Trump Can’t Win This Trade War

Watching Donald Trump fight a trade war is a bit like watching George Foreman’s 1974 title bout against Muhammad Ali. The pulverising power of the champion in the opening rounds is awe-inspiring, but against a wily and disciplined opponent who has the mental ability to absorb punishment, you know he’s setting himself up for that eighth-round knockout.

The Trump method, which he supposedly honed in the real-estate world, is to bully your way to a deal. You manoeuvre yourself into a position of overwhelming power, then you open negotiations. That’s why Trump wanted to smash the multilateral global order, cheering the breakup of Europe and undermining the World Trade Organization: divide and conquer.

When it comes to China, Trump is right that China stands to lose more than America from a trade war. Precisely because the US runs such a large deficit with China, China needs the US economy more than the US needs China’s. In the aggregate, China will suffer the most from a prolonged trade war. Thus it stands to reason that in a scrap, Beijing will be the first to cry uncle.

Except that aggregates don’t make decisions, at least not in China. The leadership does. And just in case Trump hasn’t noticed, the Communist leadership doesn’t spend hours each day watching Fox and Friends to see how they’re playing on Main Street. The Chinese leadership can’t willy-nilly ignore its citizens’ wishes indefinitely, but put simply, there are no mid-term elections looming in China.

Like Ali did in 1974, China can probably absorb a good deal of punishment in the early rounds, relying on its stamina to go the distance. Given that the US President has repeatedly cited the performance of the stock market as an indicator of his economic savvy, it’s hard to imagine plunges in the indices, of the sort we saw this past week, sliding off his back indefinitely. Meanwhile, if the idea of fighting for American jobs plays well among his base, it will be complicated by the fact that many other industries in which his supporters work will be negatively affected by a prolonged standoff. Given how little of a margin of error Trump has, with his approval ratings so low, he doesn’t have a lot left to burn. He needs a deal.

And yet, from an economic standpoint, he’s carried a knife to a gunfight. China engages in all sorts of unfair trade practices, and Trump has a reasonable point that they should be forced to open up more. But why choose steel for your ammunition? A big part of the reason the American steel industry is declining is that its competitiveness has been sliding for decades. Its plant is aging. This has depressed margins, which has limited the amounts available for re-investment and re-tooling. New entrants to the steel industry in the developing world, by installing state-of-the-art machinery, are able to operate with much healthier profit margins than those in the US.

In principle, therefore, Chinese producers can absorb more of the costs imposed by a trade war than American producers can. In the short term, American steelmakers may get a modest boost from the added protection, but it probably won’t change their margins enough to reverse long-term trends. Meanwhile, if the tariffs trigger a trade war, the damage will be absorbed by other industries which are competitive, and which could stand up well in a tussle.

The Trump administration’s divide-and-conquer strategy appears not to be working. Having enthusiastically welcomed the Brexit vote, in the hopes that it would unleash a populist tide across Europe, Trump has had to watch as Europe’s leaders effectively regrouped. The populist tide continues, but fears of a European break-up now look premature. On the contrary, Britain is slowly but surely moving itself back into the European column – would you want to bet the farm on a new trade deal with this bloke? Current betting is that Brexit, if it happens at all, will be almost in name only. Equally, when Trump walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he apparently calculated that without the US, the deal would collapse and everyone would petition the US separately for new deals. Instead, the TPP re-constituted itself under China leadership.

Each time Trump fires an arrow that misses its target, his quiver empties. It’s conceivable that Beijing will make some kind of cosmetic concessions that will enable Trump to save face before his supporters, claiming a victory while hiding its Pyrrhic character. But it’s telling that Trump’s best hope is that Beijing throws him some kind of lifeline. His worst fear, by contrast, would have to be that Beijing decides to take this one the distance.

In that case, Trump may find himself reliving George Foreman’s seventh round. ‘I hit him hard to the jaw’ Foreman said years later, recalling the match. ‘He held me and whispered in my ear: “That all you got, George?” I realized that this ain’t what I thought it was.’


To readers in South Africa: I’ll be speaking about my new book, Twilight of the Money Gods, on 4 April at 4 pm at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, and on 11 April at 12:15 at Stellenbosch University.


Democracy Was Never All It Was Cut Out to Be Anyhow

Steven Pinker seems to have made it his mission to defend the values of the Enlightenment against what he sees as a resurgence of ignorance and superstition. His new book, Enlightenment Now, takes direct aim at the current populist wave and its call to make things great again. For Pinker, things are better than ever, and will get better yet, thanks to the triumph of science and reason over religion and belief.

It’s called the Whig interpretation of history, and it assumes that the Enlightenment put humanity on a march of progress towards higher states of being: constitutional democracy, capitalism, individual liberty. Pinker opens his book with an inventory of the Enlightenment’s gifts to us before warning ominously that ‘more than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense.’

I understand his anxiety. Recent studies have revealed that in Western societies, many young people are turning against democracy. Some, including the ‘fine people’ Donald Trump says turn up at torch-lit marches, look to strong leaders like him. However, I rather doubt that the solution is another book and lecture-tour by Professor Pinker, or any of today’s Cassandras, many of whom say we need to educate young people about the horrors of the communist and fascist regimes they never experienced the way we older, wiser people did, lest they succumb to the siren-songs of authoritarian populists.

Because let’s face it, not many of us really believe in democracy. We stick with it because it delivers the goods – at least, it has up to now. Yascha Mounk acknowledges this in his new book, but Walter Lippmann said it best a century ago in his classic Public Opinion. ‘Men do not long desire self-government for its own sake’ he then wrote. ‘They desire it for the sake of results.’

The recent shenanigans at #Facebook and #CambridgeAnalytica loom as threats to democracy, but this sort of micro-targeting has been going on for a long time. Voting is a transaction: we expect to get something for our vote just as we demand something for the money we spend. Data-scientists are just finding better ways to better identify our preferences and micro-target their products, using the long-established techniques of advertising to stir our desires towards their wares. You really want to hack the triangulators? Next election, vote for the candidate who addresses the community’s well-being, not your own, and see how that scrambles the data-miners algorithms.

But really, how many of us will do that? One of the things Professor Pinker’s Whiggly narrative manages to avoid is that the spread and consolidation of democracy in the nineteenth-century probably owed less to a thirst for liberty than to a hunger for the booty of empire. The Industrial Revolution, itself intimately linked with empire , unleashed a massive wave of migration from countryside to city, as peasants became workers. In their crowded slums, they were easily organised by the rising radicals who rejected capitalism. Giving them the vote, improving their working conditions, raising their wages, recognising their unions – by such measures did Europe’s ruling classes buy off their restive workers.

However, such gifts weren’t paid for with new taxes on the rich. They were paid for with the flow of wealth coming from the colonies. They were paid by out-sourcing the exploitation of one working class to another in the peripheral zones – where democracy, and even liberty (given the persistence of slavery) were scarcely permitted. And so it continued through the twentieth century. We in the West never had much objection when our governments deprived other nations of liberty or material well-being, provided we were kept in the standard to which we’d grown accustomed.

Which brings us to the problem with our young ‘uns. Since the turn of this millennium, for the first time in two centuries, the net flow of global wealth has begun moving away from the rich countries and towards what we once called the Third World. With the developing economies growing faster than those of the West, our share of global output is falling rapidly. In short, the subsidy of empire has been lost. This has forced governments to look inwards to find the resources to keep their constituents in the pink. Rather than adjust everyone’s expectations downwards, politicians have continued reaching out to their own supporters. With capital-owners, baby-boomers and the elderly being the groups that have put politicians in office, this has meant preserving asset-values and pensions, and shifting the cuts onto those with less power – immigrants, the working class, young people. And we want them to suck it all up in the name of democracy?

If we truly love liberal democracy for its own sake, maybe we do need to restore civics education. But I don’t think young people need be the primary  target. Let’s start with the rest of us, who’ve bent the system to serve our wants. If democracy delivers for all, it will deliver itself all the believers it needs to thrive. If it doesn’t, then we can’t complain when the torch-bearers show up in our neighbourhoods.

To readers in South Africa: I’ll be speaking about my new book, Twilight of the Money Gods, on 4 April at 4 pm at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, and on 11 April at 12:15 at Stellenbosch University.


South Africa’s Nine Lives

The ‘Beast from the East’, a cold front descended from Siberia, had reached its height in London the day I left for Johannesburg. Snarling traffic and rendering the morning commute a misery of cancelled trains, the bitter, snowy weather made Londoners, never the most patient of people, into their most surly selves. Cramming onto the trains to the point the doors couldn’t shut, late-boarders further delayed departures with a you-can’t-if-I-can’t air of defiance. Walking out to catch the bus, I slipped and slid my way on a pavement dotted with sheets of black ice and ridged with snow, and finally made my way to Heathrow.

I spent a good part of the eleven-hour flight pouring skin-cream into my hands and massaging it into the cracks the cold dry air had split open. I caught up on some films – Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, Darkest Hour – before dozing off for a few hours, and when I awoke we were coasting in the clear blue skies above the Highveld. The next day, I was awakened at dawn by a mixed chorus of birds. I stepped outside to see steam rising off the patio furniture as the cushions, swollen by the previous evening’s heavy rains, and now relieved by the warm rising sun, released coils of moisture into the still-cool morning air. It was going to be a good day.

The big South African story in the foreign news has been the water crisis in Cape Town. But that city’s woes may tell us less about the state of South Africa than about the future of a world of heavy resource-consumption, given that London itself is among the cities at risk of running dry in the foreseeable future. At least for now, Capetonians seems to have risen to the challenge of slashing their water consumption, a lesson we could all learn given that water is one of the planet’s scarcest yet most critical resources.

Instead, the talk of the moment here is about the start of a new political era under the Presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa. It’s not the first time the buzz on the street is of a new beginning. Nelson Mandela was meant to usher in a rainbow nation; racial equality remains as acute as it was back when he became President in 1994. Thabo Mbeki heralded an African renaissance; the South African economy has scarcely budged since his time in office.

Yet over the quarter-century since the end of apartheid, South Africa seems to have enjoyed inexhaustible reserves of second-wind. Like Joe Frazier the night he fought George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica, the country seems to hit the carpet, take the count, and miraculously spring back, ready for more of a beating.

I often return to my old stomping-ground  here. I was once a fellow of the South African Institute of International Affairs, and come here to write in an environment that is both creatively edgy and intellectually stimulating – and also, for a writer looking to stretch out his meager advances and commissions, refreshingly affordable. But while the languid life in the southern sun seems to go on as always, from one year to the next, in the trendy cafes and restaurants of Parkhurst and Melville, the despondence and sense of decay had been inescapable during my last visit, two years ago.

Some of this was no doubt the weary nostalgia of people who’d lost the privileges of apartheid and resented the populism of Jacob Zuma’s government. But it was more than that. As evidenced in the ruling African National Congress’s sinking poll numbers, and the persistent popularity of its radical breakaway the Economic Freedom Fighters, Zuma disappointed across the political spectrum. ‘State capture’ of some of the highest reaches of government by the shady Indian business family, the Guptas, who were wrapped in a tight nexus of power and corruption with the Zumas, alarmed South Africans of all walks and political persuasions.

As it happens, the economy had started rebounding last year. Business optimism, already improving, has leapt in the wake of Zuma’s departure. But while Ramaphosa is making all the right moves, from the viewpoint of both the local corporate sector and the international investment community, he isn’t just shilling for ‘white monopoly capital’ (which is how a notorious Gupta-funded publicity campaign described opposition to Zuma). Interestingly, the EFF has signalled that it may now start cooperating with the ANC in municipal governments. With Zuma gone and the ANC putting the possibility of land redistribution without compensation onto its policy agenda, genuine radicalism may work its way back into the ANC just as pragmatism is in the driver’s seat.

That, obviously, will be a tough balancing-act to maintain. Cyril Ramaphosa has revealed himself to be a clever operator in the boardrooms of the new South Africa. Whether he can repeat that act in its political assemblies remains to be seen.


Image: It’s not South Africa if it Isn’t a braai

Field Research in a German Brewery

I’ve been beating my economic colleagues over the head lately, saying they need to retreat from the fetishisation of pure theory to plunge back into the messy business of getting to know their subjects. Hands-on work with data. Getting out into the world. Living a little.

While I was lecturing at a German university last month, some of my graduate students took this to heart, and organised a visit to a nearby brewery. We met at the university canteen for lunch and afterwards, ready to start  our experiment in immersive study, drank a round of schnapps. Sort of like testing the instrument. We then grabbed some beers for the journey, it always being sensible to do brush up on a topic prior to fieldwork. After an hour-long train ride we arrived in the small town of Lich, home to the Licher brewery.

We had a half-hour to kill, so needless to say we stopped into a small hotel for another round of beer. We had to make quick time of it since the brewery tour was on a schedule, so we dashed over in time for the opening drinks – a round of Radler, a German equivalent to shandy. My students professed themselves disappointed with this part of the exercise, the beer content being too low to yield much in the way of testable output.

And so began the tour – I, my students, and an admixture of pensioners out on a day trip. As we walked through the brewery, stopping to learn the details about the minutiae of beer vats, malt and hops, I noticed the impatience some of our group manifested at the probing questions some of the other visitors were asking the tour guide. As if they actually found this interesting. I suppose this one event united those two great German passions, study and beer, but finally we reached the site where our research could begin. Ushered into a large room with low-beamed ceilings, we were seated at a long wooden table, given a big basket of rye bread and sausages, then provided with vouchers for beer. The race was on, since the next tour group was due in an hour. Data-collection thus began in earnest.

All the hallmarks of German scholarship were on display: punctilious fact-gathering, a relentless effort to identify every bit of available information – indeed, the capacity of my students to absorb and process vast amounts of raw data left me in awe. They ran a veritable panoply of tests for significance, reliability and robustness (‘he’s looking less robust than he did when we arrived, isn’t he’). At the end of it all, we left with that ethereal feeling of lightness one gets at the eureka moment, when you discover the object of your inquiry.

Our allotted time up, we were hustled out into what had become a cold night. As we huddled against the wind while waiting on the train platform, everyone agreed there was a problem with the sample-size. It was too small to permit definitive conclusions. So we determined to stop en route to continue the enquiry. De-training mid-way in Giessen, we followed the member of our party who claimed to know a good bierkellar, wandering through the nondescript industrial town until we found our location. Chilled by the frosty breeze, we decided to warm up with another round of schnapps before testing the local beer – one I hadn’t previously tried, which gave it the added virtue of serving as a sort of control sample to our earlier survey.

And then, ten or so hours after we began our field study, we made our way back to Marburg, assembling upon arrival in the station bar for a final round before calling it a night. We then parted company before heading off to what I assumed were our respective homes, since some of us did so with an apparently vague sense of orientation.

The next morning in class, we did a post mortem – mortem feeling particularly near just then – one student rubbing her temples during the lecture (‘there’s an echo in here’), another reclining with that sort of glassy look one sees in a genius communing with another world. I can’t say it was one of my more memorable lectures. Only because I have so little recollection of it.

Still, I took pride in the small contribution I’d made to the improvement of economics, helping to produce students who moved beyond theory to see how things actually worked in the real world. The thirst for knowledge, the joy of learning? They’re alive and well in my neck of the woods.

Image: The Marburg industrial study group

How the Great Recession Destroyed Our Faith in Economists

‘Suppose your loved one died on the operating table,’ I said to the audience, ‘and that afterwards the surgeon came out beaming to announce “Medical science triumphs again! The surgery we were taught in medical school would have saved your beloved’s life. If only I’d attended class that day.”‘

That’s sort of the point made by Paul Krugman in a recent article on the current state of macroeconomics. Satisfied that the world economy is back in good shape ten years after the greatest financial crash in history – a crash for which much of the general public held the economics profession at least partly responsible – he says the actual theories developed before the crisis worked fine; it’s just that economists weren’t paying attention to the data that would have warned them a crisis was coming. You know that saying ‘You had one job’?

I was speaking last night to a gathering of Marburg University’s Pluralist Economics Society. Ten years after the 2008 Crash and start of the Great Recession, a wave of reflection has begun as economists look back and consider how things have changed. The pluralist economic movement sprang up at the same time as the 2011 Occupy movement. Like Occupy, it was driven by young people – in this case, students who wanted to change the economics curriculum. Looking back, have they had the sort of revolutionary impact that young economists drawn to the new ideas of John Maynard Keynes did in the Great Depression?

The fact that economists missed the red flags in the data ten years agon wasn’t accidental. In my recent book, I argue that it was inherent in the way economics had evolved over the previous few decades. A half-century ago, under the influence of scholars like Milton Friedman and Robert Lucas, economics began moving away from applied work towards pure theory. Data-work ended up being a lot of cut-and-pasting in large spreadhseets by scholars who often had only a vague sense of what the data they were using actually meant, let alone how it was obtained. Nobody felt the need to change this approach because it seemed to work so well. As Robert Lucas declared in 2003, as the housing bom was underway, ‘macroeconomics has succeeded: the central problem of depression-prevention has been solved.’

Then along came the Great Crash. Previous economic crises – the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s – led to the emergence of new schools. This time around, though, the landscape of economics has remained surprisingly steady. Partly that’s because, as Krugman acknowledges in his article, this time around the crisis appeared to be less severe. Since economists had digested the lessons of the Great Depression, goes the reasoning, astute and timely action kept the economy from sinking too far. Instead of a Great Depression, we suffered a comparatively short-lived Great Recession.

Hearing economists claim credit for the management of the Great Crash reminds me of a workmate I once had who’d skive the day away before reappearing at just the moment the supervisor showed up to laud the team’s good work. For, as John Kay argued in a celebrated 2011 article, the policy decisions taken after the Crash, and that helped stave off a Depression, were largely pragmatic, owing little to theory.

Still, let’s take Krugman’s claim at face-value and assume, for the sake of argument, that economists were the heroes of the Great Crash. After all, Ben Bernanke is an economist, so even if he was winging it during his headship of the US Federal Reserve, his training proved vital. Even at that, though, Krugman’s claim only works if you define success as the absence of failure. Ten years after the Great Crash, our recovery has been so slow compared to that which followed the 1929 Crash, that we’ll end up relatively worse off in just a few more years. Moreover, the 1929 Crash was indiscriminate, and wiped out everyone from millionaires to farmers. The widely-shared pain that resulted helped forge a broadly-shared consensus for change, which ultimately yielded the New Deal.

In contrast, the bailouts and easy money that followed the 2008 Crash not only preserved the wealth of the super-rich, but made them even richer. Since then, the tepid recovery has depressed real wage gains for the majority. Far from a consensus for change, Western societies have become deeply divided. They got FDR, we got Trump. If that’s your idea of success, don’t be surprised that many people say you can have it.

We have to give credit where credit is due. As many economists protest, this is actually an exciting time in their field. There is a ferment of new ideas in the seminar rooms. The problem is, the public aren’t hearing it, and the defensiveness of some economists in the face of public criticism suggests they just don’t get the public anger. Before the Crash, economists were our gurus, men like Alan Greenspan lionised for their ‘shaman-like’ ability to move global markets. Economists then basked in this glory – and a few monetised it pretty effectively too.

The Great Crash shattered that faith. Hearing that everything is fine is hardly going to restore anyone’s faith – because for many people, things most definitely are not fine. As I and some colleagues argued in an open letter this week, the kind of complacency creeping back into the profession, and to which Krugman gives voice, is unwarranted. The public are still angry, and the revolt against the ‘experts’ won’t abate until the economics fraternity accepts the legitimacy of the public’s concern.

Image: Speaking to the Pluralist Society of Philipps Universität, Marburg

Shitholes Are The Future

You know what the world’s fastest-growing economy was last year? Ethiopia. In fact, three of the top ten performing economies of 2017 were in Africa (the other seven were in Asia). Given that Africa accounts for barely a sixth of the planet’s population, it looks like the shithole-continent is punching above its weight.

And what about Norway, the model for a country with which Donald Trump reportedly would like to deepen relations? For all its many virtues, when it comes to economic growth, It didn’t even crack the top fifty. If there were a league table of the world’s economies according to their prospects, Norway would barely make the third division.

That may tell us less about Norway than it does about Mr. Trump’s business sense. The fact that he sees less-developed, less-stable, poorer countries as best avoided makes me wonder if the conspiracists are right. Perhaps the reason he won’t release his tax returns is because he is hiding a big secret: that his business acumen is mired in its own crapper.

Shitholes built America, after all. Whether the Germans and Irish who came in the nineteenth century or the Italians and Ukrainians in the twentieth, immigrants fled poverty and oppression, and in the process made America the country it is today. The United States was fortunate that the world kept exporting its workers voluntarily, since the end of the slave trade meant they could no force them to come.

And precisely because Norway is at the top of its game, you don’t want to buy it. Luring an immigrant from Norway, a rich country with excellent public services, would require you to pay top dollar. Lure the same doctor, let alone bus driver, from Nigeria or Rwanda, and you’ll get a much better return on your investment over the course of their career. It’s just basic economics. Trump apparently doesn’t get that. He reminds me of the sort of people who quit their jobs at the top of the Internet bubble to become day-traders, putting all their money into the shares of companies that were at the top of their game – and about to collapse.

That economic growth rates decline as economies grow rich is, in part, simple mathematics. As your denominator (GDP) grows, an unchanged numerator (increase in GDP) falls in percentage terms.  But there’s more than just that going on here. Since the turn of the century, the difference in growth rates between the developing and developed worlds has reached unprecedented levels. After widening into a chasm over several centuries of empire, the gap between rich and poor countries is now closing.

I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, but the nub of it is that the West has reached the autumn of its imperial age. With productivity growth slowing, there’s big money to be made applying existing technology in new frontiers. The transformation is global in nature, but unfolds in individual lives. If you apply your skills in an environment where both the demand for human capital and the supply of labour (and thus of future consumption) are greatest, you stand to make big money. NBC News ran an interesting feature recently about American entrepreneurs who are doing just that in Africa.

Where Trump would rather not venture, others are boldly, and lucratively, doing so. China, for one, is eagerly expanding its footprint in Africa. Don’t think for a moment that it’s doing so because it has attained an enlightenment that has eluded Mr. Trump. China just knows an opportunity when it sees one.

Africa, and the developing world more generally, is not for the timid. But then neither were Britain or America in their boom days. You only have to read Charles Dickens or travellers’ journals of nineteenth-century Boston or Baltimore – or for that matter, watch an episode of Peaky Blinders – to know that lands of opportunity are magnets for opportunists, and the thievery, corruption and violence they bring. That, too, is basic economics: risks and returns vary in equal proportion. Go where others fear to tread, and you can have a market segment to yourself. Yes, if you wager everything on a high-risk bet, you can lose it all. But you can equally win it all. Ask Steve Jobs.

Trump’s shithole comments were probably not about opportunity, though, but about race – about not wanting to dilute America’s whiteness or import terrorists from unstable countries. But even racists need to be pragmatic if they want to survive. The fact is that the bulk of the world’s future economic growth, and a large share of America’s future labour supply, will come from the developing world. If America puts off boarding that train, it may find the best places have been snapped up.

So I wouldn’t get too exercised that Trump’s white-nationalist supporters have scored another little win. Because while they loudly bay their nostalgia, shitholes are quietly making themselves great.


Image: Jacaranda season in Johannesburg


Michael Wolff Turns Donald Trump’s Weapon Back on Him

Facts don’t matter, the story does.

That’s been the key to Donald Trump’s success. Running for President against a candidate armed with legions of data-scientists, who pored through reams of information to micro-target prospective supporters, he eschewed conventional campaigning to address big rallies with a crude message concocted on the fly.

It worked. He entered the White House and his lying continued, so another army of data-scientists devoted themselves to fact-checking his utterances so as to reveal his disregard for the truth. His supporters stood by him. They cheered when he dismissed as ’fake news’ any damning information the fact-checkers turned up, and they cheered when he made up new facts to take their place.

That’s because the story he told, however fictitious, chimed with many of his listeners’ experiences. America may not, objectively speaking, be a scene of carnage. But it feels that way for a substantial minority, whose individual tales got lost in the data. Illustrating Stalin’s supposed adage that one death is a tragedy but a million a statistic, the Clinton campaign’s data-mining buried all these individual tales in a mountain of information. Donald Trump got that.

In reality, the ‘scientific’ approach trumpeted by the Clintonites is based on a false premise: that we acquire knowledge by testing claims against the evidence, rejecting those that don’t meet this positivist standard. That’s not how things work. We choose the stories by which to live not by their factual foundation, but by their functionality: do they work for us? That’s not a paean to ‘alternative facts.’ It’s an acknowledgment that facts are embedded in narratives.

Take the moon, for instance. I believe it’s a chunk of rock and not a piece of cheese or some kind of god, but I haven’t actually done much research on the topic, let alone travelled there to test the claim. It fits into my own narrative about my place in the universe. Moreover, since I never caught the authors of my primary-school textbooks in any bold-faced lies, I don’t have cause to doubt their expertise and honesty. The same goes for evolution or quantum mechanics. I accept what we call the science, but don’t ask me for a detailed expose about the current state of either debate. In truth, there isn’t much scientific about my reasons for believing in ‘the science,’ since I’m relying little less on faith than a flat-earther or creationist. It’s just that what we call science suits me.

But suppose it didn’t. Take something like globalisation, so contested by Donald Trump and his followers. Back in the 1990s, it was described as a ‘force of nature’ by folks like Bill Clinton. That was a bold-faced lie. Globalisation was in no small measure the result of political choices which Clinton happened to support. However, passing it off as science and thus irrefutable suited his Davos crowd, whose economic interests benefited from the expansion of global linkages (where would the Clinton Foundation be without its foreign donors?). By slipping dodgy claims about something like globalisation onto the scientific cart, they ultimately turned some people who suffered from it (as they were meant to do) against all science. The right-wing populists like Donald Trump are thus just the mirror image of the 1990s neoliberals: in place of the latters’ ‘facts,’ they offer alternative facts.

Which brings us to Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s best-selling book that has been criticised by both supporters and opponents of Trump for its reliability. Wolff can certainly be evasive about details. He spends long passages discussing characters’ thoughts without offering much in the way of quotation or illustration. Some of his claims are substantiated, many are not. Some are implausible, others are demonstrably false. If this were a university paper, he might get a C.

But it isn’t. It’s a story, a well-crafted one. Most importantly, the tale Wolff tells is one that rings true for millions of Americans, conveying a simple message: the Oval Office is occupied by a spoiled child. Make America eight again.

So Trump can wheel out all the praise-singers he wants to repeat the mantra that Fire and Fury is a work of fiction. So what? Much of what Trump said on the campaign trail was as well. But even when they knew he was lying, Trump’s followers loved the way he lied. Behind his false claims lay something which, for them, rang true.

We won’t fight right-wing populism with facts, which are moving targets anyhow. We’ll fight it with narratives. And if we do believe in the virtues of the scientific worldview, we’ll approach the writing of those narratives with both relentless honesty, and without the selfishness of the neoliberal crowd, who filtered their science to suit their interests. As it is, Michael Wolff has beaten Trump at his own game. As enjoyable as that spectacle might be, though, we needn’t treat his work as serious journalism. We can, instead, celebrate his craft while dismissing it as sloppy.

That won’t help the Trumpists. In the messaging wars, they just got suckered.