When The Blame Game Goes Bad

Politicians in a growing number of countries have boosted their popularity by demonizing outsiders as “enemies.” Here are three stories that illustrate what can go wrong with this strategy.


In Norway, Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg, deputy head of the anti-immigrant Progress party, was forced to resign this week after visiting Iran with his girlfriend without notifying the prime minister’s office in advance.

This particular girlfriend is an Iranian immigrant (and beauty queen) who had seen three requests for asylum in Norway rejected before she was finally granted a residency permit. Sandberg’s party has called for those with rejected asylum applications to be swiftly expelled from the country. Fortunately for Sandberg, his girlfriend managed to avoid that fate.

Here are two (more serious) examples.

In Italy, a bridge collapsed in the northern city of Genoa on Tuesday, killing at least 39 people. For Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini (pictured above), the enemy is the European Union and the spending caps the EU asks of member states. That spending could have helped repair shoddy infrastructure, he argued.

But journalist Albero Nardelli points out the EU has not only warned that Italy needs infrastructure spending, it “has given the green light to some €10 billion” for exactly that purpose, including in Genoa. But the M5S, the party with which Salvini’s Lega governs in coalition, has argued that Italy’s government shouldn’t spend big money on infrastructure because the need for repairs is a “fable.”

In addition, as Tuesday author Alex Kliment rightly notes, Salvini’s complaint that the EU doesn’t allow Italy enough for infrastructure spending would have more credibility if Italy weren’t dead last among Western European countries in corruption rankings. Too much money is stolen before it can be invested.

Salvini’s accusation won’t help the mood when Italy’s government submits a draft budget for EU review in October.

In Turkey, an economic crisis has taken hold. President Erdogan says the enemies are outsiders preying on the country’s economy. He calls tariffs imposed by the Trump administration “economic terrorism.”

But the true source of Turkey’s current turmoil is an economy built on heavy borrowing that’s denominated in foreign currency and a refusal to fight rising inflation by raising interest rates.

Erdogan presses Turkey’s central bank to keep rates low in hopes of keeping growth, and his own approval ratings, artificially high. The result is a sharp drop in the value of Turkey’s currency that began well before Trump imposed penalties in response to the standoff over a US citizen held in Turkey.

The bottom line: All three cases illustrate the reality that, though posing as defender of the people against foreign enemies can make for successful politics, it doesn’t help with governing.

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British economist Jim O'Neill says the global economy can bounce back right to where it was before, in a V-shaped recovery. But his argument is based on a lot of "ifs," plus comparisons to the 2008 recession and conditions in China and South Korea that may not truly apply. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group's Robert Kahn take issue with O'Neill's op-ed, on this edition of The Red Pen.

Today, we're taking our Red Pen to an article titled "A V-Shaped Recovery Could Still Happen." I'm not buying it. It's published recently by Project Syndicate, authored by British economist named Jim O'Neill. Jim O'Neill is very well known. He was chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. He's the guy that coined the acronym BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China. So, no slouch. But as you know, we don't agree with everything out there. And this is the case. Brought to you by the letter V. We're taking sharp issue with the idea that recovery from all the economic devastation created by the coronavirus pandemic is going to happen quickly. That after the sharp drop that the world has experienced, everything bounces back to where it was before. That's the V. Economists around the world are debating how quickly recovery will happen to be sure. But we're not buying the V. Here's why. W-H-Y.

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Over the past few years, we've seen three major emerging powers take bold action to right what they say are historical wrongs.

First came Crimea. When the Kremlin decided in 2014 that Western powers were working against Russian interests in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to seize the Crimean Peninsula, which was then part of Ukraine. Moscow claimed that Crimea and its ethnic Russian majority had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries until a shameful deal in 1954 made Crimea part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Americans and Europeans imposed sanctions on Russia. But Ukraine is not part of NATO or the EU, and no further action was taken.

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Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED, provides his perspective on technology news:

Will the new audit of Facebook civil rights practices change the way the company operates?

Yes. It came under a lot of pressure from civil rights activists who organized an advertising boycott. And then an internal audit on Facebook's effect on civil rights came out. It was quite critical. Those two things, one after the other, will surely lead to changes at the company.

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The United States and the European Union have comparable population sizes, but their COVID-19 death toll trajectories have recently become very different. Since the beginning of July, the average number of both new fatalities and new deaths per 1 million people is rapidly increasing in the US while it remains mostly flat in the EU. We compare this to the average number of new cases each seven days in both regions, where the US trend continues upward but is not surging like the death toll. EU countries' robust public health systems and citizens' willingness to wear masks and maintain social distance could explain the disparity.