Donald Trump Is Rick Santorum 2.0 – Less Social Conservatism, But Economic Populism On Steroids

Former Republican presidential primary candidate Rick Santorum, siren of the white working classes back in 2012, ran a campaign which laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s insurgency in 2016, and ultimately prophesied his victory

For several months now I have been waiting for somebody to make the connection between Rick Santorum‘s strong running in the 2012 Republican primaries and the playbook which took Donald Trump all the way to the White House.

Way back during the 2012 campaign, I noted that Santorum was singing a siren song to the “white working classes” of rust belt America, responding to their very real and valid concerns with reassuring but unrealistic promises that the tide of globalisation could (and should) be turned back, thus sparing them the need to adapt to the new America.

Back then I labelled Rick Santorum the “Pied Piper of Pennsylvania“, a reference to the way in which the former Pennsylvania senator accumulated a large, trusting and often sympathetic audience of followers, but whom he would ultimately lead off the edge of an economic cliff:

Barring certain specific exceptions, the manufacturing jobs that America has lost will simply never return.

And perhaps among all of the things that Rick Santorum says that rile me up, this one makes me the most angry. He is peddling a Pleasantville-style, black and white, 1950s vision of a country where once again it is possible to live a comfortable middle class lifestyle with a decent sized family home and a couple of cars, paid for by the wages earned from assembling televisions, or refrigerators, or cars. And Republican primary voters, many of whom are in the squeezed middle class and have been let down by successive administrations, are listening to Santorum’s claims and gaining hope, and voting for him, even though he cannot in actual fact turn the clock back fifty years, even if he does actually want to.

Whether he wins or loses the Republican primary and the general election, the persistence of this argument – and the belief that a few tweaks to the tax code and the drilling of a few more oil wells will spur a resurgence in unskilled and semiskilled manufacturing – simply dooms another generation of people to a life of stagnating or falling living standards.

People trust Santorum because, unlike the other main Republican candidates, he is so genuine. Why would he advocate policies that would hurt them, when he was one of them? And yet the policies that he proposes would either do little to bring back more unskilled or semiskilled manufacturing jobs, or would make the US population even less qualified to perform those jobs which already exist. And all the time that people hold out hope that a Rick Santorum or another politician like him can work this magic, it is time that they are not spending going back into training, or into college or university, and reskilling themselves for the jobs of tomorrow’s economy.

Rick Santorum says all of the things that the Republican Party’s blue collar base want to hear, but in many ways he is just a modern day Pied Piper, promising them a brighter future while marching them off a cliff.

Globalisation cannot be rolled back, nor should it be. The challenge – which falls hardest upon Republicans and small government, small-c conservatives like myself, who generally do not foresee an active role for central government in the lives of citizens – is to find a way of reaping the fruits of globalisation while bringing these disrupted communities with us instead of callously leaving them behind.

And we should be honest: conservatives are at a disadvantage here. Leftists have the luxury of simply waving their hands and promising new government programmes for the mass retraining of millions of people in new, higher value-added jobs and careers. But no matter how costly or inefficient those schemes may prove, those on the right have an even harder job persuading voters, and no one party or politician on either side of the Atlantic has yet arrived at a fully convincing solution.

The inability to satisfactorily answer these questions and convince enough people of his ability to deliver the fruits of globalisation with none of the adverse consequences -together with the establishment reluctantly falling firmly behind Mitt Romney – ultimately saw Rick Santorum fall by the wayside back in 2012. But four years later, Donald Trump came charging along with almost the exact same message, and stormed all the way to the White House. And during this extraordinary journey, none of his supporters seemed to realise or care that Trump has been every bit as unable as Rick Santorum was to answer the question of “how?”, beyond his usual barnstorming bluster and well-worn pledge to Make America Great Again.

Now Bill Powell from Newsweek magazine has also picked up on the similarity between the two men, with a new piece entitled “How Rick Santorum helped Donald Trump win the White House” in which he argues that to a large extent, Donald Trump merely honed and executed a playbook originally written by Santorum.

Powell writes:

In the spring of 2015, [Trump] was talking to a few family members and confidantes about running for president. And he wanted to get in touch with a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, who had served two terms before losing big in 2006. In 2012, he was the runner-up to Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primaries. Ensconced since then in a Washington, D.C., law firm, Santorum had written a book that attracted little attention: Blue Collar Conservatives, Recommitting to an America That Works. But Trump had read the book, very carefully, in fact, and was intrigued. He called Santorum and asked if he would come to Trump Tower for a visit. Santorum was a bit surprised by the invitation but said yes.

Santorum didn’t know what to expect. He had never met Trump and, like millions of Americans, knew of him only from his long-running NBC reality show, The Apprentice. Trump got right to the point. He had loved Santorum’s book and believed it could unlock the White House for a GOP candidate who ran a campaign based on reaching the working-class voters throughout the industrial Midwest that, Trump said, Democrats take for granted.

Santorum agreed, of course—he was thinking of making another run at the White House, using that playbook. (He did, but got bum-rushed early in the primaries.) Trump then surprised Santorum even more by questioning him on details of his book and economic policy in general. What could be done with trade policy to help the working class? Was there any way to turn around the massive bilateral trade imbalance with Beijing? Could the White House be used as a bully pulpit to pressure American companies to stop sending manufacturing offshore? On and on they went, and Santorum left the meeting wondering what might happen if you mixed the power of celebrity with a blue-collar tent revival.

We now know the answer. Trump’s improbable run to the presidency—which was nearly derailed on several occasions by his lack of discipline—was guided by a conviction that he could, as political consultant and longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone said last year, “rewrite the [electoral] map” by smashing the “great blue wall” of Midwestern Democratic states. And smash it he did.

Something happened (or continued to happen) between 2012 and 2016 which made more people receptive to the Santorum message of economic populism and protectionism, and the failure of the Obama administration to change the economic trajectory of those people already  suffering the fallout from globalisation (or nervously waiting for it to impact their industry and their jobs) clearly played a large part.

But even then, Trump’s victory could probably have been prevented had prominent Democrats like Hillary Clinton and President Obama not been so blasé about the economic challenge facing millions of Americans while they were campaigning. Hillary Clinton in particular took every opportunity to criticise Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, neglecting to consider that from many people’s perspective, America is only as great as their own present circumstances. But while sanctimoniously lecturing Donald Trump and his supporters that “America is already great” may have been factually true, it also felt a lot like the establishment dismissing the legitimate concerns of suffering people.

Sure, America is pretty darn awesome if you are one of the Wall Street bankers to whom Hillary Clinton loved to give speeches, one of the celebrities attending her fundraisers or just a prosperous coastal professional whose job and career is not about to be eradicated through automation or outsourcing. But if you do not fall into one of these categories, America can feel a lot more precarious than great. And having the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee continually insisting that everything is wonderful and that anyone with concerns or complaints is somehow “deplorable” was about the most stupid and politically tone-deaf way for a candidate to behave.

And of course we all know the outcome:

The Trump high-command members knew then they had an opening. The crowds Trump was drawing were enormous, and even before [FBI director James] Comey’s announcement [about the reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server], their internal polls said the race was tightening, but not enough to make many of them believe he would win. Now, though, they thought they had a shot. Trump remained focused, and the campaign laid on rally after rally—up to five per day in the last days of the race. Trump went back to Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin again and again. He even made a trip to Minnesota, the bluest of blue states, because—stunningly—polling had him drawing close even there. The Santorum strategy was playing out just as Trump had bet it would so many months before.

[..] “Those states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin—were the targets,” [Trump campaign manager Kellyanne] Conway would later say. “[Trump] had a `theory of the race,’ and when it became clear that he had tapped into something very big, he rode it. And that is what good candidates do.”

Bill Powell is right – to a large extent, Donald Trump picked up the mantle from Rick Santorum, amending it by ditching some of the niche social conservatism (an integral part of Santorum’s Catholic traditionalism) and ramping up the economic populism even further.

While Santorum spoke of the pain of those whose manufacturing jobs were disappearing and promised help through the corporate tax code, Donald Trump identified a specific bogeyman in the form of China and other countries who supposedly always get the better of America, and then promised to confront these foreign economic enemies. While Rick Santorum railed against the coastal intellectual elites and dismissed aspiring to go to college as “snobbery”, Donald Trump insulted and belittled those Ivy League experts and elites day after day.

In many ways, watching Donald Trump on the campaign trail was like watching an incredibly vulgar, amoral and less eloquent version of Rick Santorum, with the brightness and volume dial turned up to max. And it worked. The economic message that Santorum road-tested in his 2012 campaign and in “Blue Collar Conservatives” was a beguiling one, as I acknowledged four years ago. But when it was hitched to a television celebrity phenomenon and fuelled by a combustible blend of identity politics backlash and the Democratic Party’s seeming disdain for middle America, it became immensely powerful.

Of course, this leaves President-elect Trump in a far worse place than Rick Santorum. Santorum was able to rack up Republican primary votes and victories against Mitt Romney, but his ultimate defeat saved him from having to make good on his campaign rhetoric and unrealistic promises to insulate middle America from the negative consequences of globalisation. Donald Trump has made it all the way to the White House, and the people who put him there will now expect him to deliver.

Which means that it falls to Donald Trump – of all the unlikely people – to do something that no right-wing politician anywhere in the world has successfully achieved: find a way to reap the benefits of globalisation while mitigating the negative side effects.

My gut feeling: assuming that Trump even tries to address this challenge, it will only be by enacting economically ruinous levels of protectionism or by abandoning any pretence of conservatism and embracing some kind of mass worker retraining program, either in a massive expansion of the federal government or else delivered by the states through federal block grants. And given the dynamics in Congress, it is by no means certain that any such measure would pass.

Make America Great Again – so easy to say, so hard to deliver for millions of struggling Americans.

 

Rick Santorum

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Triggered By Trump, Celebrity SJWs Go Deeper Into The Bubble

Besides my weekly newsletter from hilarious SJW site Everyday Feminism, the thing which brings me most pleasure in American political life at the moment is reading twice-weekly dispatch from Lenny, Lena Dunham’s online collaboration with Jenni Konner which can best be described as “social justice for the 0.1 percent”.

Here you can find an surefire antidote to whatever scraps of self-awareness and contrition may be emerging from other, more humble parts of the American Left. Here, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were beyond reproach at all times, and it was America (specifically those ignorant, self-hating white, working class women who had the temerity to vote for Donald Trump) who let Hillary down, not vice versa.

The first thing you need to understand: commanded by their cult of identity politics, they were really deeply invested in Hillary Clinton as a person. As Lenny contributor Virginia Heffernan put it:

When people told me they hated Hillary Clinton or (far worse) that they were “not fans,” I wish I had said in no uncertain terms: “I love Hillary Clinton. I am in awe of her. I am set free by her. She will be the finest world leader our galaxy has ever seen.”

I want to reverse the usual schedule of things, then. We don’t have to wait until she dies to act. Hillary Clinton’s name belongs on ships, and airports, and tattoos. She deserves straight-up hagiographies and a sold-out Broadway show called RODHAM. Yes, this cultural canonization is going to come after the chronic, constant, nonstop “On the other hand” sexist hedging around her legacy. But such is the courage of Hillary Clinton and her supporters; we reverse patriarchal orders. Maybe she is more than a president. Maybe she is an idea, a world-historical heroine, light itself. The presidency is too small for her. She belongs to a much more elite class of Americans, the more-than-presidents. Neil Armstrong, Martin Luther King Jr., Alexander Fucking Hamilton.

Hillary Clinton did everything right in this campaign, and she won more votes than her opponent did. She won. She cannot be faulted, criticized, or analyzed for even one more second. Instead, she will be decorated as an epochal heroine far too extraordinary to be contained by the mere White House.

Yes, maybe Hillary Clinton is light itself. Anyway, you get the idea.

Strangely, nearly to the last person, each writers seems to have been personally committed not to the Democratic Party or left-wing ideals, but to Hillary Clinton herself, as Meena Harris admits:

I joined the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group early on, when its simple but brilliant purpose was to get as many women as possible to wear a pantsuit on Election Day in support of Hillary Clinton. In the weeks preceding the election, Pantsuit Nation became more than a modest call for a show of solidarity on a single day — it became a vibrant and uplifting community of millions of women and allies demonstrating their commitment to Hillary. It truly was a “safe space,” something that seems increasingly rare on the Internet. It affirmed the hope, love, kindness, and support we all are capable of when we come together to fight for something we believe in. It elevated the values embodied in Hillary’s campaign and proved that, indeed, we are stronger together.

My emphasis in bold.

Perhaps this is why it is so hard for the Lennyists to come to terms with Donald Trump’s victory. The rest of America, not inducted into the Clinton personality cult, didn’t realise that they were supposed to base their vote on the blinkered hero-worship of a flawed candidate.

And so while some on the American Left are busy working their way through the five stages of grief and trying to accept that openly despising half the country is not a good route to electoral success, the people at Lenny are doing the opposite – surrounding themselves with likeminded people (even more than usual, if that were possible) and actively seeking out situations and social settings which in no way challenge their existing assumptions and beliefs.

As editor-in-chief Jessica Grose confesses:

It’s been two weeks now. I am falling asleep decently well, but I wake up around three each morning with a start, as if the specter of Trump is chasing me in my subconscious. Then I have trouble falling back asleep after I remember that yes, he really is our president-elect. While we must continue to stay on guard, to stay active, to stay angry, I wanted to write about the times I have felt peace: when I have been in the company of raucous women.

One was a meeting of fellow moms from my daughter’s preschool. We met to discuss a book at a bar, but we ended up talking about our dashed presidential dreams, how to teach our sons and daughters about consent, and who had done (or would do) ayahuasca (answer: would never; am not interested in hallucinating while having explosive diarrhea).

The other was at a shiva for the father of a dear friend. Five women — some of whom had never met before — sat around a living room in Queens, admired foxy photographs of the deceased from his Speedo-wearing youth, revealed our salaries to each other, and argued over whether a sincere belief in chemtrails was a relationship deal-breaker (answer: it depends).

What these meetings had in common was that I felt fully myself and utterly accepted in each grouping. Finding your people, and your solace, in moments of stress and strife is something we’re emphasizing in this week’s issue.

Yes. Reacting to Donald Trump’s election victory by retreating further into the bubble, seeking the company of fellow power moms who sit around discussing the latest fashionable hallucinatory weekend escape and giving their young sons “consent lessons” so that they are no longer tempted to embark on a raping spree across Manhattan, as they would otherwise doubtless be.

These people do not have the slightest interest in learning about the America they actually inhabit, and so when faced with a difficult outcome they simply refuse to accept it, cocooning themselves off with other like-minded people. As private citizens, that might be okay (if still an immature and fragility-creating way for adults to behave). But as supposed writers and journalists, it is an unforgivable dereliction of duty.

Into the bubble. Deeper and deeper…

Meanwhile back in the real world, president-elect Trump continues to wage war on the media and pick his cabinet.

 

pop-art-donald-trump-2

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The Labour Party’s Soul Searching Exercise Is Off To An Unpromising Start

Finally, a glimmer of self-awareness from within the perennially self-satisfied Labour Party. But there is a long, difficult road ahead if Labour are serious about reaching out to their legions of disaffected former voters, and it is far from certain that senior party figures have either the stamina or the humility to make the journey

 

What makes us great as a country is not our culture, it’s not our wealth, and it’s definitely not currently our footballing abilities.” – Suzy Stride, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Harlow, 2014

 

Apparently Tristram Hunt has been filling the time freed up through refusing to serve in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet by having a good, long think about why the Labour Party imploded quite so badly under the hapless leadership of Ed Miliband.

Hunt’s principle contribution to this process of soul-searching has been to assemble and edit a book of essays by various people within the party, each one ruminating on the cause of their defeat. The common thread which emerges, unsurprisingly, is the profound extent to which the increasingly metropolitan, middle-class core of the modern Labour Party has diverged from the “white working class”, to the extent that the Labour leadership (and many activists) had almost nothing to say to Britain’s strivers going in to the 2015 general election.

Hunt previews this new book – “Labour’s Identity Crisis” – in an article for the Guardian, and it makes fascinating reading, though probably not for the reasons that its author would like. For it reveals the absolute mountain which Labour has to climb just in order to appear relevant to those voters who have deserted the party for UKIP or the Tories.

Hunt begins:

“I’m a white working-class Englishman who isn’t on benefits, Labour isn’t for people like me.” That was the brutal message that confronted the Labour party candidate Suzy Stride on a doorstep in Harlow, Essex, during last year’s general election.

It was a sentiment repeated across the country: Labour didn’t speak for England. Worse, in that remarkable tweet from the Islington MP Emily Thornberry  – picturing St George’s crosses adorning a semi in Rochester – we seemed to mock it.

It’s very interesting that Tristram Hunt should kick off his article with a quote from failed 2015 Labour parliamentary candidate for Harlow (my hometown), Suzy Stride. Because this is what Stride had to say about the country which gives her life and liberty back during the 2014 Labour Party Conference:

“What makes us great as a country is not our culture, is not our wealth, and it’s definitely not currently our footballing abilities. What makes us great is that we have the dignity to care for those who are most vulnerable. So when did it become acceptable to make parents queue for food at foodbanks?”

This is someone who stood before the electorate asking for their vote only months after boasting on television that she believes there is nothing special about her country, its culture, history or achievements, and that the only thing which we on this rainy island have to be proud of is the fact that we confiscate ever more money from the most productive people in society and blast it indiscriminately at anybody declared by the Labour Party to be “vulnerable” (currently hovering at around 50% of the population, in terms of net welfare recipients).

And yet up pops Suzy Stride in Tristram Hunt’s book, acting as though the seeds of her defeat were sown not by her own contemptuous attitude toward her country, but rather by the mistaken priorities and poor leadership of the national party. The man who went on to beat Stride by 8,350 votes, incumbent Conservative MP Robert Halfon, understands that in fact our culture is great, as is our history, our wealth and global power. And while he is far from being a Thatcherite right-winger, Halfon at least appreciates that the greatness of our country is more than the sum of our public services. Faced with a choice between the two candidates, it was no contest for the voters of the bellwether constituency of Harlow.

Tristram Hunt quotes Stride again, at the end of a long passage on immigration:

For too many voters, we were still the party that had once dismissed Gillian Duffy as “bigoted” for raising the question of mass migration and cultural change. Labour still has a long way to go to acknowledge the post-2004 influx as one of the most dramatic demographic surges in the history of England. As a result, England has changed in cultural and ethnic composition with an intensity many voters understandably find deeply unsettling.

For at the same time as new migrants found work, manufacturing was laying off workers in the face of increased global competition. There was no direct link between the jobs gained and those lost, but the conjunction of immigration, globalisation and job losses left a toxic political legacy: industrial communities in England saw their way of life change under a Labour policy for which democratic consent was never sought, let alone given. Even worse was an unwillingness by Labour activists to acknowledge the problem. According to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, eight out of 10 Labour party members think that immigration is good for the country. This is not the case on most doorsteps in Labour areas. And when, in 2015, English voters raised cultural concerns about changes in language, dress and social norms, we answered with crass, material responses. “Many middle-class Labourites scoffed at such views,” according to Suzy Stride in Harlow. “Where would the NHS be without immigrants?” was a common response from canvassers, she said.

This is actually a very good passage, and is the closest we have yet come to anything approaching contrition for the way that the New Labour government of Tony Blair waved through an unprecedented influx of immigrants without so much as mentioning it to the British electorate, let alone seeking their permission. Whether one is generally pro or anti-immigration (and this blog is very much pro), we should all be able to agree as democrats that such a significant national change, brought about by stealth, was an unconscionable act of arrogance by the Blair government. The fact that many Labour activists still have to be coaxed ever so gently toward this realisation is itself a sign of how much atoning the party still has to do.

Tristram Hunt then gets to the core of it:

A failure to appreciate the value of Englishness played an important role in our 2015 defeat and nothing Corbyn has done as leader has changed this. Indeed, his cosmopolitan views on immigration, benefits, the monarchy and armed forces are likely to have exacerbated the disconnect.

As George Orwell put it: “In leftwing circles it is always felt there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.” He was right: in no other progressive European tradition – from the French Socialist party to Spain’s Podemos – do you find a similar reluctance to fly the flag.

So there are obvious reforms for Labour to pursue: an English Labour party; a referendum on an English parliament; radical devolution to cities and counties. Alongside that, we have to be careful during the EU referendum campaign not to alienate those millions of Labour voters opting for Brexit. But more than that, what these tales from the 2015 campaign expose is Labour’s need to shed its metropolitan squeamishness about England. It needs to express its admiration and love for the people and culture of this great country.

An admirable sentiment, but at present a futile hope. As Hunt himself admits, the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party has done nothing to change the core of the party’s disdain for that bulk of people lumped together under the umbrella term “white working class”. While this blog hailed Corbyn’s leadership bid not because of his odious foreign policy opinions but because of the opportunity he represents to inject some real partisan choice back into our domestic political debate, there is sadly little evidence that the army of new members Corbyn helped attract to the party hail from outside the urban, middle class clerisy first identified by Brendan O’Neill as the Labour Party’s new de facto rulers.

You see the effect in Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate U-turn on the European Union the moment he became Labour leader. Corbyn had always held a principled eurosceptic stance and had voted to leave back in the 1975 referendum, and yet here he is in 2016, chanting the praises of Brussels. Why? Because while the Labour party membership will forgive many things (including supporting the IRA, as Alex Massie reminds us), the one thing they cannot abide is a failure to support the mindless, anti-democratic pseudo-internationalism of the EU, or the failure to take a firm, unapologetic stance in favour of unlimited immigration. Those things are simply non-negotiable for Labour activists, most of whom can scarcely conceal their disdain for anybody who fails to hold the “correct” view on immigration in particular.

And that’s the problem. Too many Labour activists actually hate the people of this country – or at best they view those not already convinced of Labour’s righteousness as dangerously ignorant, as Tristram Hunt goes on to explain:

Jamie Reed, MP for Copeland, in Cumbria, takes the analogy further by suggesting that, if Labour fails to embrace Englishness, it will face in northern towns and villages the same fate as the Democrats in the US south: a failure to connect “culturally” with a socially conservative working-class electorate, increasingly willing to vote against their own material interests.

Jamie Reed presumptuously declares that it is the cultural issues surrounding English identity which make natural Labour supporters spurn the party and vote against their own material self interest. But this lazy “what’s the matter with Kansas?” attitude is itself part of the problem – the arrogant assumption that people are voting Tory or UKIP despite rather than because of their right wing economic policies, and that of course they would see that good old fashioned socialist policies would be much better for them, if only they were a little more educated.

The headline of Hunt’s piece in the Guardian is “There’ll always be an England – and Labour must learn to love it”. But from all the evidence currently on display, aspiring for love is setting the goal far too high. First, Labour must learn simply to tolerate the country again – to look upon the white working class and others of their former supporters not as godless infidels who spurned the One True Faith and threw their lot in with the genocidal Tories and racist Ukippers, but as decent and rational human beings who simply don’t like what the Labour Party is currently selling.

Meanwhile, Labour shadow ministers and the army of activists who knock on doors and deliver leaflets need to dial down the moral sanctimony from 100 to about 50, and accept that maybe they, rather than the electorate, made the mistake on May 7 (and the days leading up to it) last year.

If these extracts from “Labour’s Identity Crisis” – and the behaviour of Labour supporters in the year since that fateful general election – are anything to go by, the party has a lot of unresolved anger toward the British electorate. If this were a marriage, couples therapy would most definitely be in order. All of which is quite ridiculous, because it is Britain which has every right to be angry at the Labour Party, and not vice versa.

The white working class and many others spurned the Labour Party in 2015 not because they are morally defective, but because the centre-left, urban, woolly Fabianism of the Miliband era had absolutely nothing to offer them.

And what remains uncertain, despite a radical change in leadership and a plucky first attempt at introspection from Tristram Hunt, is just how the Labour Party ever expects to win a future majority when they continue to hold such a large segment of the population in open contempt?

 

Tristram Hunt - Labour Leadership

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