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Sensemaker: The mad court of King Don

Friday 14 May 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Israel massed troops along its border with Gaza but held back from launching a ground invasion (more below).
  • The Colonial Pipeline company paid about $5 million in bitcoin as ransom to Russian hackers in order to restart the flow of fuel to the US east coast.
  • Russia said it would fly a director and actress to the International Space Station to shoot the first feature film in space. 

The mad court of King Don

Social media is calmer in his absence. America is rebuilding its capacity to govern under his successor. But Trump lives on as a force in US politics. That’s the first conclusion to be drawn from the Republicans’ defenestration this week of Liz Cheney for daring to call out the 45th president as a threat to American democracy – and it’s a mystery to which the New York Times and the Washington Post are devoting a lot of time and energy.

The two old rivals spent 2016-20 in a lucrative contest to pump bewildered White House sources for eye popping stories about their boss. They’re now busy looking back over Trump’s tenure and the 2020 election to answer two questions: how did he inspire such fear among those who worked for him? And why do so many Republicans still think the election was stolen? 

This is the new Pulitzer battleground. It has already produced some crazy stories.

Exhibit 1. Last weekend the WaPo revealed that the stolen election myth was systematically propagated by a tiny group of hard-boiled conspiracists calling themselves the Allied Security Operations Group, led by a failed congressional candidate who claimed once to have been a partner in “Europe’s highest-grossing Tex-Mex restaurant”, in London. 

Exhibit 2. Yesterday the NYT reported that an ex-MI6 agent once attached to the British Embassy in Washington, name of Richard Seddon, played a key role in a sting operation run from a $10,000-a-month rental property in Georgetown. The aim was to bring down a Trump national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, who had the temerity to call the president an “idiot” with the intelligence of a “kindergartner”.

The first of these epics – word count 8,600 – shows that the serious problem of the third of Americans who still believe the election was rigged has roots in individual villainy as well as mass delusion. The second takes the Trumpistas’ “deep state” obsession, turns it over and finds it’s the obsessives rather than the state who are subverting democracy.

Both will be catnip for their mainly liberal readers. Whether either cuts through with Trump’s base is doubtful unless Hollywood pounces, which it might: the classic thriller motif of the lonely hangar on the edge of a remote airfield features in each case. The NYT story even has Seddon training ex-military operatives in Cody, Wyoming, and telling them to burn their manuals after reading. Casting suggestions on an e-postcard, please.

Cheney – who is from Wyoming – is meanwhile “plotting for a post-Trump GOP”, and has not ruled out a 2024 White House run herself.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Rachel Reeves, the UK’s new shadow chancellor, is going to ask Team Biden how to woo blue collar workers and university grads with one big economic offer, the Guardian reports. She must have been reading Tortoise. We urged the wholesale adoption of Bidenomics in the UK in our take last week. She may also have been looking enviously at the warm reception Biden’s colossal borrow-and-spend schemes have been getting in the US outside the editorial columns of the Wall St Journal, and worrying that if Labour doesn’t follow suit over here, the Tories will. To an extent they already have, of course. Rishi Sunak has put us up to our necks in debt, but mainly to save businesses. Reeves’ aim is to find political gold in promises of social infrastructure – social care and childcare – as distinct from roads, railways and bailouts. It won’t be easy. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

War looms
As of this writing, Israeli troops and armour gathered outside the Gaza border fence have not yet crossed it. There is no land invasion, but Israeli ordnance from land, sea and air and Hamas rockets fired at Israeli targets have left at least 100 Palestinians and eight Israelis dead. Israel’s President Rivlin has pleaded for calm in mixed Arab-Israeli towns, where the threat is of civil war, never mind war with Hamas. France’s President Macron has called, in Hebrew and Arabic, for an immediate ceasefire, to no avail. The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, says she will investigate claims of war crimes by both sides even though Israel is not a party to the Rome Statute that underpins the court. President Biden has said he believes the fighting will subside sooner rather than later. It is not clear why.

New things technology, science, engineering

Florence the machine
A 170 metre-long tunnelling machine has started digging into the Chiltern hills north-west of London to create a ten-mile tunnel for the HS2 high-speed rail line to Birmingham. Protesters continue to try to halt the works. Forecasters say changes in travel habits will make the line a white elephant. The machine, named Florence after Florence Nightingale, is proceeding anyway, 24 hours a day at 15 metres a day. She has a sister called Cecilia digging a neighbouring tunnel and if allowed to keep going they will complete them in three years.

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

Indian variant
Local lockdowns could be reintroduced, second vaccines could be brought forward and the June reopening of the economy could be rethought in order to make sure the Indian Covid variant doesn’t take hold in the UK. Reported cases have more than doubled in a week in England, most of them occurring in London and the northwest. The current total – 1,313 – is low, and the increase has not (yet) led to an increase in hospitalisations or deaths. It may be that the nation’s ICU wards, currently enjoying a breather from Covid, are spared another surge if vaccines prevent those who catch the variant getting seriously ill. But the government, stung twice, isn’t taking any chances. The next phase of reopening, on Monday, will go ahead, but the final step on 21 June may not. Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, has called for a local vaccine surge to vaccinate people “down the ages”, i.e. including young people. Sounds odd, but wise. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Arable Arctic?
Much of the Russian Arctic could be arable within 30 years, according to the country’s environment minister, Alexander Kozlov. Sixty-five per cent of Russia’s landmass is currently covered in permafrost but it’s warming at two and a half times the global average, and melting permafrost is already causing subsidence for whole cities built on it in Stalin’s time. Any extra food security gained by farming land that used to be frozen is likely to be offset by desertification further south, and it’s feared that methane released by melting permafrost will set up a feedback loop leading to accelerating warming across Siberia’s seven time zones – and the planet. Fortunately Vladimir Putin, who used to say global warming meant Russians could spend less on fur coats, is now serious about slowing it down.  

Thanks for reading – and please share this around.

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Getty Images

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