eyes on the U.S.

Donald Trump Is A Big Jerk — And Good For Democracy

Czech President Milos Zeman, Donald Trump and other over-the-top personalities may not offer any practical solutions to society's problems, but they do have a function in an increasingly uniform political arena.

Donald Trump Is A Big Jerk — And Good For Democracy
Dirk Schümer

-OpEd-

BERLIN â€" You have to hand it to Miloš Zeman. The Czech president is funnier than all his European counterparts combined. While our well-behaved politicians bored their fellow countrymen to tears this holiday season with good wishes and predictable appeals, Zeman’s Christmas speech came off as a satirical take on the whole thing.

There he was, an older gentleman sitting in his living room â€" and teaching his subordinates and the world a lesson. The current wave of refugees engulfing Europe is not to be understood as a state of emergency, he said, but as an invasion that had been planned for many years. Rather than flee to the West, Zeman argued, the young Arabs should defend their country as Czech patriots did during World War II.

Not even a trace of Christmas clemency and mercy. The surreal 15 minutes with the president ended with what can only be described as a parody on compassion. The Czech Republic is not responsible for everyone and none of the needy will be allowed to cross the border. This was followed by a big grin and the best wishes for 2016. The End.

If Zeman were the leader of Germany, rather than the Czech Republic, that would have been the end of his political career. Germans would have taken to the street. But some countries seem to be a bit more lenient with eccentrics, even powerful and high-profile ones. In such places, discourse is not automatically curtailed by taboos or bans on thinking the unthinkable.

Czech President Milos Zeman â€" Photo: MichaÅ‚ Józefaciuk

Zeman’s behavior does, of course, anger many a Czech as well. Protestors once even flew an overlarge pair of red underpants instead of the national flag. Zeman’s former rival for the presidency, Karel Schwarzenberg, commented with resignation that "it really is a pity that a Christmas speech doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas." But the non-Christian Zeman didn't care about such comments. He didn't mention the baby Jesus at all, and simply described the world the way he saw it. Is that really such a scandal?

A worldwide phenomenon is taking place, where louts and eccentrics are mixing up the political arena. How dull would the dragging pre-election campaign in the United States be without Donald Trump? It is not only interesting for media professionals but also for the bored Internet community when a potential candidate for the highest office in the country insults the Latino minority as he pleases, kicks out an unpopular journalist and seemingly says whatever comes to mind.

Lapses by other candidates for the White House also reveal a few disturbing world views: The Holocaust could have been prevented if laxer gun laws had allowed European Jews to arm themselves; the Berlin Wall should be rebuilt at the Mexican border; global warming is a matter of perception; and nuclear bombs should be used on rebellious Arabs.

Should someone with these world views indeed be seated in the Oval Office, next to the red button, we might want to be worried. But even if that did happen, we would likely discover quickly enough that people like Donald Trump don't bite as fiercely as they bark. The candidate's verbal attacks, it's safe to say, are simply an advertisement strategy designed to garner attention in the infinite space of the media galaxy. Once in office, he would probably act much more rationally.

Past experiences suggest that eccentric people who wield power actually cause much less damage than expected. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had dealings with young women of dubious morals throughout his political career and even made starlets ministers. Instead of perusing important information at his desk until the wee hours of the morning, he preferred to go to private parties or manage his Milan football club. At times he was out of commission for weeks recovering from plastic surgery procedures. And yet, because a functioning cabinet staffed by political professionals was always at hand, Berlusconi's antics barely affected day-to-day politics.

What is truly remarkable is that Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga approach to politics never hurt his popularity. He was not voted out of office but removed only after an intra-party revolt. It seems that a lot of Italians liked the anti-political and glamorous ego trip of their minister-president. And now that he's gone, the media bemoans the lack of juicy scandals from the grey area between prostitution and politics.

Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi â€" Photo: Ricardo Stuckert/PR

Could it be that the serious business of governing is notoriously overrated? Belgium, for instance, did not have a functioning government for more than a-year-and-a-half. And everything seemed to be working perfectly within the state seeing as, for once, no vain politician interfered with the daily business of civil servants and technocrats.

Even Germany’s happiest times in its catastrophic history were overseen by Heinrich Lübke (1959-1969), an obviously scatterbrained president, who was not able to construct a single clear sentence and even, at times, forgot in which city he was that day. But despite all this, under the anti-despot's leadership, Germany dared to elicit more democracy, its women dared to demand more rights, and its rebellious students helped shape a more relaxed and less uptight world.

Which is why the Czech population should try to get along with its elected mess of a president. The Czech national hero, a well-behaved soldier named Švejk, demonstrated â€" albeit in literature â€" that mindless political leaders should de-mystify themselves by their actions. Zeman, who has already been called a psychological and alcohol-prone wreck by a national newspaper, will not let up after all.

The crazy president announced in an interview towards the end of the year that the Czech Republic will join the EU's Economic and Monetary Union only when Greece is finally kicked out. The Greek ambassador to the Czech Republic was recalled almost immediately afterwards â€" perhaps a bit of an overreaction since the Greeks aren't exactly known for their sensitive political movements. One would think they could handle the occasional harsh comment.

This is the invigorating effect of politicians going against the well-regulated flow of diplomacy. A president as resistant to good counsel as Miloš Zeman may not pay any heed to etiquette. But at least he's willing to tackle taboo topics most of his colleagues prefer to avoid. While others in positions of power bluster about supposed improvements to the Greek economy, Zeman’s lapse of etiquette is quite a pleasant alternative.

Likewise, by choosing not to whitewash the refugee crisis and frame it as a humanitarian and economic opportunity, the Czech president is expressing the fears of millions of Europeans who feel excluded by the discourse on the subject. Dissent is something that any true democracy should support and be able to handle.

In Germany, Zeman’s behavior is called "populism." And it's true that the brute force arguments that he, Trump, or others like them, hammer on about, are not practical in the real world of government business. But does that also mean that all polemic and provocation should be eradicated from public speech? Even unpopular thoughts are part of democracy. They might even be called the spice needed in the otherwise rather tasteless soup of political uniformity.

A populist such as Zeman highlights the dangers of political boredom. Because when all politicians in Germany are only treading correct linguistic terrain, when talk shows only invite a select few who repeat the same well-meaning clichés, when only smiling insurance agents will do as politicians, when thinking and behavior at the edge of mainstream is left to eccentrics alone, then democracy will become "tasteless." And the popularity of populists at that stage should not be surprising.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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