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Why the rest of the world should get a vote in the greatest reality TV show on Earth – the US election

I've been watching so closely, I am now able to tell Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio apart almost 50 per cent of the time, though it’s still like watching the Chuckle Brothers trying to lead a fascist rally.

We’re only halfway through, and I’m already sick of the US presidential race. As reality television goes, it’s a hackneyed format. The narrative is childish and simplistic. And if I want to watch a bunch of interchangeable thuggish white men and the occasional token minority making terrifying pronouncements to a pounding rock soundtrack, I’ll stick on a Tarantino film.

American commentators often point out that the whole two-year, multibillion-dollar pageant is a great way to distract the entire US electorate from the real-life daily process of democracy. Imagine how the rest of us feel. We’re not even allowed to vote and help decide which candidate gets to go home with all those fabulous prizes, which include a free plane and the largest military arsenal the world has ever known. What can I say? It’s America. They have high expectations. In Britain, whoever Rupert Murdoch picks is usually just excited to meet the Queen.

I’ve tuned in for the past five series of this horror show, and I’ve got to say, it’s getting tiresome. It picked up in 2008, when they made some genuinely progressive casting decisions. The 2012 one repeated a lot of the same material, but the writers’ strike was on and the producers had to work with what they’d got. But in recent years, they seem to have broken entirely with the reality aspect and just attempted to glue us to the screens with unremitting horror and the possibility that one of the contestants might start screaming and try to eat the others.

The same thing happened on Big Brother, where the first few seasons were truly engaging, partly because they featured at least some ordinary people who occasionally forgot they were on television. But then they tried to boost ratings by filling a bunker with G-list celebrities wearing DayGlo spray tans who smiled all the time and tried to get them to have sex or kill one another on camera.

In both politics and entertainment, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of shock value, as long as it isn’t replacing actual content. The presidential race would be embarrassing even if it weren’t supposed to dramatise the proper function of politics in the world’s only democratic superpower.

America does seem, at times, to forget that it’s on camera and the entire world can see when it strips naked and rants at itself in the mirror. Guys, everyone can see you seriously considering leadership by a man who calls global warming a “hoax” and wants to build a border wall out of Muslims.

I’ve been paying as much attention to the Republican race as I can stand, and I am now able to tell Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio apart almost 50 per cent of the time, though it’s still like watching the Chuckle Brothers trying to lead a fascist rally. The candidates appear to be competing to deliver the most unhinged bigotry. Last season, it was enough to oppose a woman’s right to choose. This season nobody will pay attention until you say you’re going to make it illegal for women not to be pregnant and replace what remains of the health-care system with a single giant gun.

It was mildly hilarious at first to think that any one of these swivel-eyed clowns might become the leader of the nominally free world, but that joke has been running for six years now, and it’s not funny any more. It’s just scary. It’s depressing and scary. It’s boring and depressing and scary, and most viewers are bored and depressed and scared and unable to change channel, which is even worse, because it means that these cartoon monsters might even pull it off – like that time everyone voted for four screaming Finns in plastic goblin masks to win Eurovision just to see what would happen. That’s how we got Boris Johnson. Who turned out to have been serious about making London into a giant theme park for millionaires.

Under these circumstances, I am rather nonplussed by everyone asking me what I think of Hillary Clinton. What I think, along with most non-Americans, is that compared to the Republican choices, absolutely anyone at all is acceptable as long as they appear to be at least semi-hinged.

Americans do not appear to realise that, although it would be nice to get the more progressive of the two Democrats, what matters most to the rest of the world is that not a single member of the Republican line-up, the worst boy band in history, ever gets within 50 feet of the Situation Room (hey, I’ve seen The West Wing). What matters is that these people are not allowed to make decisions about climate change, or military intervention, or preferably any decisions at all apart from, perhaps, whether they would prefer milk or hot chocolate at bedtime, because someone should take gentle care of them in a place where they are never allowed to engage in politics again. I’d call them lunatics but it would do a disservice to the many people I know with mental-health difficulties.

At this point I, for one, would feel a lot safer if the selection were done by a lottery of the entire American public. But if we must pretend that this is democracy, there ought at least to be a chance for everyone affected to have their say.

The world is obsessed with the US elections because the outcome of those elections will have an impact on every person on Earth. So, let the world have its say. Why not? Even limited voting rights for everyone affected by US foreign, environmental and trade policy might restore a measure of sanity, or at least oblige the US to acknowledge the existence of several billion non-American human beings who would really prefer not to be blown up or under water.

The world is burning. America is watching a creaky junior string quartet try to play Wagner. Let’s give the species a chance to change the channel.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

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Trident is dangerous – and not for the reasons you think

Fixating on Trident is like replacing the guest bathroom while your own toilet flush doesn't work. 

Backing Trident is supposed to make a politician look hard, realistic and committed to Britain’s long history of military defence.That’s why the Tories delighted in holding a debate on renewing the nuclear weapons system in June 2016.

But it was the Tory Prime Minister who floundered this weekend, after it emerged that three weeks before that debate, an unarmed Trident missile misfired - and veered off towards the United States instead of Africa. Downing Street confirmed May knew about the error before the parliamentary debate. 

Trident critics have mobilised. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called the revelation “serious”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, said the error was “pretty catastrophic”. 

The idea of a rogue nuclear missile heading for the White House may have fuelled the disarmament movement. But even if you enjoy the game of nuclear poker, fixating on Trident is dangerous. Because while MPs rehearse the same old Cold War arguments, the rest of the world has moved on. 

Every hour debating Trident is an hour not spent debating cyber warfare. As Peter Pomerantsev prophetically wrote in April 2015, Russian military theory has in recent years assumed that it would not be possible to match the West militarily, but wars can be won in the “psychosphere”, through misinformation.

Since the Russian cyber attacks during the US election, few can doubt this strategy is paying off - and that our defence systems have a long way to catch up. As shadow Defence secretary, Emily Thornberry described this as “the crucial test” of the 21st century. The government has pledged £1.9bn in cyber security defences over the next five years, but will that be enough? Nerds in a back room are not as thrilling as nuclear submarines, but how they are deployed matters too.

Secondly, there is the cost. Even if you back the idea of a nuclear deterrent, renewing Trident is a bit like replacing the guest bathroom when the regular loo is hardly flushing. A 2015 Centreforum paper described it as “gold-plated” - if your idea of gold-plated is the ability to blow up “a minimum of eight cities”. There is a gory but necessary debate to be had about alternatives which could free up more money to be spent on conventional forces. 

Finally, a nuclear deterrent is only credible if you intend to use it. For this reason, the British government needs to focus on protecting the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, now under threat from a US President who declared it “obsolete”. Eastern Europe has been nervous about the bear on its borders for some time - the number of Poles joining the country’s 120 paramilitary organisations has tripled in two years.  

Simply attacking Trident on safety grounds will only get you so far - after all, the argument behind renewing Trident is that the status quo will not do. Furthermore, for all the furore over a misfired Trident missile, it’s hard to imagine that should the hour come, the biggest worry for the crew of a nuclear submarine will be the small chance of a missile going in the wrong direction. That would be missing the rather higher chance of global nuclear apocalypse.

Anti-Trident MPs will make the most of May's current embarrassment. But if they can build bridges with the more hawkish members of the opposition, and criticise the government's defence policy on its own terms, they will find plenty more ammunition. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.