisingly a tech-heavy list, with Tesla so far out in front that short sellers expecting it to deflate as a car company may at last feel the time has come to re-categorise it as a tech company. But the real headline is China’s arrival as a tech superpower with 25 firms on the list to match 25 from the US. Yes, Alibaba’s there (or at least an Alibaba healthcare subsidiary) but so are two dozen other huge Chinese corporate success stories, some of which – like Pinduoduo, an e-commerce platform – you may have heard of but most of which – like WuXi Biologics and LONGi Green Energy Technology – you probably haven’t. South Korea has four names on the list. Germany has three. France, Denmark, Sweden, Japan, Spain and Brazil each have two. The UK has one – Ocado. If Covid has accelerated changes that were going to happen anyway, Britain has a way to go to “prosper mightily”. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Nasa’s new space suit
The history of space suits begins in a Massachusetts bra factory, where seamstresses expert in stitching elasticated fabrics were sworn to secrecy in the 1950s and put to work custom-building the first pressure suits for U-2 pilots. 70 years on Nasa is still working on some very basic challenges including how to enable astronauts to kneel and pick things up when they go back to the moon. The result is the xEMU (Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit), because Nasa loves acronyms and because a spacesuit is nowadays best understood as a mini spacecraft. The MIT Technology Review took a good look at it over the Christmas break and found that even though it looks if anything even more bulky than Shuttle-era suits, it should make walking, talking and generally getting stuff done on the moon much easier than it used to be. Which might just make it worth going back there.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Two stories, one cheerful blue flame. The Guardian has a piece on the Dogger Bank wind farm under construction so far off the northeast coast of England that you can’t see the turbines even though they’re nearly as tall as the Shard. This is the future of offshore wind; blades 100 metres long driving generators that can each power 16,000 homes. Meanwhile the BBC and the FT report (£) that a local utility is starting to feed hydrogen into the natural gas supply for the village of Winlanton near Newcastle as a pilot to lower the carbon cost of heating. It only does this if the hydrogen is produced by the electrolysis of water using renewable energy, which is where those massive turbines come in. It’s not enough for them to replace baseload fossil fuel-powered capacity. When the wind blows they need to meet much more than immediate demand, and store the surplus as hydrogen. This isn’t happening yet, but the direction of travel is promising.

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

Big Vaxx
Tremendous excitement, largely warranted, about today’s launch of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine in the UK: initially at six carefully-monitored locations, expanding in principle to hundreds if not thousands of GP surgeries, sports halls and scout huts within weeks. There are serious questions yet to be answered about whether the immune response is strengthened or weakened by stretching the gap between doses from three to 12 weeks, but it’s hard to argue that the rampant UK variant of the Covid virus doesn’t create a case for improvisation. We are where we are. More than 50,000 new cases a day and higher numbers in hospital with Covid than at the peak of the first wave. Would we be here if the government had at any stage been ahead of the curve rather than behind it? Probably not, although better to be vaccinating fast than hardly at all. Macron’s government is getting pilloried with some justification for managing a grand total of 352 people by 31 December, four days into France’s vaccination programme. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Ma gone 
Jack Ma, the Chinese e-commerce gazillionaire who offended Beijing with a rant against Chinese tech regulators last year, has vanished, or been vanished, from the judging panel of an African business talent show he used to host. Side-by-side pictures in the FT’s report (£) on his removal show how he’s been quietly replaced by a presumably cooperative judge named Lucy Peng. There is little doubt the regime’s vendetta against Ma is on orders from the very top. The question is how far President Xi Jinping will pursue it. Hitherto he has tacitly accepted the need for entrepreneurs to drive China’s relentless growth. The message now is that they can operate only on terms dictated by the party. Are these acceptable to the world’s fastest-growing business class? 2021 could tell us. 

The week ahead

4/1 – rollout of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine begins; primary schools outside some high-infection areas set to reopen; MPs remain on recess after extension of Christmas break; inquest opens into the death of Leon Briggs in police custody, 5/1 – review of constituency boundaries begins; Labour MP Apsana Begum appears in court charged with housing fraud, 6/1 – Lords returns from Christmas recess; review of England’s tier restrictions, 7/1 – PwC issues UK and global economic predictions for 2021; Oxford Farming Conference takes place online; Royal College of Physicians hosts annual conference, 8/1 – hearing for former soldier charged over attempted murder of IRA suspect in 1974, 9/1 – Scottish coronavirus restrictions set to be reviewed, 10/1 – Margaret Thatcher Day celebrated on Falkland Islands

4/1 – Donald Trump holds “victory rally” in Georgia ahead of Senate run-offs; Myanmar celebrates anniversary of independence from UK; World Health Organisation vaccine advisory panel meets to examine safety and efficacy of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, 5/1 – Georgia Senate run-offs take place; Saudi Arabia hosts Gulf Arab summit; arraignment for Kyle Rittenhouse, alleged perpetrator of Kenosha shootings, 6/1 – congressional joint session to count US electoral votes; Anthony Fauci, US infectious disease chief, addresses Economic Club of Washington DC; European Medicines Agency meets to consider authorisation of Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, 7/1 – one year since new type of coronavirus identified and isolated in China; Greece two-month national lockdown due to end, 8/1 – EU publishes monthly unemployment figures, 10/1 – Kyrgyzstan presidential election

Opinion: Matt d’Ancona
A happy new year is an honest one, Boris

As new Covid restrictions are finalised, the PM needs to break the habit of a lifetime and speak candidly about the great trials that lie ahead.

Read the rest of this article here.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs Getty Images