The fall of Aleppo comes as a suitably awful finale to what's been a pretty wretched 12 months. Assad's victory epitomises, in a sense, the reactionary tide prevailing just about everywhere in this, the Year of the Donald.
The hopes raised during the Arab Spring have, it seems, been crushed, with the Syrian regime consolidating its grip over a nation it has oppressed for so long.
Yet Aleppo also illustrates how little the Right's victories have actually settled. Russian military assistance might have enabled the government to recapture the city. But Assad's no closer to articulating any substantive basis for renewed hegemony in Syria.
The democracy campaign of 2011 emerged in response to poverty and brutal oppression. Assad's violence intensified both, so much so that the Syrian economy (like the nation itself) lies in ruins, while the sectarian divisions fanned by the regime remain entirely unresolved. One war might be coming to an end. But that doesn't mean peace — or even anything like stability.
Something similar might be said about the United States. Because Donald Trump's victory wrong-footed so many pundits, it's easy to lose perspective on precisely what he's achieved.
Yes, in 2017, the White House will be home to one of the more odious political personalities of recent times: a man who presents almost as a parody of the Ugly American. Yes, the new administration will be a rogues' gallery of shonks and bigots, with Trump evidently determined to employ every climate denier, Islamophobe and conman populating the fringes of American conservatism.
Nonetheless, Trump faces an array of problems, serious enough to put real limits on what he might do. As the slow process of counting the 2016 election continues, it's becoming increasingly clear how limited the support base for Trumpism actually is.
On raw numbers, Trump massively lost to Clinton, who now seems to have outpolled him by several million votes. In a context where nearly half of Americans didn't even turn up to the booths, that makes Trump — even before he takes office — one of the more loathed presidents of recent years.
"For every fundamentalist who thinks the new president will restore Christian values, there's a libertarian who hails the Donald as an advocate of unbridled self expression."
Furthermore, Trump lacks the kind of hard ideological nucleus that traditionally has allowed leaders to crash through an initial unpopularity. Think of Margaret Thatcher and her unbending insistence on class war against the unions. Think of the neocons who backed George W. Bush and their instant determination to transform the tragedy of 9/11 into a campaign for regime change in Iraq and elsewhere, a scheme they'd been advocating for decades.
Trump's nothing like that. He's cobbled a program together from whatever ideas took his fancy at the time, and assembled his advisors on the same sort of basis. Some of the Trumpists see their leader as a Randian enthusiast for free markets; others embraced a man who spoke up for protectionism and tariffs. For every fundamentalist who thinks the new president will restore Christian values, there's a libertarian who hails the Donald as an advocate of unbridled self expression. Already, we're seeing clashes between the very different wings of the Make America Great Again movement, something that will only intensify as Trump attempts to actually govern.
That's why Australia provides a pretty good example of what America and the world might expect in the months to come. Famously, Paul Keating described Malcolm Turnbull as a damp squib: 'You light him up, there's a bit of a fizz, but then nothing ... nothing.' It's a good description of what we saw in 2016, as the PM proved himself entirely incapable of articulating almost any agenda whatsoever. But the failure was not one of personality so much as circumstances, with Turnbull bogged down in the morass that Tony Abbott left him.
Abbott, after all, came to power through a strategy not unlike that deployed by Trump: destroying Julia Gillard with an appeal to rightwing populism. But once in office, Abbott floundered, with very little to offer his supporters other than increasingly desperate culture war skirmishes. Turnbull toppled Abbott purely on the basis of the contrast between their personal poll ratings — but ever since then, his popularity's been in free fall.
And why wouldn't it be? Like Abbott, Turnbull lacks either a program or a clear constituency — which is why he, too, has now resorted to increasingly shrill Abbott-style denunciations of refugees and renewable energy. In all likelihood, the Trump presidency will follow a similar pattern, with a fractious and incoherent administration papering over its internal divisions via culture war stunts, media provocations and ginned up scandals.
Of course, Abbott did a lot of damage during his brief and inglorious tenure, and no doubt Trump will, too. But in 2017 we're more likely to face a lame duck president than the almighty totalitarian that some liberals seem to expect.
Which raises a crucial point about the coming year. All over the world, the Right's far less powerful than it might initially appear, with very few leaders presiding over regimes of any great stability. Unfortunately, the Right's biggest asset is often the Left, with progressives seemingly determined to validate all the smears levelled against them.
Again, the US provides an obvious example. Hillary Clinton's defeat at the hands of an ogrish buffoon like Trump should have provoked a profound rethink about the strategies of mainstream liberalism. How, we might ask, had a billionaire indelibly associated with conspicuous consumption managed to paint the Democrats as out-of-touch elitists? Trump boasted of sexual assault, belittled minorities and mocked those he dubbed 'losers' — and yet convinced voters that it was his opponent who looked scornfully down at ordinary people. How was that possible?
"Of course, Abbott did a lot of damage during his brief and inglorious tenure, and no doubt Trump will, too. But in 2017 we're more likely to face a lame duck president than the almighty totalitarian that some liberals seem to expect."
You can see the answer in the increasingly unhinged claims that Putin somehow 'hacked' the election. After all, the argument's not that Russia tampered with voting machines or bribed officials or otherwise manipulated the tally. Rather, sundry politicians have quoted anonymous CIA agents claiming that hackers 'associated with' (whatever that means) Russian intelligence helped Wikileaks divulge the so called 'Podesta files': basically, the email correspondence of senior Democrats.
But even if Russia was responsible for getting access to that data (something that's by no means certain), no-one denies the validity of the emails. They're not fakes or forgeries: they're real documents showing Clinton's links with the corporate interests she railed against during her contest with Bernie Sanders.
Now, if that material was so very damaging as to win the election for Trump, surely that's a reason for a profound re-examination of the Democrats' campaign — that peculiar decision to run a business-as-usual ticket at a time when people so obviously crave change.
Instead, the insistence on blaming Clinton's loss on Russia amounts to saying, 'We'd have won if only we'd successfully covered up the true nature of our candidate!' It's a bizarre and totally self-destructive response, one that not only prevents liberals from examining the real basis of Trump's support but also reinforces the image of progressives as duplicitous elites intent on hoodwinking ordinary voters.
That's the strange contradiction we face as the year draws to a close. The Right's grip on power is much more uncertain than it appears. Yet the Left remains unable to relate to the almost universal hostility to the status quo.
Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.
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16 December 2016
Restore Christian values? Yes, that's what they hope. But If Trump cuts out Obamacare, and with it the 'free'contracreption it provides to those with insurance, it won't change anyone's values. It may stop them using contraception, but their hearts haven't changed. Time for the American churches to decide what Christian values actually are, and start doing their duty, instead of pushing governments to do it for them. It isn't the government's role to dictate values, Christian or not. The churches have made a serious error in supporting Trump, who is demonstrably not interested in real Christian values.
19 December 2016
It's rather odd to see the Syrian civil war as a left-right issue. First, it's not the dear, sweet rebels against a brutal dictator. It's a massively externally funded war, mostly by a bizarre alliance of US, UK, Saudi and Gulf Arab states versus Russia. And if the 'rebels' were allowed to win, there'd be no left wing utopia. It would be a hellish Islamist fascist reign of terror. So no, left-right doesn't work.
20 December 2016
Yes Shannon it's interesting how Far Left Thinkers always seem to see everything as a Left - Right struggle. The hatred for anyone with differing world views is palpable.
I don't buy this Left vs Right argument either.
20 December 2016
The only thing that is clear in Syria is who is providing support to groups who intended to overthrow the Assad government- as Shannon says it is Arab states provided with weapons by other states such as the US. Australia has no legal right to fly fighter jets in Syria and no defence of Australia justification for this expensive and illegal action.
20 December 2016
Here you say "the Right's biggest asset is often the Left" followed by "the US provides an obvious example. Hillary Clinton's defeat". This I interpret to mean that you consider Hilary Clinton to be on the Left. The Left of what? She comes nowhere near my definition of a left wing politician.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock
20 December 2016
Jeff, I agree with much of your analysis of US and Australian politics in your article. However, I think the title of it may be misleading.
What happened in Aleppo is that the foreign, terrorist, jihadist invaders of Syria were defeated. They also have to be defeated elsewhere, but surely this is an important first step.
The greatest problem in Syria is the fact that the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have been giving military and propaganda support to the invaders of Syria.This is not a civil war.
US Vice President Joe Biden has admitted that the US had also been supporting ISIS for a while.
Whatever problems we might have with the Syrian and Russian governments, they have at least targetted the major enemy, which has a common goal of defeating the popularly elected Syrian government (about 80% support) and converting it into a fundamentalist Islamic state.
Mother Agnes Mariam, a nun who has worked in Syria for over 20 years, has campaigned against US tactics there because of the consequences it will have for all Syrians – especially the Christians and other minorities.
Some interesting reports that give different analyses about what is happening in Syria are below:
20 December 2016
The great delusion is that America considers itself as the world's showcase democracy obliged to defend and impose its brand on everyone else using both its weapons of war and economic power. Considering the number of votes for Clinton, it might be expected that in a true democracy she should be the next president. However, as with the Irish vote on same sex marriage and the Brexit vote, the American electorate was poorly represented in the electoral process. The "silent majority" remained silent in all three and didn't turn up at the polling booths(less than 50% in all three). They, in their absence from the polls, are the instigators of what they now complain about.The democratic pretenders of the world could do worse than have a look at the processes in the modern day founding democracies that New Zealand and Australia represent. Even though we might object on occasions, compulsory voting probably gives a far superior assessment of the true wishes of the electorate. The churches should have absolutely no place in supporting any political party particularly when they supposedly represent all people regardless of political or religious adherence and seemingly can't run their own domains in accordance with their religious dictums. Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr must be two of the most miserable souls inhabiting the afterlife these days. I also wonder how Jesus of Nazareth is coping - hope we haven't spoilt his birthday celebrations yet again.
20 December 2016
"an advocate of unbridled self expression". As bipeds, we are accustomed to making progress by leaning alternately from left to right, and vice versa. As social beings we often swing, pendulum-like from self-interest to social concerns. "self" can mean 'me', or 'my' family, 'our' group, community or nation. Ultimately it might come down to 'us' versus the rest of God's creation. We can usually depend on the Pendulum adjusting to the norm, though sometimes it requires extra effort for heroes or heroines to come to the fore.
robert van zetten
20 December 2016
I agree with Brian when he states that Hilary Clinton, 'comes nowhere near my definition of a left wing politician.'
Bernie Sanders would have been much more able than Trump to help those feeling estranged from mainstream politics. Sanders had real policies aimed at the common good, with a special emphasis on the poor. I think he would have been a wonderful leader.
20 December 2016
Jeff, before you condemn Trump out of hand you should give him a chance. However he got there, he got there, and we all have to live with that. The politicians in this country, right or left, are all specialist back stabbers, Keating included. They should all be searched for concealed weapons.
Let the past alone and concentrate on our back yard.
Sure Aleppo is a disgrace, but so are aboriginals in custody and spiraling unemployment.
Nauru, Manus and job creation are some key issues, not leftist international snobbery.
06 January 2017
Thanks Andy for the 'alternate view' references and I have heard some Chaldean priests commenting similarly. Regarding your references, RT.com states it is an autonomous not for profit but I have read January 1 @ http://www.theage.com.au/world/vladimir-putins-masterstroke-of-nonretaliation-against-us-sanctions-20161230-gtk5es.html it is the Kremlin's propaganda arm. This war is complex and I agree Shannon the alliances you mention are bizarre...but what is the way out of the mess, do we withdraw and seek political means for peace? It seems Russia and Turkey are working out their differences but it may mean selling out the Kurds who have been successful against IS and have been supported by US firepower in the last while but targeted by Turkey who fear their ascendancy toward claims for their own state traditionally on part of 'their' land and parts of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Armenia where they traditionally lived a nomadic existence http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440 and was provided for in a 1920 treaty after WWI thus was over written by the treaty of Lausanne n which USSR had a hand meaning no love lost therehttp://www.allaboutturkey.com/antlasma.htm. Others claim they simply want to live their culture freely http://www.everyculture.com/wc/Tajikistan-to-Zimbabwe/Kurds.html. Without understanding history properly how can we effectively and justly participate to stabilise the region or should we merely be supporting others who do so through diplomatic means?
12 January 2017
I think, given the variables, most prognostications on the future of Syria are likely to be off target. Interestingly, Assad and Putin are seen by the country's mainly Eastern Rite (Orthodox and Catholic) Christians as their protectors. It would be unlikely that Christians would rejoice to be ruled by ISIS given its previous track record.