Catchphrases and Top Trumps

The reliable power of a political phrase in recent elections

‘Make America Great Again’.

Emblazoned on caps, waved on placards, repeated again and again by Donald Trump, it was a message that was at the heart of the political earthquake that has shaken the United States. The president-elect skilfully used nicknames, pithy refrains and stadium chants to hammer home his mantras throughout the campaign. And when it comes to election day, these things tend to stick in people’s minds.

When Trump discussed his nearest Republican challenger in the primary process, he called him ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz. It worked — the name caught on in the public consciousness and media space and Cruz’s campaign was dismissed and dismantled. Trump named the defeated Democratic presidential nominee ‘Crooked Hillary’ and on the campaign trail town halls rang to the deafening refrains of ‘Lock her up’ (on calls for Mrs Clinton to face trial over her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State — the FBI’s most recent investigation found no case to answer on this).

Mr Trump had two other core chants with which he whipped up his supporters: ‘Build the wall’ (about his now-altered plan for a barrier on the border with Mexico) and ‘Drain the swamp’ (on his stated desire to sweep Washington clean of corruption).

Trump’s election victory compares to the Brexit vote in the UK in June. The similarities clearly exist in the punishment both votes dished out to the establishment candidates and the political elites.

The Trump and the Vote Leave campaigns promised an unclear future but one that would be undeniably different, fresh and changed from a picture they painted of a tired, entrenched system that was not working for the masses. And both campaigns enjoyed a willingness on the part of voters to see past questionable economic claims (in the Vote Leave case) and inflammatory and often racist comments (espoused by Mr Trump). The people overlooked issues like those because there was a greater dream at stake — the drive to rock the Westminster and Washington boats forever.

Furthermore, like the Trump campaign, in the UK, Vote Leave activists made successful use of the pithy remark. The phrases ‘Take back control’ and ‘We want our country back’ — whether these remain truthfully obtainable aims for the Brexiteers or not — carry a message of patriotic optimism with an undercurrent of achievable change. They embody the Vote Leave ambition of wresting the governance of the UK back from Brussels and they hark back to what they see as a golden era of how their country ‘used to be’.

This was a similar flavour to Trump’s ‘Make America great again’. The president-elect’s chant was denounced by opponents as a fallacy but for millions of his voters it was a positive message that could one day be realised. It painted a triumphant image of the superpower’s history but it was also a message where we saw the electorate willingly put on some rose-tinted spectacles to envisage that new ‘old’ America.

And the man that Donald Trump is replacing in the Oval Office knows the power of a good catchphrase.

‘Yes we can’ was the central message for Barack Obama and his team in 2008. An unquestionably positive phrase, it laid the basis for the hope that an African-American president could be elected, and that a new, more mindful politics could be introduced. The fact that the phrase was written and spoken regularly in several languages demonstrated its inclusiveness: any voter could take the phrase and apply it to their personal ambitions.

Slogans that are seen as optimistic and aspirational were also employed by the former British Chancellor, George Osborne, who regularly used the words ‘Long-term economic plan’ throughout his time in the Treasury.

The opposition Labour party would groan and jeer when he uttered it for the umpteenth time in a budget speech. But when it came to the general election in the UK last year, the idea of a ‘long-term economic plan’ struck a chord with the electorate and offered them the chance to be associated with what they saw as an aspirational message. Osborne also used the words ‘hard-working families’ and together the two refrains gave support to the desires and aims of millions of so-called ‘shy Tories’ who propelled Osborne’s party to a majority in May 2015.

Whether or not a phrase is entirely true or can actually be carried out is not of top importance. What matters is how readily the electorate take to the message. Hillary Clinton is unlikely to be ‘locked up’ but frequent hollering of this demand by Trump supporters re-affirmed the fear that millions of Americans had that there was something not wholly truthful about the former first lady’s conduct.

The negotiations to extract the UK from the European Union are going to be difficult and detailed and the terms of the exit are nowhere near set in stone. We do not know whether the country will ever ‘take back control’ but it was the power of what the message meant to voters during the referendum campaign that mattered.

What these phrases also do is convince the electorate that now is the one and only opportunity in history to effect the change behind the refrain.

The millions of Americans who voted Republican last week saw this election as their chance to ‘make America great again’. Those Britons opting to leave the EU saw the referendum as a unique opening to change the course of the country’s future. And those voting for Barack Obama in 2008 dreamt that this was the chosen hour; this was their time to effect the hopeful message of ‘Yes we can’.

Political slogans come and go in elections across the globe, but their iteration can become like a daily prayer for the believers.

What did the Tories say they’ll do in 2015? ‘Well they’ve got a long-term economic plan for hard-working families’. What was Obama’s main promise in 2008? ‘He says ‘Yes we can’ and we believe in him’. Can you name any of Donald Trump’s policies? ‘He’s the man who’s going to make America great again’.

Whether they are correct or not, once a certain rallying cry has been put out there, it is adopted by the faithful and repeated in discourse, online and in print. Catchphrases are useful methods to harden the resolve of your core voting constituency and they are an easy way to promote your policies, as voters take them up and repeat them for you out in the public sphere.

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Choose one of us

Saudi Arabia worries over changing US direction in the Middle East

Rapprochement with Iran. Watching Vladimir Putin do his own thing over Ukraine and Crimea. And – as Saudi Arabia sees it – forgetting the rebels in Syria. The US has been pursuing a controversial line of foreign policy over the past few months. Several countries have been glad to see Western noses bloodied but there are others who are getting cross with the American State Department’s actions, or lack of them. One of the angry allies is Saudi Arabia. And it has lambasted the global community’s lethargy over the civil war in Syria. As the major world Sunni Muslim power, a defeat for the Shia-allied government of Bashar al-Assad would suit Saudi Arabia well. One country who would rather see a regime victory is Iran, Riyadh’s foe across the Gulf. And the United States has been getting on pretty well with Tehran so far this year, after a landmark deal in January on Iran’s nuclear activities.

The House of Saud has been getting annoyed with all this cosying up to Shia Muslim actors. Last week, at an Arab League summit in Kuwait, the Crown Prince vocalised Riyadh’s annoyance that the Sunni-majority rebels in Syria and their political wing, the Syrian National Coalition, were being sidelined and forgotten in what has been the longest struggle of the ‘Arab Spring’. The war in Syria has been going on for more than three years, with the number of people killed estimated to be in excess of 100,000. But the war gains are becoming more marginal, and the front lines are remaining largely the same. The rebels still manage to shoot down the odd regime helicopter but with Lebanese Hezbollah man-power and Russian hardware, Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces are still strong.

It was timely then that over the weekend US president Barack Obama paid a trip to Saudi Arabia for what was surely a testing head-to-head with King Abdullah. Riyadh was angered by the stalling uncertainty from Washington over the chemical weapons attack in Syria in August last year, when Congress ruled out a bombing raid on Assad regime posts in response to the Sarin nerve agent attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Instead, Russia outflanked the US and brokered a deal with the Syrian president which would see him give up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In this weekend’s meetings in the Saudi desert, Riyadh would have wanted assurances that Washington was not going to give up finding a solution to the conflict.

Barack Obama, with two years left on his contract in the White House, will be focused on finding an issue to work on abroad in order to be able to secure some kind of international legacy. And although American officials in the Holy Land started work again yesterday to try to organise a framework to extend an April deadline for Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, it seems unlikely that the two-state solution will be achieved any time soon. Washington’s point-of-view on the war in Syria seems increasingly to be that the answer to the crisis must come from within the fracturing country. There are many other points of contention in the region (Egypt’s twisting and turning Army-led confusion, Yemen’s instability and Iraq’s continuing sectarian violence) but it appears to be Iran that whets Obama’s appetite the most. The White House sees the nuclear issue in the Middle East as one that it can get its teeth stuck into properly.

The problem for Saudi Arabia is that this means a focus from its US friends on spending more time in Geneva hotels with Iranian politicians. Yet Saudi Arabia wants a deal as well. A nuclear-armed rival in the region is anathema to Riyadh, who have talked up air strikes from Tel Aviv or Washington on Tehran’s dodgy installations before. But the crux is that in order for the Saudis’ American allies to nullify any nuclear threat from Iran, they have to speak to the Iranians, and spend time with them, and things are getting a bit too friendly for Riyadh’s liking. They don’t want any nuclear bombs being made in Iran, but nor do they want the West’s rapprochement to divert from support for the big Sunni power. It’s a hard choice, but as the US pivots towards Asia, and works on peace deals with Iran, Riyadh does not want to be left out in the cold.

Scrapping over Scarborough and Spratly

The US avoids wading in too deeply to the South China Sea maritime disputes

On Friday 8 June, Barack Obama welcomed Philippine president Benigno Aquino to the White House for talks on wide range of issues. There is much to link the two countries, which were one pretty much part of the same nation following the US annexation of the archipelago from 1898-1946. There are economic ties, linguistic ties and, importantly, military ties, (although they are a bit topsy-turvy). Manila often buys warships from Washington and the US Pacific patrols keep a watchful eye on what is going in the South China Sea region but in 1992 the Philippines booted the Americans out of their Subic Bay naval base.

Yesterday the US agreed to help out on another level: maritime surveillance. The Philippines are going to receive American aid to establish a National Coast Watch Centre, which seems, on the surface, an unassuming gesture between two oceanic friends. The Philippines certainly has a lot of coastline to guard as it is composed of more than 7,000 islands. There are also two collections of rocks, islets and reefs in the South China Sea that Manila would like some more assistance inspecting: Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands.

And it is on this issue that the US support for setting up a National Coast Watch Centre takes on a new twist: China also covets the two archipelagoes. There are large oil and gas reserves underneath the coral and Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei are also making nationalist noises over ownership of the remote rocks. But Washington is wary of sticking its oar in too deeply into the choppy South China Sea waters. Beijing is adamant it is in the clear and has been deploying navy boats to ward off errant fishermen. Manila is seeking support for those very sea-goers, who believe they are trawling their own, Philippine waters. The Spratly Islands are in a triangle of proximity to the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei but are much nearer to Filipino land than anybody else. Despite this China bellows its claims and is far more than the regional power. It is a global player and the US is being very cautious with what help is openly offers to Manila.

The Philippines and China seem still to be at a stage where a resolution to the dispute could be reached peacefully but relations are deteriorating. Last week there were reports of another kidnapping by suspected Islamist extremists in the south of the Philippines. This time the abductors, who the military believe to have links to al-Qaeda, grabbed two Chinese iron ore traders. There was little reported evidence to suggest that the kidnappings had anything to do at all with the maritime disputes taking place far away in the seas to the west but it was another hurdle for Beijing and Manila to navigate.

There are half a dozen sovereign states battling for control of Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys and Beijing is angling for bilateral meetings to debate the issues. The smaller countries on the shores of the South China Sea much prefer multilateral discussions. One player that is only dipping its feet in the water at the moment is the US, carefully offering low-level support and calling for urgent talks to avoid escalating the tension. But while the type of summits are sorted out, the contested fishing, naval patrolling and flag-waving will continue through the multiple claims to the multiple cayes, shoals, reefs and rocks in the region.

Pacifying the Pacific

Can US Pacific policy provide Barack Obama with a much needed political boost?

The US president’s quiet international diplomacy has been too calm for most voters to notice. With the economy in such a parlous state trumpeting overseas adventures and turning a blind eye to domestic pain would buy him a certain exit from the White House in November next year. But the US is still a global superpower and the president is still a global president: he has to have a coherent and active foreign policy.

We have seen his Republican rivals stumble when it comes to discussing affairs abroad, most infamously Herman Cain, who was all at sea when pressed on the Libya conflict. Mr Obama himself has had some problems in this department, the most notable of which has probably been his failure to uphold his promise to close Guantánamo Bay detention centre. But, largely, overseas policy is faring much better than life back home.

Looking west, Washington is always anxious to achieve the right policy when it comes to North Korea. The oddball state has friends in China, another country with which the White House has to get the attitude right (and a rising worldwide threat to the US’s position at the top of the global tree). Relations will never be completely free from problems but what is to be commended is the more patient and positive path this administration is trying to take towards tricky overseas matters.

The US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Glyn Davies, is currently on a tour of the region. He has been to South Korea (7-11 December) and Japan (11-13) and is presently in China (until tomorrow, Thursday 15) meeting politicians to discuss Pyongyang. Japan and South Korea are seen as friendly nations in a turbulent region. China holds the keys to North Korea and the US would like to know that they are in safe hands.

That area of the world is finely balanced. South Korea twitches daily over the sheer unpredictability of its northern neighbour. The government in Seoul has been forced to tighten monitoring of Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to combat an upsurge in illicit propaganda from Pyongyang. South Korea is also having its own spat with China at the moment: it has asked Beijing for security guarantees after its embassy in the Chinese capital was hit by a projectile. Earlier in the year, a South Korean coastguard was killed by a Chinese fisherman. Further to the south, the Philippines has launched its biggest warship yet, the Gregorio de Pilar (a former US Navy cutter), in what has been seen as a show of strength to China. (The two countries are arguing over fishing rights and sovereignty of the Spratly Islands.)

Either way, the US has many interests in the western Pacific, most notably the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. In November Australia agreed to the deployment of a full US Marines task force. As the examples above point out, the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula are continuing to be international flashpoints. The US is a player in the regional game and must proceed wisely with purpose. This is the sort of delicate diplomacy which can define an administration’s overseas record. It is also the sort of diplomacy that is rarely celebrated from the rooftops and, as such, must not be relied upon to guide a presidential campaign.

Building the foundations

Domestic success for the BRICS countries backs up their global posturing

Following on from a recent update post about where Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are on the world stage at the moment, (see ‘A fortress made of BRICS‘– 08/06/11), it is worth taking a moment to look at the foundations of their international acclaim.

This week, the Brazilian Department of Work and Business released encouraging figures showing that the economy added 252,067 net payroll jobs in May. Despite some financial woes at the start of her presidency, Dilma Rousseff is clearly focused to try to continue the boom at home that her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, kick-started.

India has become a hotbed for foreign firms basing themselves in the country or outsourcing many of their operations there. This expansion of the boundaries of domestic business, be it through Indian or overseas companies, allows India to move out itself. A report by US congressman Jim McDermott last year showed how Indian firms created nearly 60,000 jobs in the States between 2004-09 in deals worth $26.5 billion.

There is no doubt that a shift in the global circles of dominance is underway. Commentators in the US believe that, despite the lack of credible Republican candidates, Barack Obama may still lose next year’s election because of one main issue: domestic economic problems. The eurozone is also worryingly wobbly. Greece has to match China’s growth just to get itself out of what is fast becoming a deepening hole from which the only exit seems to be through a door marked ‘Drachma this way’. In contrast, as the Chinese deputy bank governor said in March, his country has the ‘market depth, liquidity and safety’ to see the Chinese yuan replace the US dollar as the major world reserve currency.

It is a cycle which allows an non-stop wheel of development for the BRICS countries. Their success at home breeds success abroad and the rising powers feel confident to challenge established countries on the world stage. By ensuring domestic growth, they can back up their international vision with internal achievements.