Pinchas Landau

The icebreaker cometh

In light of the obsessive focus on the person of Donald Trump and anything even tangentially linked to him, it is easy to conclude that the entire American nation has lost its mind — and is dragging much of the rest of the world with it.

Yet beyond Trump the person and the passions that he generates, is the phenomenon that the candidacy and election of Donald Trump represents. What does this signify about the American political system and the wider society? What might be its impact, not just during Trump’s tenure, but long after? Is Trump an aberration, or rather a new direction — and if the latter, where might it lead?

These kinds of questions are being drowned in the flood of bilge spewing out of the American (and global) media. Millions of words daily are devoted to what the man said, tweeted or did in the last day or hour — thereby cementing Trump’s triumph in making himself the undisputed center of attention.

But there are still wise men (and women) in America. I can confirm that, because I recently met several — albeit in a safe location, far from the land of the berserk and the home of the feral. These people are able to focus on wider, deeper, longer-term issues even as the tsunami of drivel sweeps all before it, managing to keep their feet planted very firmly on the ground and their heads above the raging tide.

Harald Malmgren is one. Being an octogenarian no doubt helps. Having served in high-level, sensitive government posts for decades helps more. First-hand knowledge, stretching back over fifty-plus years, of the who’s who and the what’s what, as well as the where and when, in the Washington, DC swamp and its European counterpart in Brussels, provides a unique perspective. Finally, possessing unimpaired analytical ability to connect all the dots and make sense of the broader picture is the killer app.

In a recent article — in a site called ‘Second Line of Defense’ where intelligent people exchange views in a civilized manner (how quaint!) — Malmgren presents some ideas about what Trump portends. The headline — Trump as a political icebreaker — is the spoiler/clue as to the thesis, but see the full analysis here.

Malmgren spends the first half of the article wading through the sludge of the 2018 midterm elections and the current (sorry) state of both the Republican and Democratic parties. In the second half, however, he succeeds in emerging from the trench warfare in the swamp and climbing to higher ground, whence he reports back on what he sees coming over the horizon.

“In the background, a new wave of forces is gathering that are aimed at replacing ‘professional politicians’ and the bureaucratic machinery of the national committees of both parties with new faces from outside professional party machinery.” That’s the key paragraph, helpfully highlighted to prevent missing the point.

From that starting-point, Malmgren moves to a discussion of “the emergence of a growing number of private business and financial leaders who are giving serious consideration to running for political office…” Most people will surely recognise the name of Jeff Bezos, but how many Israelis (or other non-Americans) have heard of Mark Cuban, except perhaps in the context of basketball?

I’m not going to quote more — you should read the whole article. But let’s run with the central idea, that Trump is ‘an icebreaker’ who is shattering established political patterns and opening a path into American politics for people who are not — and never will be or want to be — professional politicians.

The partisan gridlock that characterizes Congress in recent years is sufficient evidence to understand why an icebreaker might be a strongly positive development for the American body politic and nation. Fraught with risk, no doubt, but more of the same offers no upside, merely continued decline and ultimately certain disaster.

However, the icebreaker is not just an American phenomenon. Emmanuel Macron’s achievement of destroying the entire structure of established French politics within some 18 months, shows how powerful a high-quality icebreaker can be — and that the captain and crew of the vessel do not have to be extremists of either left or right.

In the move to post-professional-politician politics — as in many areas of public life — Israel is far ahead of the established Western democracies. Yair Lapid is the most prominent current example of an Israeli non-politician carving out a path for himself and a new party, by shunting aside the outworn dogma and ossified bureaucracies of the old legacy parties and replacing them with a direct appeal to the electorate, or at least a sector thereof.

Yet in this, Lapid Jr. is to a large degree retracing the trail blazed by his late father, Yosef ‘Tommy’ Lapid, whose brief but spectacular foray into politics was pattern-shattering in every respect. Shelly Yachimovich then tried to do the same for, or with, Labour and, although she failed, Labour’s Knesset lists over the last ten years are replete with non-politicians. This group does not include ex-generals, who in Israel have usually been aspiring politicos, but rather former journalists and media people — eventually encompassing ex-businessmen as well, such as Erel Margalit.

The process has now gone further still, with Labour’s conquest by a complete outsider, an ex-businessman and former technocrat, Avi Gabbai. Yet even this should not be surprising, because another self-made millionaire had already demonstrated how far you can go as a businessman/ non-politician acquiring a defunct ideological brand and turning it around: Naftali Bennett with Jewish Home, formerly the National Religious Party.

Bennett’s relative success, like that of the Lapids, suggests that someone with more skill and a better product could go much further. Which brings us back to Macron and France and maybe also Trump and the US — and Malmgren’s thesis.

But Israel already provides the best example of that someone with more skill and a better product going much further: Binyamin Netanyahu. As his career winds down, it is instructive to recall that it was Netanyahu, back in the 1990s, who became the first Israeli political icebreaker — a non-politician (and non-general) who rose to the top, despite having no previous ministerial experience beyond deputy status. Just don’t tell the Americans that Netanyahu’s ice-breaking stint didn’t turn out so well — but he eventually returned, after refitting as a cruise-ship.

About the Author
Pinchas Landau is an economic and financial analyst, serving as a consultant to major financial institutions in Israel and abroad on domestic and global developments.
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