01 March 2018
Guns and Poses
by J.R. Thomas
It is very difficult for those east of the Atlantic to understand the American obsession with bearing arms. Many US households own a weapon and bullets; most, as you would expect of prudent householders, kept carefully hidden and under lock and key. Consequently, when the bad guys come calling, it is usually impossible to find the key, get to the safe place, retrieve and load the weapon, and take a position of defence. Even so, a surprising large proportion of voters still defend their right to keep a gun.
One of the arguments is of course, is that if the villains have guns, then the innocent need to have them too. That is perhaps not a totally unreasonable argument in a country where there is so much weaponry around, even if in need the innocent rarely have time or opportunity to use their weapons (and probably when it comes to it, not the inclination) in self-defence. President Trump was widely ridiculed last week for his suggestion that teachers carry guns in school; quite apart from the questions of balancing security against access, most school teachers would be reluctant to use lethal force – and without training, a serious menace if they did. Yet, that ability of responsible citizens to defend themselves is always one of the key arguments used to justify the 2nd amendment to the Constitution – that it is necessary “to the security of a free State”.
The Founding Fathers did not have in mind sub-machine guns when they added those words; they were dealing with a world in which citizens bore shotguns, pistols, and rifles, ram loaded with black powder, seriously inaccurate, and liable to hurt the person at the firing end almost much as the person at the receiving end (and it was those pesky Brits they worried most about). Americans do not like the idea of having the Constitution fiddled about with; they regard it, correctly, as a very real safeguard of their country and of their rights; they look at the rest of the world and see citizens who are more the servants of their governments than their masters. It is also why Americans do not worry as much about Mr Trump as the rest of the world seems to. The President of the United States is both leader of the people and their chief executive, but one whose abilities to get too far out of line are severely circumscribed by the extraordinary, and brilliant, checks and balances laid down by the Constitution.
The United States has had Presidents from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of characters over the last two hundred and more years. Many were from unsophisticated backgrounds with little formal education; some were indolent, some out to change the world, other inclined to leave it just as they found it. Surprisingly few were financially corrupt; many, especially until President Truman (who left office in dire financial straits and was the first President granted a pension), left office as poor men and lived humbly after their stint leading their people. And some were emotional and erratic and clumsy. None of this has seemed to matter much, until the last twenty years when the unrelenting glare of the media spotlight began to be not just illuminating, but destructive. None had to live and work under such intrusive unforgiving continuous monitoring as the current President does.
Mr Trump is by modern (though not by pre-World War Two) standards an unusual president. He was not politically active in a world where most politicians come early to their trade and pursue it for life. He has made and lost and made again large fortunes in a somewhat controversial way. His private life is far from conventional (and far from private). He is certainly not a purveyor of carefully crafted sound bites, unlike his immediate predecessor. His apparent random and unsophisticated thinking and communicating is more akin to the poor white working class of his country than most modern politicians drawn from the educated liberal middle classes.
In all this he is a gift to the media, at a time when there is desperate struggle to make money in a rapidly changing business where traditional thoughtful considered approaches are dying fast, and the shrill, slick, and not terribly accurate make the loudest noises. Last week the Donald visited the Florida hospital where injured victims of the Parkland school shooting were being treated. The media showed photographs of the President, thumbs up, smiling (or grinning, if you prefer; one man’s grin is another man’s smile). Not just the press and TV, the Presidents own publicity machine carried the same pictures. For this he has been much vilified; though oddly, the nurses and emergency services personnel next to him and the First Lady, also smiling (or grinning) seem to have escaped this censure. Not altogether surprisingly in fact – he had just congratulated them on their bravery and fortitude in helping the injured. But a more worldly wise politico might have wanted to look sombre and shed a tear or two at this point.
In private Mr Trump is probably smirking broadly at the latest opinion poll results. They seem to show a recovery in the standing of the President and the Republican Party among voters. This should be treated with some caution (the Shaw Sheet always advises extreme care when handling opinion poll results). Some of the polls are taken from very small samples of voters, and may not be commissioned by persons or groups anxious to get a true and dispassionate view. But the tendency is clear; the President’s popularity is rising, and that of the Republican Party is also on the up, though not so much. Mr Trump says this is due to his tax reforms and that seems very likely to be correct. On November 6th this year are the mid-term elections for a third of the Senate and for all of the House of Representatives. The Republicans have been facing this with increasing dread, increasingly convinced, even in public, that they will lose control of both assemblies. That is certainly a pessimistic view; of the 33 seats to be fought for the Senate, only ten are Republican held and they are mostly relatively safe, so the GOP could retain its slim majority there. The House is different as all the seats are contested, but the conventional view is that America is a naturally Republican country and the GOP has a running advantage. Certainly, last November Mr Trump won in areas which were traditionally regarded as safe Democrat seats – but he lost in strong Republican, but liberal, areas. Primary season opens on 1st March and we will be returning to this subject soon.
Meanwhile, another Trump reform is also gaining popularity. Mr Trump in campaign mode promised to repeal large parts of the Dodd-Frank Act, which in 2010, as a response to the crash, imposed a very heavy burden of regulation on financial institutions. It was not just Wall Street that was affected by this, but also local and retail banks and related institutions right across the country. So far no significant areas of the legislation have been rolled back (though some proposals are slowly working through the Senate), but what has happened is that the Obama approach of severe enforcement has ended; the regulators are on Trump message and are becoming much more delicate in their approach to how the legislation is enforced. Wall Street has welcomed this warmly. Well, bully for the bankers you may think. But it is not just the fat cats in Manhattan who are delighted; this lifts a burden from bankers – and their customers – right across the US; and all those folks are voters.