The triumph of Oxford University's joke president is another symptom of disengagement

Our fetishisation of the man who promised to turn the Bodleian Library into a night club demonstrates the dearth of remotely interesting people elsewhere.

"Does this stuff just bore you?", asks an agitated Oxford don after an hour of forced discussion about the political economy of World War Two. "Is this why we now have George 'unremarkable 2:1' Osborne as Chancellor?", he goes on, disheartened by the lack of interest his undergraduates have shown in Beveridge, Keynes and Hayek. Young people, it would appear to him, even Oxford history students, have no interest in political ideas.

Yet the arguments in our defence are compelling. We explain that we have lived our whole lives in a neo-liberal, post-Thatcherite ideological vacuum. Thehyperbolic clashes of the twentieth century’s intellectual heavyweights are a world away from the monotonous, and frequently broken, promises of the career politicians that have dominated the discourse of our lifetime.

The Russell Brand episode and the enormous response it received soon becomes our tutorial’s topic of conversation. We explain how 'Brandism' is emblematic of how disengaged our generation has become. The comedian is certainly no Keynes. However, what he said was something we have never yet heard – that it doesn’t have to be like this. That there should be an alternative. Although Brand may not know what that alternative is, even the suggestion that a new idea could take root excites a generation that has only ever known a gap where the Big Ideas should be. The very fact I just felt the need to give Brand an 'ism' only goes to show our yearning for an ideology. We are bored stiff by the status quo.

Yet as the Oxford University Student Union elections demonstrated last week, this paralysing lethargy is not confined to third year history students. With a turnout of only 21%, LJ Trup, the joke candidate promising to build a monorail through Oxford and turn the Bodleian Library into a night club, was elected.

Trup’s victory was in part down to a shrewd election campaign. He eschewed the usual door knocking and leafleting. He preferred to upload a video of himself belting out that speech from Braveheart, accompanied by bagpipes and hoards of screaming students. Unconventional, yes, but it certainly caught the imagination.

He owes his new 20k salary to his main opponent, however. The outstanding favourite for most of the race, Jane Cahill was cast as the stereotypical student politician. Her painfully unoriginal 'Jane4Change' slogan, her awkward, insistent use of hand gestures while talking and her frightfully organised campaigning clique of loyal followerswere alternatively mocked andloathed by students. Trup’s rallying cry '#LJTrup4ousu4chang'’ poked fun at his well-polished rival. In the final week of the campaign, Cahill even felt the need to write an article defending the notion of a 'student politician'.  We were clearly not convinced. Cahill, rightly or wrongly, came to symbolise everything we now resent in politics.

Like Brand, Trup isn’t a genius. Unlike every other political figure, however, he isn’t mind-numbingly boring. But our fetishisation of his charisma only demonstrates the dearth of remotely interesting people elsewhere.

This election result is just another symptom of disengagement with the political class, even if this time it’s only the student political class we are rebelling against. One thousand six hundred and eight five students were willing to vote for a man who wrote his manifesto in crayon. We are that desperate for an alternative. 

The Encaenia procession enters the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University on June 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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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