US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

We have the Darwin Awards for people who top themselves in such an idiotic way that they are effectively improving the global gene pool. But what about the Ozymandias Awards?

Ozymandias was the subject of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley in which a traveller encounters the broken statue of a legendary king of ancient times, lying forgotten in the desert, with these words carved on its base: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

The poem wonderfully illustrates hubris, human frailty and fleeting prowess. If there were such an award the global winners of the Oz Awards this year would have to be US President Donald Trump, Tesla boss Elon Musk and UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Once they were mighty; now they are sniping and growling at everyone and everything. Yet some of their prowess surprisingly remains, like the mighty trunk of Ozymandias’s statue, a reminder of better times.

Trump suffered two major setbacks in 2018: the loss of the House of Representatives to the Democrats in the midterm elections; and the expanding scope of the Mueller investigation and related legal actions.

Trump’s biggest existing legal setback was the conviction of his former lawyer and sex-fixer Michael Cohen. Cohen paid off adult-film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal shortly before the November 2016 presidential election, after both had extramarital affairs with the president-to-be. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison and more than $1m in fines. The conviction opens the possibility of an indictment of Trump for criminal violations of the federal electoral financing laws.

Potentially more damaging, however, is the investigation by former FBI head Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign. Previous special counsels typically secured few convictions, but Mueller has been racking them up with terrifying consistency. He has filed conspiracy charges against two lobbyists, reached a plea deal with former national security adviser Michael Flynn and indicted 13 Russians for trying to trick Americans into consuming Russian propaganda targeting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The walls are closing in and while Trump calls the inquiry "the world’s most expensive witch-hunt", the convictions suggest exactly the opposite.

Trump’s already dire approval rating remains impervious to major improvement. He is now less popular in every state than when he was elected. It’s not unusual for a president’s approval rating to fall, but Trump is less popular at this point in his term than any other US president in living memory. Trump was once a trend; he is now an anomaly.

Only one other politician around the world has suffered such an ignominious drubbing: May.

May was dealt a terrible hand: the negotiation of the UK’s exit from the EU. Even so, the deal she delivered, in the words of Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, "united the UK in horror". He wrote: "For Remainers, it is evident that this quasi-permanent halfway house, which will keep the UK inside the EU’s customs area and divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK indefinitely, would be far worse than continued EU membership. For Leavers, it is equally evident that this very same halfway house would be far worse than a clean break."

As a result, she had to face a challenge to her leadership. Though she won, a third of Tory MPs voted against her. She then went to plead with the EU for some kind of concession that would help the deal get approval from the sceptical MPs, but the EU’s members stuck fast.

In retrospect, the pro-deal Tories failed to appreciate that the EU states all had incentives to ensure that the UK is given the worst deal possible, mainly to discourage the growing anti-EU parties in their midst. They also didn’t realise that the EU states held all the cards: while 45% of British exports go to the EU, only two EU countries (Ireland and Cyprus) send more than 10% of their exports to the UK. As Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, who is fighting right-wing populist Geert Wilders, put it: "If anyone in the Netherlands thinks Brexit is a good idea, look at England and see the huge damage it’s done."

Before 2018 the mercurial Musk could do no wrong — then the chickens came home to roost. In 2017, Musk promised to build 5,000 Tesla Model 3 electric cars by December, and 10,000 a week in 2018. Tesla finally hit 5,000 a week in June this year.

Then the gloves came off with investors. Musk refused to answer "boring, bonehead questions" from analysts, and smoked a doobie during an interview. Then he tweeted that he intended to take Tesla private, which turned out to be a porky pie aimed at shaking off the short sellers.

It’s been a poor year for the Oz Award winners, yet they are still standing. Trump successfully renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement; May could run down the clock on the EU deal and force it through parliament; and Musk’s Model 3 is outselling Nissan’s Leaf 10 to one in the US despite being much more expensive. Tesla’s share price is very close to a record high.

That’s the thing about the Oz Awards: you can’t bounce back after winning a Darwin, but the Oz Award is not terminal. Sadly, in many cases, some might say.

DOWNLOAD FINANCIAL MAIL NEWSMAKER OF THE YEAR

The FM has produced its annual 'Newsmakers of the Year' for 2018, which is available as a digital-only e-edition. Download the FM app for either Android or IOS on either your iPad, phone or computer, and read about who scooped the most headlines, who just missed out, who was responsible for the scandal of the year and the deal of the year.

Plus, read about why populism is on the rise in South Africa, our exclusive investigation into how SA firms are dodging R7bn in taxes by shifting profits offshore, and the top books of the year. Also, your favourite columnists too: Justice Malala, Fred Khumalo, Ann Crotty, Sikonathi Mantshantsha and Rob Rose.

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