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31 Jul

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

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In John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, the senator is given a heroic send-off but questionable decisions cloud his legacy

John McCain in 2008.

John McCain in 2008. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

John McCain was being filmed on the porch of his home in Sedona, Arizona, looking happy and relaxed despite the mortal battle he is waging with brain cancer, when he uttered the words that are certain to go down in the annals of American political history. “I should have said: ‘Look, Joe Lieberman is my best friend, we should take him. But I was persuaded by my political advisers it would be harmful, and that was another mistake that I made.”

Peter Kunhardt, an Emmy-winning director, was inside the house at that precise moment sitting with McCain’s wife Cindy and daughter Meghan, who were watching the taping as it was being relayed live on a TV monitor. “They actually gasped when he said he wished he had picked Lieberman,” Kunhardt said. “After the filming, Cindy came up to us and said that was the first time he’d ever said that.”

It’s not so much that McCain had finally admitted regret over his decision to forgo choosing Lieberman to be his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. It was, after all, an unlikely pairing – McCain was the Republican nominee and Lieberman was at that time a Democrat.

It was what flowed from that fateful decision that made the comment so riveting: the rise of Sarah Palin. To choose the gun-totin’ mama grizzly from Alaska as his alternative vice-presidential pick arguably did more than anything to let the populist genie out of the bottle, unleashing the terrifying consequences that we are still wrestling with today.

The on-camera confession is the most electrifying part of John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, the upcoming HBO documentary that Kunhardt has directed with his sons George and Teddy. The family trio spent six hours interviewing the US senator from Arizona – three in Sedona, three on Capitol Hill – and with the footage have put together a retrospective of his life on the verge of death.

It makes for a strange cinematic animal. The Kunhardts stressed that they consciously set out to locate the film in the present tense – “We wanted to capture the living John McCain, not the dead John McCain,” as Teddy put it. But McCain’s diagnosis last July of a deadly brain tumor inevitably hangs heavy in the Sedona air, giving the documentary the feel of an obituary produced and broadcast while the subject is still with us.

That slightly awkward sense of an eulogy to a living man comes across most strongly from McCain himself. Early on in the film the 81-year-old makes a grand gesture direct to camera, saying: “I have lived an honorable life, and I am proud of my life.” He sounds eerily as though he were dictating his own epitaph.

The idea for a film came about with lightning speed after McCain’s diagnosis with glioblastoma, a very aggressive form of brain tumor, was made public. Teddy Kunhardt proposed it on the same day as the announcement, and they took it days later to HBO, who immediately gave it a green light.

Days after that they pitched it to McCain himself and he went for it immediately. “John is cognizant this is a terrible disease and he wanted to get his story down as much as we wanted to tell it. When we approached him there was an immediate, ‘Yes, let’s do it and let’s do it now’,” said Teddy.

The father-sons team are unapologetic about the favorable light in which they cast their subject – literally so: they filmed him under Sedona’s famously soft natural desert light. Though they gave McCain no editorial control over the documentary, they openly hail him as an “American hero” and buy uncritically into the mythology of the “maverick” politician that McCain has studiously cultivated over many years.

Certainly, the case for John McCain as hero and maverick can be made, and the Kunhardts do so over almost two hours of entertaining viewing. No matter what Donald Trump may say about it, McCain’s fortitude over five years of torture and prolonged solitary confinement in the “Hanoi Hilton” as a prisoner of war in Vietnam had heroic qualities.

At several junctures in his political career he resisted peer pressure within the Republican party and went his own “maverick” way. Even this month, while sick at home in Arizona, he opposed the confirmation of Gina Haspel as director of the CIA given her refusal to disown torture, prompting the Trump White House to stoop to new lows when an aide said his view could be discounted as he was “dying anyway”.

The senator’s political friendships too reflect a willingness to cross the aisle that these days seem almost quaintly from another age. The supporting cast on the HBO documentary makes the point – Joe Biden, Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Barack Obama: his Democratic admirers outnumber the Republican.

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World Politics

United States

Trump’s former adviser is no evil genius. But his reputation as a dangerous figure risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze

If Steve Bannon didn’t exist, the media would have had to invent him. And, in fact, they largely did. US coverage has turned Bannon into Donald Trump’s Rasputin, single-handedly responsible for his shock election as the 45th president of the United States. And now, as Bannon crosses the Atlantic, breathless reports speak of his “Plan to Hijack Europe for the Far Right”. His meeting with the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson was apparently convened to plot “new moves that could have a significant impact on European politics”.

The notion of the evil genius, particularly one on the far right, is seductive. It helps externalise the evil. Rather than accepting that nationalist and populist ideas are part of the mainstream of society, their success is presented as the outcome of a devious plot, constructed by a political mastermind, in which a gullible population is seduced by a charismatic leader.

While this might be an attractive narrative, it is dangerous for at least two reasons. First, it is wrong, and leaves people poorly informed about the most significant danger to liberal democracy today. Second, it exaggerates the importance of the far right, which can, ironically, lead to an actual increase in its power.

Bannon is neither Trump’s Rasputin, nor a political prodigy. If anything, he is a master at selling himself as a successful entrepreneur and political operative to both investors and journalists. His early support for Trump was also not a stroke of genius but of luck, coming as it did after he had backed almost every other radical right movement or politician in the previous decade, from the Tea Party movement to Sarah Palin.

Moreover, Bannon became Trump’s campaign manager in August 2016, one month after Trump had secured the Republican nomination. While he can be credited for making the campaign truly populist, it is doubtful this had much effect on the outcome – or, rather, no greater effect than other factors such as the obsessive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails or the FBI director James Comey’s letter. In the end 2016 was, first and foremost, an ordinary election with Republicans voting Republican and Democrats voting Democrat.

Trump & Bannon

When he became the White House chief strategist, Bannon was immediately painted as the real president, a man who filled the politically empty Trump with a radical right agenda. #PresidentBannon became a popular hashtag on Twitter. Leaving aside the fact that most of Trump’s positions are just radical versions of mainstream Republican policies, even the non-Republican positions, such as economic nationalism, are at least as much Trumpian as they are Bannonesque. For example, in the famous 1990 Playboy interview that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, allegedly read to prepare for her first meeting with him, Trump was already complaining about the US “being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies; ie, Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, etc”.

So, given his modest impact in the US, why would Bannon be any more successful in Europe? Why would his thinktank, grandiosely named The Movement, which wants to recruit 10 full-time staff ahead of the 2019 European elections to influence their outcome, be any match for the Open Society Foundation it aims to rival, which has an endowment of more than $18bn? How could a washed-out American achieve what skilful politicians and well-organised parties have been unable to do for decades: unite the European radical right? Obviously, he can’t, and it is as ridiculous for him to make that claim as it is for the media to publish it uncritically.

While he is ideologically close to parties like the French Rassemblement National (RN, formerly the Front National) and the Italian League, or far-right politicians like the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, Bannon is also distinctly American in his vision. For example, his moral view of capitalism as a vehicle for Judeo-Christian values does not sit well with the interventionist views of the Danish People’s party or the RN. Not to mention his US-centric foreign policy vision, which will set off alarm bells with the anti-American right in southern Europe. Few in Europe believe that “we are at war with China”. In fact, Bannon’s alleged ally Orbán sees China as one of the models for his illiberal state.

It’s not surprising, then, that most of these parties have responded unenthusiastically to Bannon’s wooing. While Bannon identified the Finns party and Sweden Democrats as “perfect casting”, the party secretary of the former said it would “probably refuse” contributions from him, and the latter said his initiative was “not interesting to us”. Similarly, the DF MEP Morten Messerschmidt said: “I think we’re doing just fine by ourselves. The Alternative for Germany party was split on the issue, with the co-leader Alice Weidel meeting Bannon and its federal spokesman, Jörg Meuthen, rejecting him. An RN spokesperson said: “We reject any supranational entity and are not participating in the creation of anything with Bannon.” In the end, only politicians from marginal parties like the Belgian Popular party and the Spanish Vox party were truly up for engagement.

As for the rumoured alliance with Johnson, it is mainly beneficial to Bannon. Since his resignation as foreign secretary, Johnson has been the bookies’ favourite to replace the embattled Theresa May. He neither needs Trump’s endorsement nor Bannon’s help to become prime minister. In short, Bannon is bandwagoning successful European leaders on the radical right in the hope of regaining political relevance.

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The most populous region of the biggest polluter on Earth – China’s northern plain – will become uninhabitable in places if climate change is not curbed

Residents cool off at a pool in Jinan in eastern China’s Shandong province.

Residents cool off at a pool in Jinan in eastern China’s Shandong province. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

The deadliest place on the planet for extreme future heatwaves will be the north China plain, one of the most densely populated regions in the world and the most important food-producing area in the huge nation.

New scientific research shows that humid heatwaves that kill even healthy people within hours will strike the area repeatedly towards the end of the century thanks to climate change, unless there are heavy cuts in carbon emissions.

“This spot is going to be the hottest spot for deadly heatwaves in the future,” said Prof Elfatih Eltahir, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, who led the new study. The projections for China’s northern plain are particularly worrying because many of the region’s 400 million people are farmers and have little alternative to working outside.

“China is currently the largest contributor to the emissions of greenhouse gases, with potentially serious implications to its own population,” he said. “Continuation of current global emissions may limit the habitability of the most populous region of the most populous country on Earth.”

The new analysis assesses the impact of climate change on the deadly combination of heat and humidity, which is measured as the “wet bulb” temperature (WBT). Once the WBT reaches 35C, the air is so hot and humid that the human body cannot cool itself by sweating and even fit people sitting in the shade die within six hours.

A WBT above 31C is classed by the US National Weather Service as “extreme danger”, with its warning stating: “If you don’t take precautions immediately, you may become seriously ill or even die.”

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, found fatal WBTs of 35C would strike the north China plain repeatedly between 2070 and 2100, unless carbon emissions are cut. Shanghai, for example, would exceed the fatal threshold about five times and the “extreme danger” WBTs would occur hundreds of times. Even if significant carbon cuts are made, the “extreme danger” WBT would be exceeded many times.

Previous research by Eltahir and colleagues showed that the Persian Gulf in the Middle East, the heartland of the global oil industry, will also suffer heatwaves beyond the limit of human survival if climate change is unchecked, particularly Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and coastal cities in Iran. The fatal 35C WBT was almost reached in Bandar Mahshahr in Iran in July 2015, where 46C heat combined with 50% humidity.

The scientists also analysed south Asia in 2017 and found it too is at risk of killer 35C WBT heatwaves in places. Even outside the extreme hotspots, three-quarters of the 1.7bn population – particularly those farming in the Ganges and Indus valleys – would be exposed to “extreme danger” levels of humid heat towards the end of the century.

But China’s northern plain is set to be the worst place, said Eltahir: “The response [to climate change] is significantly larger than in the other two regions.” Signs of that future have already begun, with the study finding a substantial increase in extreme heatwaves on the plain in the past 50 years. In 2013, a severe heatwave in the region persisted for 50 days during which Shanghai broke a 141-year temperature record.

Prof Chris Huntingford, at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and not involved in the study, said: “The research finds that if greenhouse emissions continue at current levels, there will be many more days when unsafe thresholds are crossed. This will make work outdoors almost impossible across much of the agricultural regions of China.”

“Work like this is especially useful, as it allows governments to plan better future agricultural practices, including what is needed to support farmers to operate safely and thus ensure food security,” he said.

The most extreme temperatures in all the analyses were found in the Persian Gulf, but those occurred over the sea. In the case of the north China plain, Eltahir said: “This is where people live.”

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