Sweet, crazy people

One woman explains at great length to my photographer that global warming is a scam made up by those wicked Democrats. 'You know Lake Erie used to be a glacier. Nobody minded when that melted.'

If John McCain somehow pulls it out the bag next Tuesday, it will be thanks to people like Jon Stainbrook.

A former punk rocker and unofficial spokesman for Joe the Plumber, Jon is chair of the Republican Party in Toledo, Ohio, and is giving his all to turn a deep blue county just a little more purple.

Toledo is just not natural McCain territory: a suburb of Detroit, with all the industrial decline that implies, the city is only 11 per cent Republican.

But Stainbrook is running an insurgency, throwing everything he's got at a campaign to win McCain 38 per cent of the county. If the Republicans do that, they could win Ohio; if they win Ohio, they could win the White House.

And it's hard not to admire the energy with which Stainbrook is fighting. When we visit his office he's preparing for an imminent visit from Sarah Palin. And although he's in the middle of a twenty minute phone call, he's frantically digging around his desk for t-shirts, stickers, and other campaign materials to wave at us.

At one point he pulls the phone away from his ear and puts it on speaker ('...but it's all these private equity guys, all these hedge funds...' - it's not clear whether this is about fundraising or the end of capitalism as we know it); Jon flashes me a 'see what I have to deal with?' look before going back to his call.

This energy is clearly infectious. A white board lists volunteers next to the number of calls they've made, under the headline 'call heroes' (Scott is in the lead, with 5170).

Every couple of minutes someone comes in, with money to buy a hat or a bumper sticker or a ticket to the rally. At one point an elderly woman enters, weeping copiously about the imminent Obama regime, and Jon greets her with a cry of, 'What you worrying about? In Ohio we're up by two per cent. Someone show her the polls!' (I'm not sure which poll he means; 24 hours later it hasn't shown up on realclearpolitics.com.)

Stainbrook's team are the sweetest, most welcoming and most batshit crazy crowd of people I've met in a long time. They tell us they love our accents, ask us what we think of Ohio and do everything they can to make us feel at home. It's just that they're living in the mirror universe.

One woman explains at great length to my photographer that global warming is a scam made up by those wicked Democrats. 'You know Lake Erie used to be a glacier. Nobody minded when that melted,' she says. And anyway, drilling in Alaska would be good for the animals: 'The pipeline gives them something warm to huddle up to.'

In the next room, meanwhile, a long time party worker is telling me about Barack Obama's tax plans. 'It's socialism, plain and simple,' he says. 'He said he wants to redistribute wealth - I don't know what else you call that but socialism.'

At this point the security guard, who's eating bean curd out of a tin, pipes up with, 'Did I ever tell you about the time I got hit by a train?' When we laugh, he snaps back, 'Hey - I don't lie!'

'Then what happened to that roll of quarters yesterday?' says Jon Stainbrook. He laughs in an oddly familiar way - 'Heheheh' - and points to a portrait photograph on the wall. 'That's my George W. Bush. Wanna see my John McCain?' He brings his arms up to chest level and wheezes, 'My friends... My friends... We can do this...'

The party worker looks like he's panicking about the impression this is leaving. 'What you worrying about?' replies Jon. 'He's laughing, look, he's laughing!'

When we announce we're leaving, everyone acts disappointed and asks us if we won't stay for the evening. But there's general agreement that Toledo is not a great town for motels ('There's one that's cheap, but the ladies go room to room, if you know what I mean,' someone says), and a TV crew is arriving to talk about Joe the Plumber, so we are quickly forgotten.

Everyone's been so warm and so kind that, even though I'm backing the other guy and disagree with almost every word they've said, I find myself hoping that their hard work pays off in Toledo. That said, I know what my photographer means when, on the road out of town, he asks, 'Why do I feel like I'm running for the border?'

At that point we join the Ohio turnpike, but we head east when we mean to head west. Half hour later we're back in Toledo and have paid 50c for the privilege.

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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No, Donald Trump isn't starting World War Three in North Korea

The US president is living up to his promise to be "unpredictable". But is he using war as a sales pitch? 

“I plan on not dying,” Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen told Spin magazine in 2008. “But if I have to, I want to die in Liverpool.” And so it was that nine years later, when war in the Asia-Pacific region suddenly seemed plausible, perhaps even likely, the musician pulled out of a solo show in Tokyo that was scheduled for 14 April and, according to Japan Today, left the country without even informing the event’s organisers. “We apologise for this significant inconvenience,” they later tweeted to ticketholders, blaming “news of an armed conflict between the US and North Korea” for the abrupt cancellation.

McCulloch isn’t the only one spooked by the heightened tensions between the two countries. Japan, America’s most strategically valuable ally in east Asia, lies within striking distance of Pyongyang’s weapons – military hardware that North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Han Song-Ryol, recently insisted would continue to be tested “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”. On 8 April, three days before the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly was scheduled to convene, the 333-metre-long US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson left its home port of San Diego, accompanied by missile destroyers and a cruiser. The American president declared that he was sending an “armada” to the troublesome peninsula. If this was intended as a deterrence, however, North Korea was not deterred, and it fired a test missile from an eastern port on 16 April. The experiment ended in failure: the weapon exploded almost immediately after launch. Yet the message was clear. Don’t mess.

So the Korean War, which began in June 1950 but was never formally concluded with a peace treaty, has seemingly reached a crisis of a magnitude not felt since the armistice of 1953. Kim In-ryong, North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, has accused the US of creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment”. If that’s true, McCulloch did well to take the first plane out of the area.

Such an apocalyptic scenario, however, remains unlikely to play out. It would serve no one’s interests, least of all North Korea’s, since the country could be wiped out almost immediately. Donald Trump demonstrated as much when he deployed the “mother of all bombs” – the Moab, the largest conventional explosive that the US has ever used in combat – on Isis bunkers in Afghanistan on 13 April. Perhaps more concerning to other heads of state than the damage done by the weapon was the apparent irrationality of the strike: Isis’s presence in the country is limited in comparison to that of the Taliban, and such an attack was unlikely to lead to any long-term resolution of the various crises there.

The US president, in effect, was signalling that he could match foes such as Kim Jong-un in terms of unpredictability – something that he had already underscored on 6 April with his surprise strike on a Syrian government airbase. It was a showbiz gesture.

On the campaign trail in January last year, Trump was asked whether he would consider bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I’m gonna do what’s right,” he said. “I want to be unpredictable.” Since his inauguration, he has stuck to the latter part of that plan, from his on-again-off-again flirtation with Putin to his recent reversal on Chinese currency manipulation. Trump, it seems, is a president who wants to keep both enemies and allies on their toes. It’s a deal-making mentality – the sensibility of a salesman, not of a statesman. And it’s a dangerous one when applied to the global stage, where trust between nations is essential for any meaningful diplomacy.

If Trump is applying his “art of the deal” to America’s recent international ventures, it’s worth asking what the deal – or deals – in question might be. North Korea has long been a proxy for other problems in east Asia. The winding down of its nuclear weapons programme for its own sake looks, to me, unlikely to be the president’s principal objective (the US had a chance to pursue this in 1994 when it signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea, but political enthusiasm for it cooled almost before the ink had dried). But for a Third World War, even a thermonuclear one, to be put on the table as a potential reality, surely the stakes must be high?

I have my doubts. Trump’s foreign policy seems nowhere near as coherent or developed as, say, that of Barack Obama (imperfect though his doctrine of “patience” turned out to be). America’s recent actions have seemed opportunistic, rather than strategic. Brinkmanship from either side won't achieve anything, as both are reluctant to make concessions. So what could the US be up to?

Maybe the supposedly impending nuclear apocalypse is, at least in part, a ruse to sell stuff. Among the policy areas closest to Trump’s heart during his presidential campaign was trade. Last month, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s national trade council, told the Wall Street Journal: “Any country we have a significant trade deficit with needs to work with us on a product-by-product and sector-by-sector level to reduce that deficit over a specified period of time… That can be achieved, if they buy more of our products than they now are buying from the rest of the world, whether it’s chemicals or corn or whether, from a national security perspective, it’s submarines or aircraft.”

The countries with the largest trade imbalances with the US are China, Japan and Germany. China denies that it is deliberately pursuing a surplus in its dealings with US (and, frankly, what could America do about it anyway?), while Germany’s trade relations are handled by the European Union and so are difficult for the US to reset on a nation-to-nation basis. But Japan – which the US vice-president, Mike Pence, visited on a trade tour this week – has a pliable leader in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe, a nationalist by instinct who has long struggled to remilitarise Japan and has incrementally reinterpreted his country’s pacifist constitution to permit increased military engagement, signed a significant arms trade pact with the US last year. Resistance to his agenda has been vocal in Japan at every step. However, fears of a rising threat from North Korea would give him more wriggle room. A Japanese commission is considering the potential benefits of deploying the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its territory. This system will soon be in use in South Korea – much to the annoyance of China, which suspects that it would be capable of tracking and countering its nuclear programme.

Trump’s insistence that trade imbalances be remedied is unrealistic in many sectors, not least in the auto sector, since Japan already allows US cars into its market tariff-free and they still don’t sell. Upping trade and collaboration in arms, however, would help Abe appease Trump while getting closer to fulfilling his own goal of a militarily robust Japan. The threat of war could also allow him to establish a more active role for the nation’s “self-defence forces”. The US president, meanwhile, would have succeeded in getting one of America’s supposed “free-rider” allies to contribute something closer to what he deems its fair share, while strengthening his hand against the real adversary: Beijing.

While US arms dealers are doubtless readying their wares for sale, war with North Korea will probably be averted by pressure from China, without whose oil, airports, trade and access to financial markets the rogue nation could not function. (Some 80 per cent of North Korean exports and imports are with China.) From this perspective, the recent tensions between the US and North Korea represent an admittedly melodramatic episode of the US “pivot” to the east, more than the beginning of the end of the world.

It’s an unstable stability, but stable enough to allow for shallow political game-playing – and I suspect Trump is gaming it (as the revelation that the Carl Vinson flotilla was 3,500 miles away from North Korea and heading the wrong way at the time of Trump’s “armada” threat suggests). So McCulloch needn’t have denied Japanese fans a rendition of “Killing Moon”. The bombs aren’t likely to fall yet.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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