Drowning men clutch at straws. Drowning politicians clutch at anything

By inventing phoney problems and pretending to solve them, politicians are damaging democracy, writes Gavin Esler

Having solved the Merry Christmas problem, Mr Trump no doubt will turn his mind to solving the problem of the America-wide ban on saying “Happy New Year” and “Happy Birthday”.   AFP / Nicholas Kamm
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The American lawyer was very clear about the strategy he employed during a trial. “When the facts are against you,” he said, “you argue the law. When the law is against you, you argue the facts. And when both the facts and the law are against you, well, hey, you just argue.” We were in his office in San Francisco and he was talking of the advice he had been given in law school, advice which had propelled him to a very lucrative career as a personal injuries lawyer.

Right now the “you just argue” strategy works far beyond courts of law. It is the key strategy which signals that a politician is in deep trouble. Politicians claim to seek power to enable them to solve difficult problems in the public interest. But when they realise they cannot do the hard work of government they are often tempted to make up phoney problems which they then pretend to “solve.”

Obviously, these are tough times for leaders. The problems in the real world — income and wealth inequality, terrorism, migration, climate change — are chronic and extremely difficult to fix. The result is that desperate leaders manufacture problems which can be “solved” before most citizens have woken up to the idea that the “problem” even exists.

Take the "problem" of Christmas. Donald Trump has "solved" this "problem." You see, American citizens dared not wish each other a Merry Christmas. Or, as Mr Trump put it: "People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!." Having solved the Merry Christmas problem, Mr Trump no doubt will turn his mind to solving the problem of the America-wide ban on saying "Happy New Year" and "Happy Birthday".


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Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the real world threats from North Korea's nuclear weapons, mass shootings, stagnant living standards, racism, political corruption and his own profound personal unpopularity might eventually appear on Mr Trump's radar. Until then, solving the "Merry Christmas" scandal has Made America Greet Again. Even if — and here are some boring facts — in all the years I lived in the United States, people said Merry Christmas to each other without fear. Barack Obama was a serial Merry Christmas wisher. So was George W. Bush. And those terrible liberals, Bill and Hillary Clinton, even hosted Christmas events at the White House during which Merry Christmas greetings were repeatedly exchanged. Bill Clinton was later impeached, although his "high crimes and misdemeanours" did not include failure to mention Christmas.

Britain begins 2018 with the Westminster government also existing in a parallel universe. Just before Christmas Prime Minister Theresa May — beset on all sides by rebellions within her own party, forced to sack key ministers and unable to shift the perception that she may not long be in power — turned her talents to solving a problem which hardly competes in the public mind with child poverty, the affordable housing shortage, regenerating the British health care system or successfully concluding Brexit negotiations. Mrs May decided as a matter of urgency to change the colour of British passport covers.

From 1920 until 1988 British passports were dark blue. Changing the colour to Burgundy red was not a condition of EU membership, but even so the British government of Margaret Thatcher — yes, Mrs Thatcher, Mrs May’s great Conservative party hero — decided to issue passports in the same colour as other EU countries. Now triumphantly, Mrs May has announced on Twitter that “the iconic blue passport will return after we leave the European Union in 2019”.

Passports are many things, but an icon is an object of veneration. Much as I like my passport, I do not know anyone who would venerate it. Personally I would describe Mrs Thatcher as an “iconic” British leader. Mrs May is merely a desperate one.

The sad truth is that all this suggests that 2018 will be the year of the politics of distraction. Drowning men clutch at straws. Drowning politicians clutch at anything. Like my San Francisco lawyer, when failing politicians can neither convincingly argue the facts nor even argue the law, when they have no real successes to trumpet, and when they have no vision of the way ahead, then those leaders will make up problems they believe they can solve, and “just argue”.

It is a dangerous and cynical game. My American lawyer friend argued to create doubt and dissent to benefit his clients in the courtroom. When politicians do it, they create doubt and dissent in public life by cynically exploiting the fault lines in already divided societies.

What is unforgivable is that real and difficult problems require thought, action and energy. They also require bringing people together. The sad Christmas pantomime of the politics of distraction sucks the life out of real politics. It drains the credibility from politicians who have plenty of other matters to worry about. And that damages democracy itself.