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What crisis? For Trump’s base, it’s full speed ahead

Wednesday, 22 February 2017 00:00 Published in Commentary

Melbourne, United States — With Donald Trump struggling to keep his presidency on an even keel in a cacophonous first month, die-hard supporters have a message for their champion: stay on offense, never modulate, never change.
Trump is under immense pressure as missteps have plagued his debut, with opposition lawmakers and observers lobbing one assault after another at the new US commander-in-chief.
They say he lies, he lacks understanding of crucial issues, his White House is already riven with scandal and warring factions, and he’s dismissing the US Constitution by attacking the media.
Even some fellow Republicans are expressing alarm.
On Saturday, Trump escaped the fiery cauldron of Washington to host a boisterous rally in Melbourne, Florida, where he was greeted with open arms by loyal supporters who insist his presidency is running smoothly.
And they sniffed at charges that Trump, now the world’s most powerful man, is refusing to moderate the aggression, impulsiveness and sniping that defined his 2016 campaign which ended in shock victory.
“I want to see more of it,” Steven Migdalski, a 53-year-old unemployed computer technician from Titusville, Florida, told AFP during his seven-hour wait to enter the Trump rally.
He gave emphatic approval of Trump’s combative tone with the press and his hasty policy steps including his controversial Executive Order restricting immigration.
“I am totally ecstatic that a Republican president has the balls — the fight in him — to push back against not only fake news,” but the political establishment, said Migdalski, proudly displaying his red “Built Trump Tough” shirt.
Never mind that Trump’s debut has sent jitters across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with policy musings that contradict decades-old US policy regarding the Western alliance and post-World War II order.
“He’s upsetting the globalists. And I hope they’re afraid,” Migdalski said.
Such is the damn-the-torpedoes support Trump enjoys with his core base — largely white and male, predominantly working class, and increasingly nationalistic.
In more than a dozen interviews with supporters, they said they are backing their man, despite — perhaps even because of — his controversial actions.
But supporters are aware that they too provide the energy, adulation and respect on which Trump feeds — a symbiotic relationship that was on full display in Melbourne.
Washington is not a friendly town for any occupant of the White House, and Trump appeared thrilled to return to a campaign-styled event, complete with a woman holding up a poster with the words “Hillary for Prison,” even though Hillary Clinton was defeated months ago.
“I think he needs this. Everyday he hears hatred and negativity each time he turns on the TV,” said Tammy Allen, a self-employed independent distributor in Melbourne who was in the rally crowd with three friends holding “Women For Trump” signs.
“He’s been ridiculed and put down. I mean everybody is against him. So he needs to see those Americans that support him, that love him,” she added.
“We’re the wind beneath his wings.”
‘Willing to fight’
High school student Jacob Wyskoski turned 18 last year, and cast his first-ever vote in November, for Trump.
“We used to be the strongest, the biggest, the most powerful nation in all of the world. We need that back,” he said, echoing a common refrain among voters old enough to recall the US power that ended the Cold War.
As for Trump appearing to live his presidency with boxing gloves on, Wyskoski said, “we need someone who’s willing to fight for this country, and I feel like he’s the guy who is going to get in the ring if we need him to.”
Several supporters brushed aside the ongoing congressional investigations about the role Russia may have played in influencing the US presidential election, and potential connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials prior to the vote.
“Knock yourself out. Get all the people you want” to investigate Trump, said Mike Sikula, a retired aerospace engineer. “I love him to death.”
That Trump irks foreign leaders, antagonizes Democrats, and blasts the media while maintaining his combative campaign style is icing on the cake.
“I think it’s good,” Sikula said.
Trump “has to go out in public and counter it,” he said of the criticism.
“He has to go on TV and he has to tweet just to try and level the score a little bit. If he remained completely quiet, the lie would overwhelm him.”                                

Romania’s have-a-go heroes fight corruption

Wednesday, 22 February 2017 00:00 Published in Commentary

Bucharest, Romania — Romanian architect Serban Marinescu never thought he’d come up against such brazen corruption. And when a city mayor demanded a backhander, he plucked up his courage and reported him.
Traffic cop Marian Godina came under pressure from superiors over a traffic incident involving a local official. But Godina turned to social media and heads rolled.
Their bravery is typical of what observers say is a changing attitude to corruption in Romania.
It also helps explain the biggest protests since the fall of communism in 1989 in recent weeks.
These demonstrations, peaking on February 5 with an estimated half a million people nationwide, came after the left-wing government tried, as critics saw it, to ease up on graft.
“Romanian society has reached saturation point with regard to corruption,” said Godina, 30, the policeman from Brasov in the central Transylvania region.
Facebook hero
His fame began a year ago when he pulled over a car that had nearly run someone over. A local official in the passenger seat got out and told him to let it drop. She “knew his superiors.”
But he stood firm — and posted his experiences on social media. His superiors were livid, with Brasov’s chief of police and other superiors ordering him to close his Facebook page.
But in the end he won, with the official resigning and the chief of police taking “early retirement.”
Today Godina still posts his daily experiences and has 500,000 followers on Facebook. He has also written a book, put out by publisher Curtea Veche, about other similar incidents.
Godina says that the younger generation has abandoned the defeatist attitude, prevalent under communism, to “stay in your place and keep your mouth shut.”
Laura Kovesi, the head of Romania’s powerful National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), also hails what she calls a “change in mentality” among ordinary Romanians.
Since its creation in 2002 the DNA has been given serious teeth to tackle corruption, long the scourge of 20-million-strong Romania, which joined the European Union a decade ago.
Between 2014 and 2016 the DNA launched legal proceedings against more than 1,150 people who between them had allegedly misappropriated more than a billion euros ($1.06 billion).
And almost 90 percent of the DNA’s current cases were opened after complaints from civil servants or private citizens, Kovesi told AFP in an interview earlier this month.
You’ve been framed
Father-of-two Marinescu, 37, is another of these have-a-go heroes.
In 2012 he and some colleagues won an international architecture competition to revamp the central square of the city of Ramnicu Valcea in the foothills of the Carpathians.
They duly completed the project but just as they were about to be paid the mayor asked for a “commission.”
The mayor was well connected and Marinescu wasn’t sure whether to pay up, as many of his friends suggested, or to blow the whistle.
“Both options were scary. We didn’t know anyone who had reported anyone (to the authorities). It was unknown territory,” he recalled.
But he took the plunge and went to the DNA.
Armed with a secret camera and hidden microphone provided by investigators, one of his colleagues met the mayor in a Bucharest hotel lobby.
The official put before him a document to sign stipulating that he gets a 10-percent cut.
“It was humiliating. He (the mayor) felt like the nobleman lording it over the serfs and their land,” Marinescu said.
At a follow-up meeting, the mayor was arrested red-handed and given a suspended jail sentence of four years.
‘Corruption kills’
But the mayor kept his job. “The day after his conviction, he came back to work as mayor. It was absurd,” Marinescu said.
After the DNA appealed however, he was finally locked up.
Both Marinescu and Godina said that the professionalism of the DNA is a major motivational factor.
Laura Stefan from the Expert Forum think-tank said that ordinary people are emboldened when they see that “people in high places are treated just like everybody else.”
A turning point came in 2015 when a blaze in a Bucharest nightclub, blamed on corrupt officials turning a blind eye to fire rules, killed 64 people. Protests forced the government to quit.
“For the first time, something that seemed like a cliche, ‘Corruption Kills,’ became very real,” remembers Elena Calistru, 31, from non-governmental organisation Funky Citizens.
Her group has created the Web site banipublici.ro (“public money”) where people can track public spending, and piatadespaga.ro (“bribery exchange”) for reporting dodgy dealings.
The NGO also trains young people and gives advice to would-be whistleblowers.
For Marinescu, a corrupt system “isn’t an impenetrable wall. If you push it, it will tumble.”
But he cautions that in rural areas, where poverty is often dire, powerful local barons can be tough to fight against.
“It’s not easy asking someone to be brave when he risks losing his job if he informs,” he said.
But comments on Godina’s Facebook page give him hope.
“People from all over the country tell me that they have said no to corruption, thinking of me,” the policeman said.                                                        

Tokyo, Japan — Cigarette smoke hangs thick in the air of a Tokyo nightspot as Aki Nitta sips champagne with a trio of sweet-talking Lotharios peddling fake love at premium rates.
In a country which has lost its mojo, many wealthy Japanese women spend eye-watering sums on male hosts in return for an evening of sweet talk, flirting — and often sex.
“I want my heart to flutter,” Nitta told AFP at a popular club in the Kabukicho red-light district lined with chrome and mirrors.
“Japanese men aren’t very attentive and don’t show their feelings, but hosts treat you like a princess. I want to be pampered and I don’t care how much it costs,” she adds.
The 27-year-old businesswoman from Nagoya, spends around $10,000 a month on the object of her desire — a faintly androgynous beau with bleached hair and a boyish grin.
But some big-spenders splurge over $100,000 in a single night to have their egos stroked by smooth-talking rental Romeos who themselves can earn five times that amount in a good month.
There are a growing number of wealthy and successful Japanese women that have become frustrated with traditional dating and instead prefer to focus their romantic energies somewhere they are guaranteed to be treated well.
“I’m paying for time, rather than men,” explained Nitta. “Time is more important to me so I want to live for now, without any regrets.”
Many women — ranging from 20-somethings to those in their sixties — lavish expensive gifts on their favorite hosts, buying them diamond watches, luxury cars, even apartments.
“When I was 20 a customer bought me a Porsche,” said former host Sho Takami, who owns a chain of clubs and likens a host’s role to that of a psychiatrist, with benefits.
“It’s a 24-hour job,” insisted the 43-year-old after arriving for work in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce.
“Our real work starts after hours — going for drinks with customers, crawling into bed at 9 a.m., meeting another one for lunch,” added Takami, who is set to open a host club in Las Vegas next year.
Chance of love
“It’s important the customer believes there’s a chance of love. After all that’s how you get her to come to the club and spend money,” Takami explained.
Host clubs are a $10 billion industry in Japan with some 800 venues nationwide.
Around 260 of those are located in Tokyo, most squeezed into Kabukicho’s narrow streets where flickering neon signs display the air-brushed faces of hosts outside clubs with names such as Romeo, Gatsby and Avalon.
Hosts have been compared to male geishas and Takami believes the culture, which began in the early 1970s, empowers women.
“A host’s job is to support a lady’s heart,” he said. “We’re here to encourage women’s social advancement. It used to be considered a bit vulgar to party with hosts.
“But times have changed. These days being able to let your hair down at a host club is a mark of status or success,” he added.
Japan’s hosts, denizens of the night instantly recognisable by their spray tans, crimped long hair and tight-fitting suits, are often accused of preying on women’s emotions.
“The customers are buying affection,” shrugged ex-host Ken Ichijo on the terrace of his penthouse flat.
“We’re selling them dreams, so you lie about loving them in return for serious money,” added the 38-year-old club manager, freshly blow-dried and shirt open to reveal a medallion.
“That leaves a bad taste for some people who think we’re just ripping girls off.”
Raging libidos
Ichijo argues that it is simply a case of supply and demand.
“Hosts exist to fill a void in someone’s life,” he said. “In this business, the host is the product. We pamper to a woman’s every need — listen to her problems, tell her she’s beautiful, act out her fantasies.”
With harsher restrictions on opening hours, regular police checks and far less “yakuza” gangster involvement, the host business has cleaned up its shady image in recent years.
But the promise of sex is still dangled as bait in a cutthroat industry, admits Ichijo, whose plush apartment screams bling.
“Sex is not necessarily part of a host club’s service,” he said. “But it is part of trying to satisfy the customer’s needs.”
Japan’s shrinking birthrate has been blamed in part on a growing social trend known as “herbivore men” — those who shun carnal pleasures and machismo in favor of the quiet life.
But libidos rage among the coiffured gigolos at the Top Dandy club, where sex worker Megumi Suzuki is a regular.
“Hosts are charming and they understand a woman’s feelings,” purred the 27-year-old as a snake-hipped host in leather pants and winklepicker shoes lit her cigarette.
“I come here to blow off steam. The men are like sparkly things — I could come every day and never tire of them.”           

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