Betting on Pennsylvania

As the race for the White House continues apace, our man on the road - Jonn Elledge - reports on the

Anyone going to their mailbox in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, the other day was in for a nasty shock: a flyer featuring a picture of a foetus with a rope around its neck. Beneath it was the caption: 'Obama won't stop this.'

No prizes for guessing who that came from.

The diner waitress who told me this story was horrified, but probably not for the reasons the Republicans would like. 'What if someone who'd been through that saw it?' she asked. What if some kids did, someone added.

This isn't the only nasty ad to pop up in the state this week. A (now unemployed) Republican staffer sent an email to some of the state's Jewish community warning them against 'making the wrong decision.' 'Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake,' it said. 'Let's not make a similar one this year!'

Godwin's law, alas, doesn't apply in elections. Nonetheless, such tactics suggest a certain panic on the Republicans' part.

John McCain is betting everything on Pennsylvania. It looks like a long shot - it hasn't gone Republican in 20 years, and polls show him 10 points behind. But it would allow him to add 21 electoral votes to his column, while focusing on a single part of the country. And it would slash the swing he needs everywhere else to get him to victory. This, one suspects, explains the decision to throw everything he's got at the state.

Despite the polls, it might just work. The state has been Democratic largely because of the areas around Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west. But there's a big rural chunk in between that's far more friendly to Republicans.

And there are also questions over how comfortable the state is with the idea of a black president. Last week Congressman John Murtha got in trouble for announcing that his constituents were racists. The Obama campaign in Erie, in the north west of the state, have twice had to remove roadside signs reading "Vote right, vote white"; more than one voter has told them straight out that they won't vote for a black candidate. And the Obama supporting waitresses in Dunmore speak of a mysterious man known only as "pork chop guy", who told a diner full of people that no one who isn't an old white man would ever get his vote.

There are some signs that such prejudice is a luxury people can no longer afford - this anecdote is a nice, if unrepeatable, example - but the Dems aren't taking any chances. Cathi Zelazny, who's running the campaign in Erie, is planning to flood the polling stations with lawyers to ensure no one is denied their vote on a technicality. And if she has to, she says, she'll physically drag people to the polls. "If Obama loses because we lost Pennsylvania," she adds, "I'll have to leave to state."

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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