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When politics becomes a zero-sum game

02 Apr 2023 4 minute read
Donald Trump. Picture by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Ben Wildsmith

Remember when facing 34 criminal charges for claiming a tax deduction on money you gave your lawyer to pay off the porn star you had a fling with might adversely affect your prospects of elected public office?

For anybody born this century, that scenario must be as alien as dial phones and a regulated rental sector.

America’s latest deep dive into Donald J. Trump’s personal life is only the latest political scandal to leave us all feeling as if we have fallen into a stagnant pond every time we switch on the news.

But the relentless vileness of politicians the world over is nothing new. The greasy-pole scaling shysters have beset us since Classical times that we know of and were probably even worse when there was nobody to write it down.

Winning popularity contests on the basis that you know better than everyone else isn’t a proper job and we should expect no more in terms of morality from them than we do, say, stand-up comedians.

What’s changed is that we are now content to expect less.

Tiny hands

Political commentators in America expect the sight of Trump’s tiny hands poking through a pair of handcuffs to be an electoral asset to him in the upcoming Presidential race.

For his supporters, the entire legal establishment is corrupt so any charges against their champion can be dismissed as politically motivated and without merit.

Trump, of course, long ago noted that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and his numbers would go up, so the wider question in play here is whether the Donald’s political instincts remain disturbingly on point.

During Boris Johnson’s recent Partygate hearings I noticed that his supporters weren’t interested in whether he was guilty or not.

Their loyalty was inspired by admiration of a man whom they believed to be exempt from the paltry rules to which the rest of us are subject by dint of his inherent greatness.

Johnson himself seemed to suggest at one point that it was unreasonable for anybody to expect him to be consistent because, after all, he was Boris Johnson.

For all Johnson’s misdeeds, however, he hasn’t yet attempted to incite an armed coup, so the stateside example of an irrational electorate is playing out for rather higher stakes.

Politics is heading towards a zero-sum game whereby the outcomes are, you win or you go to jail.


Trump’s ‘lock her up’ rally chants at Hillary Clinton may seem ironic in the current context but, in truth, he read the runes of public sentiment.

For most of us now, political disagreement is couched in terms of criminality and our opponents have become beyond the pale. This leaves us all in situation so tribal that policies and matters of character become meaningless.

Trump’s economic position has veered sharply to the left as he seeks to outmanoeuvre Republican rivals who threaten public health programmes that many older voters depend upon.

Johnson’s original ‘levelling-up’ plans would have cost a fortune, but he saw them as the price of keeping hold of the northern English contingent of his tribe.

The UK, of course, hasn’t been levelled up and neither did Trump reindustrialise the USA. So, what inspires the blind devotion that sees him on course to be the Republican candidate again?

The answer, I think, lies in a generalised powerlessness that seems to characterise the 21st Century experience for many of us.

The last 25 years have seen societal changes that have been bewilderingly rapid. Very few of these, however, have come about through the political process.


Tech companies and financial institutions hold power over our lives that cannot be effectively countered by any democratic means that we currently possess ‒ ask Liz Truss who was defenestrated by the bonds market within weeks.

Our own prospects for employment, housing, and even dating are increasingly dependent on algorithms that we don’t understand and with which we cannot bargain.

So, the concept of a maverick is appealing; someone who has personal agency in a society that seems increasingly to deny it.

When the Trumps and Johnsons of the world do bad things, many are less impressed by their moral failings than by their seeming success in getting away with them.

You can find more of The Shrewd View and the rest of Ben’s writing on Nation.Cymru by following his links on this map

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 year ago

Zero sum Sunak drops pretence and goes full Modi boy…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 year ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

“NSPCC warns ministers against framing ‘grooming gangs’ problem as ethnicity-based…

Last edited 1 year ago by Mab Meirion

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