On Friday, September 28, Bernard-Henri Lévy—a member of The American Interest editorial board—sat down with Charles Davidson and a group of TAI authors in Washington, DC for a roundtable discussion on the state of America and the world, followed by a one-on-one interview with Jeffrey Gedmin. The following transcripts have been edited for clarity.
Charles Davidson for The American Interest: Let’s begin with general impressions of your visit to the United States this time around. What have you seen here, and what do you think it means for the rest of the world?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: I don’t know who can pretend today in this crazy world to have wisdom. And it’s a special moment for America these days, to be honest. I’ve been here for a few days in Washington, DC and New York. I know America a little: I wrote a sort of neo-Tocqueville book 15 years ago called American Vertigo, and I visited every single state of this country. I captured, I hope, part of its spirit. By the way, in this old book, I had the feeling of what could happen here, on the Left and on the Right.
But I must confess what I’ve seen these past few days has been unpredictable, and so astonishing. My impression is, number one, that we are facing a serious situation. I say that with all the humility and all the love I have for America. As you know, Adam Gopnik qualified me 20 years ago as the most anti-anti-American of the French intellectuals. So for me anti-Americanism is a sin, it’s a sign of fascism in France. And I love America. I have to say that as a preamble.
Nevertheless, I have an impression that the worst of the Right and the worst of the Left are coming up. I have some friends on the campuses, I have some friends in the Administration, and I read the newspapers. And this country was once so wise, so removed from the hard political games of Europe—where we have an extreme Right and an extreme Left, the two populisms. America once seemed spared from that stupid game, except at the margins. Now, I have the feeling that the two camps have a real force dragging them to something which could look like what happens in Europe.
Number two, I have the impression, as Tom Friedman says, of a strange tornado which is catching and swallowing so many people. I speak of my friends whom I’ve met over the past week. I see them grasping the table, trying not to be swallowed by the tornado. Wise people. Brilliant. This is a country with the best academics, the best scholars, the best think tanks, the best foreign policy experts in all the Western world. But this tornado is swallowing nearly everyone.
Number three, there is a fear. People are afraid in Europe also, but we are accustomed to that. At the worst, we had Nazism, communism, so we are right to be afraid. In America, there was political cold blood. Now I feel a fear.
Number four, if we go to hot actuality: Yesterday, the streets of Washington, DC emptied. There was this hearing on TV all day. I’m not an expert of Roman history, but I think that the last Senate of the time of Romulus Augustulus—the last Roman emperor, a sort of cartoon character—might have had debates of the same sort. The world is burning, Erdogan and China and Putin are pushing their advantage, and the whole Senate is discussing if a man was drinking beer or not, 36 years ago. You may think whatever you want about Mr. Kavanaugh. And I am, myself, convinced that his nomination to the Supreme Court is very bad news for women, their cause and their rights. But, frankly, from an outside perspective, there is something not very sane in the whole situation.
So the tornado, the last Senate of a great empire, this strange feeling of fear—these are my impressions. But what is marvelous in this country is that even when you have reasons to despair there are always reasons to hope.
What I can also observe is that what Erdogan and the President of America call the deep state—which they say is their enemy, plotting their defeat—maybe in fact exists. Maybe it exists for the best, and maybe there is a great resistance of the deep state against the craziness of what is happening all around. By the way, it’s true everywhere, not only in America. I think that we have never seen so many clinically crazy or problematic leaders all over the world. Boris Johnson is really a clinical case, Erdogan is really a clinical case, and you have others. But it’s a new thing and they are right to be afraid of it, this deep state.
I’ve been coming to America for 50 years and I’ve never seen so much energy, so much wisdom among civil servants, academics, and so on. I don’t want to give names, but I saw a lot of people who seem conscious of the strangeness of the situation, of the huge responsibility they have. They are taking it so seriously and are in charge of the best of America—on both sides. I saw some people from the Democratic Party, the head of a think tank for instance, who was willing to have some honest Republicans on board. And the reverse, some Republican think tanks wishing to gather fair Democrats together. There is a sense that the boat is in the middle of a big tempest and that we need more solid and wise captains, a good crew on both sides, forgetting vain partisan quarrels.
So, I’ve never felt in America—and I came here even at the time of Nixon and Watergate, you know—such a wish for wisdom in the elites of America. A wish for bipartisanship and cold blood. So, what fills me with hope is this deep state resisting the cyclone, the tornado. This is my impression of these last days.
I was reading the New York Times and the Washington Post this morning, as I do every day. As Hegel said, “The prayer of the philosopher is the reading of the newspaper.” And in the inside pages, there were such big events happening! Really the world is burning. What is happening in Turkey is huge. What is happening in China, and even with some American companies in the realm of artificial intelligence, is crucial. Putin is not clinically deranged. He has a clear idea of his goal and of his mission.
And in the most powerful country of the world, the Senate spends a whole day on a story that is 36 years old. It can happen in France, too, to be completely honest. We spent not one day but two months transforming the bad misconduct of a bodyguard of President Macron into a state affair. Everybody speaks of it as the French Watergate, but it’s not. It is not a state affair. It’s a bad story, a story of great misconduct, a mistake by the President, but the whole of France is only concerned today with the performance of the actors of this drama. How does he act? How does he react? What is his demeanor when he goes out of the hearing?
The question of the truth is less important today in France than the question of the performance. Politics all over the West has been transformed into a sort of telenovela, as you say in Miami, with actors playing their own parts and being judged with a thumbs up or thumbs down, like in Rome. Today in France, the first question that a big high-ranking politician asks of his crew after a big television meeting is, “Was I good?” The same is true here, I suppose. Not “Did I convince?” Not “Did I say the truth?” No, it’s: “Was I good? How did I look?”
This is the situation of the West, the collapse of politics.
TAI: Can you give us a broader report on France, and in particular Macron? His approval ratings currently are abysmal. What explains that trend?
BHL: What explains it is probably that a lot of French people feel cheated on the merchandise. They believed that they had voted for a sort of Trump. A lot of Frenchmen believed that.
TAI: A sort of Trump?
BHL: Yes—anti-system, anti-parties. There are some people in France who probably made all the difference, who believed that he was anti-system, anti-establishment, anti-elite, wanting to destroy the old world and so on. They discovered that of course (and thank God) this is not the guy. He knows that in the old world there is some good which has to be kept. He knows that not everything in the establishment is to be thrown in the bin. So a real part of his voting bloc believe that they have been cheated. They voted for Macron on the populist agenda and he’s not a populist at all. He is the big adversary of the populists, and the next European election will be played 100 percent on this agenda: Macron versus Orban. The dividing line, the real question in Europe today is who will have the majority of the European Parliament: Macron or Orban?
And Orban, by the way, does not think that he is just a marginal little Eastern player. He has the aspiration to be at the center, to be the tutor and inspirer of others in Europe. A lot of French voters discovered that Macron is the anti-Orban, that Macron is the one who resists Putin and populism, so of course they are disappointed and they feel cheated. This is one of the reasons for his going down in the polls. The other reason is the Benalla story, but the main thing is that they discovered a much wiser man than they thought—someone who was not ready to destroy everything.
Now I would just like to add that it does not have so much importance because one of the differences between France and America, for the good of France, is that we don’t have midterms. We don’t have the sixth of November in France, which means that legitimacy is given once. If you are a populist, you think that legitimacy has to be refreshed every week, every day, every hour, every minute. But for a real democrat, legitimacy is given once and it will be refreshed five years later.
So Macron will continue to act and reform, to stay cold-blooded, until the last minute of the last day of his mandate, whatever the polls say. It’s true that there is a scandal, but it’s false to imagine that it might prevent him from acting. It might if he was like others Presidents in democratic countries who only think of their re-election.
I may be wrong. Macron is not my friend, he is my President, but my feeling is that he does not work this way. He is not obsessed with how to maneuver in order to have employment and the euro in a good position in four years when he runs again. He wants to do great things. He wants to leave a positive mark on the history of France and of Europe. This is why he is a great guy, in my opinion, even if he has some problems.
TAI: You referred earlier to the deep state as a kind of stabilizing factor. In American politics, “deep state” is usually a pejorative term; no one wants to be called a part of the deep state. In your eyes, does a deep state and the stabilization it provides conflict in any way with Tocqueville’s vision of America, which you wrote about 10 years ago? Does Tocqueville still have something to say about American democracy today?
BHL: Of course, I would far prefer for America and for the West in general, for institutions to work fairly, with good balance embedded in the institution. But we are in a really special moment. The new world created by the internet creates a completely new mess. Honestly. The institution that Tocqueville, Benjamin Constant, and other Anglo-Saxon writers invented does not match with the new world of instantaneous, quick reactions and the transparency of the internet. Benjamin Constant, who was one of the founders of modern liberalism, said that one pillar of democracy was the right to secrecy. He had a big quarrel with Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, who preached that you never have to lie, under any circumstances, and that there is no need for secrecy.
There was a famous scenario imagined by Kant. Let’s suppose that you have an innocent taking shelter at your house, and some bad cops come to ask you, “Is the innocent in your home?” Would you deliver him to the bad cops or not? Of course, Benjamin Constant says no and Immanuel Kant said yes, because if he’s there you cannot lie. Liberal thought supposes all these distinctions: the respect of secrecy, of privacy, and so on. Today, privacy is completely blown out. Secrecy is a crime. If you have secrets, it means that you are a criminal.
This moment will not last forever, because institutions will adapt. Probably, the internet masters will themselves correct and tame the monsters that they invented. I don’t know. But at this special moment, what I provocatively call the deep state—which is really just decent civil servants, wise intellectuals, partisans of the two sides who want to work together—is necessary. It’s good that they keep a cool head. And when I read in the Anonymous op-ed of the New York Times the story of the letter that had been stolen from the office of the President, when I read the Woodward book, I say, “Thank God there are some people—Republicans, Democrats, whatever—who are here to try to keep America safe and guard its dignity.” So I call that the deep state by provocation and joke, because it’s the phrase of Trump himself and of Erdogan, but it means something.
We are in an emergency, clearly. America and Europe both, outside our borders, and inside our houses. There is a fire in the house. Our leaders are burning the furniture. When they are gone we might find the house empty of anything good.
TAI: If what’s happening in the western world is now happening here, then, what has changed? Is the United States just catching up with the rest of the world? Is it a problem within America, or something that has come creeping into the American system from outside?
BHL: No, I think that there is a world phenomenon. Craziness at the head of states, for example, is often seen in emerging countries. Distrust in democratic institutions and liberal values becoming normalized, becoming the ordinary belief—it’s like we are in the 1930s. In the 1930s the big tendency all over the world, from Japan to Germany, from France to the Arab world, from Iran to wherever, was the common conviction that liberal values were bad.
When you really look at the time when fascism emerged, the common thread was not that people hated democracy. A lot of them hated it, but even those who loved democracy had to make the observation that it was dead, deprived of flesh, deprived of soul, incapable of defending itself. I could quote so many examples. Even in America, “America First” was not only Lindbergh, there were a lot of wise and good Americans who were in the America First movement in the mid-30s. They thought that liberty, freedom, and democracy were collapsing everywhere, so let’s protect the American fortress from the mess which is prevailing everywhere else. We are in such a moment today. A seminal moment. I don’t know if it is America who created that, or America which is contaminated by what happened outside. It is a general tendency.
And there is a club, which I call sometimes for fun, the club of testosterone: guys like Trump, Putin, and Erdogan. They respect each other. At the G7 in July, Trump said that the one who does his job the best was Erdogan. He praised Erdogan, much in the way that he said before the election that Putin gets an “A” for leadership and not Obama, who was a disgusting, weak man, according to Trump. So you have this world tendency, this club of the so-called strong guys who are in reality probably very weak guys. I dream of a psychologist or a novelist who could make the story of all this time come to life, and show what is really happening in the minds of these guys.
TAI: Earlier you were discussing America being deranged and distracted, focused on how much beer someone consumed 36 years ago. Can you elaborate on the global consequences of an America that’s so inward-looking? Does it matter? Are we still influential in Europe, and what are your concerns if America continues on this way for the foreseeable future?
BHL: It usually matters. Europe is a depressive old lady who attempted suicide twice: once in 1914 and once in 1939. And both times, there was a good guy who came and rescued Europe and prevented her from committing suicide. If today Europe was again tempted to madness and there was no President Roosevelt or an American establishment to prevent it, we would commit suicide. So of course it matters, and it matters everywhere else.
I was in Kurdistan one year ago, on September 25, the day of the referendum. I saw physically, with my naked eye, the result of the American withdrawal. It meant Abrams tanks piloted and conducted by Iranian paramilitary troops, bombing the best allies of the West. It was a disaster. The Abrams tanks delivered by your country, in the hands of hooligans paid by the Iranians and killing the best force for stability—along with Israel— in the Middle East. And America let that happen, dropped these agents of order.
Then again, of course I can understand that Americans could think, why should we be the guardians of the world order? This is not a despicable question. But the reply is, if America is not the guardian of the world, the keeper of its brother, then the world goes to pieces. Europe and the rest.
You are the shining city upon the hill. You billed yourself as a new Jerusalem and a new Rome. I was not on the Mayflower, and perhaps your ancestors were not either. But they claimed that mission and it’s difficult to escape it. There is a great quote of a French writer called Paul Morand who said, “Les américains sont des Romains involontaires”: Americans are involuntary Romans. Involuntary like the kings of Israel who did not want to be kings. They wanted to hide and run away, but they had to be kings. This is the fate, this is the nobility, the highness of America.
TAI: You oppose Brexit, and have said that it was bad for both Britain and Europe. First, can you explain why Brexit will be bad for Europe? And to follow on the earlier question, about the future: If in the near term we have a Europe minus Britain, with America in relative terms less engaged and a Russia in relative terms more engaged, what does that Europe look like five or 10 years from now?
BHL: Collapse. Before ten years’ time. Brexit is a catastrophe for Europe. The economic factor is not the most important. Frankfurt or Paris will be the next hub for finance and you already have some boutiques figuring out how to attract money from London to Paris and Frankfurt. This is not an unsolvable problem. Finance, economics, trade, all that will be solved, albeit with a few weeks or months of disorder at the border.
The real disaster is the one in the souls. English liberalism made the spirit of Europe. We always say the engine of Europe is France and Germany. It is not true. The real fuel, the real machinery, the real spirit was sparked in London in 1945 between the war cabinet of Churchill and the city of London. Liberalism, liberal values, open society, free markets, rule of law: All these principles are not German or French, they are British. And one of the main founding speeches of the European Union is the 1946 speech of Winston Churchill in Zurich. He was not so much a European, Churchill, but he gave a big part of the inspiration.
So if we lose England, we would lose one of our three legs, and with two legs, you don’t walk when you are a continent.
And if America withdraws, if America stops believing in NATO and the automaticity of defense, you have a man, Putin—and what I say is not polemic—who knows what he wants. He has a clear agenda. He is not stupid. His agenda is to dismantle Europe, to provide assistance to anyone who wants to get in trouble with the European Union. Tsipras, at the peak of the crisis between Greece and Europe, made two trips to Russia. One of the proposals Putin made was to print the drachma, the old currency. If you decide to go out of Europe, Putin proposed, we will provide the new banknotes. Orban too made a pact with the devil. There is a real infiltration today of Putinism inside Hungary. Hungary went out of the totalitarian nightmare and now there is a sort of revenge of totalitarianism.
So Putin has this agenda. I don’t know how many violations of European airspace there have been in the last two or three years by Russian planes, but this is a real problem for the Baltic states. He has an agenda, he has a program, he wants to take revenge on the Europe of John Paul II, Lech Wałęsa, maybe François Mittérand, all those who destroyed the great Russia. And if America is in retreat, if the good Popperian and Smithian spirit of England dries up, then I think we will see a strange Europe, Putinized. We already have in all European countries a Putin party. All the extreme Right parties in Europe are pro-Putin. The extreme Left are pro-Putin too and many cohorts in the regular Left or regular Right are pro-Putin too. It makes a lot of people!
TAI: You’ve spoken about Putin, you’ve hinted at but not gone into detail about Erdogan. But the largest and most powerful totalitarian state at this moment is China. And the way the Chinese look at things, in the long term, is that they can work with people like Erdogan, Putin, and smaller actors in Europe and possibly cause the collapse or at least the decline of America.
And of course, in America, China’s seen largely in terms of the Indo-Pacific. But are we headed for something worse than what Europe’s been through, something truly global? Because China’s whole Belt and Road initiative aims at creating a new Eurasia, and they look forward to leading it. And there are people in Putin’s camp who think that Russia should actually ride on China’s back to make America less involved in European matters so that Russia has an advantage. Then there is Erdogan, who is also looking at an old order being restored: an Ottoman-centered order, an Islamic world that is slightly more modern in the sense of technology, resources, and money but at the same time, has all the same pathologies that the Ottoman Empire had.
You’ve been here a few days. Do you find awareness of these global ideological and philosophical challenges here? After the Second World War, it seems there was much more awareness about the need for a new world order.
BHL: I cannot say about America but my feeling is that there is not enough awareness. Because you are right, this is the phenomenon of our time and the topic of my next book. You have five powers who have been great empires that collapsed: Ottoman, Arab, Persian, Russian, and Chinese. And they all dream of a revival. They were big empires with great, flourishing civilizations. They were destroyed by intruders, by the West, whatever, they were destroyed. And now, they are facing a sort of “divine surprise,” as we say in France. Might it be possible that for the first time in human history, an empire that has collapsed can revive? It never happens. When you look at the history of empires, from Montesquieu to Spengler, it never happens. But today, you have five big guys, members of the club of testosterone, who say: What if it were possible?
Among these five, the one which is particularly dangerous is the only one who has money: the Chinese. I think that the Chinese threat has usually been underestimated, even by scholars in America. I remember a program I did 10 years ago on a TV show here. The consensus was to say, “Come on, China, was never a real empire, they were never a military empire, they are pacific,” which is true. As you know, until the 15th or 16th century, there was a law in China that somebody who made a ship more than, say, 100 meters, which was able to go beyond the cape of Madagascar, would be condemned to death. This was the wisdom of the Chinese empire. The admiral Zheng He disobeyed this law because he wanted to make a real fleet able to conquer the world.
A lot of scholars in America, like in Europe, were close-minded, trapped in this paradigm of a China that might be a trade empire but never a military one. I think that this is wrong. History has more imagination than men, as Karl Marx said. The time of admiral Zheng He can be passed and we can have a China that is aggressive on all fronts, and with a lot of money to offer to Erdogan and Putin, who are beggars.
But my deep belief is that it will not work, for any of them. It will not work because to really make a durable, lasting empire, you need to have a sense of the universal. This does not happen frequently in the history of mankind. You need to have the ways and the means and the language to address mankind in general. This is what the West did. For the worst, sometimes; for the good, more often, I think. This ability to speak under the cone of universality, none of the five we evoke is able to do that.
The Sunni Muslims tried, you had some in Sudan, a man called Hassan Al-Turabi in the 1990s whose program tried to reconcile Islam with universality. He failed, he lost power. You have some people around Putin, Eurasian theoreticians, who learned their doctrine from the Prague linguistic circle of the 1930s, Roman Jakobson and so on. They tried to find a way to reconcile a sense of the universal with Russian history; it does not work. So my hope, our hope, I feel the last hope for the West, is that nobody today is able to take our place. We have competitors, they are aggressive, but they don’t have the means of their ambition.
TAI: Speaking of ordering principles and how to replace, say, a world order that the United States may no longer be willing to support, what’s the source of your pessimism about Europe itself? If you take the EU, even without Britain, it’s still a bigger economy than the United States, it’s a bigger population, and it’s certainly at the same technological level. So what prevents Europe from becoming a more important factor? Is it just the divisions among the countries?
BHL: In America, the people achieved a very rare thing. It cost a lot, by the way—look at the Civil War—but you built continental patriotism. By the victory of the unionists against the confederates, you built a state where you can come from Texas or from Nebraska, you can be white or not, you can be of any faith there is, and still adhere to a common faith, which is patriotism. I saw that just after September 11, when you could see American flags on every house. This is America, and it’s a credit to America. In Europe, we are not up to this. There is no European patriotism; there is no European spirit. Europe has no flesh, no face, and as General de Gaulle said, no phone number.
So what remains? Look at our bank notes, the euros. Compare them to yours. On a bank note, you’re supposed have to have a grand man or grand woman embodying the spirit of the new patriotism. When the euro was created, we were unable to decide if it would be Goethe, or Dante, or Blaise Pascal or whoever, so what did we put on the currency? We chose broken bridges, or as Martin Heidegger would say, roads that go nowhere. That is crazy. Such a currency says a lot about the country, by the way. I understood a lot about America when I discovered what is written on the dollar, the three Latin verses and why they are there.
In Europe, we have this crazy currency. We don’t know who the President is. We don’t know the bureaucracy in Brussels. This is a point for the adversaries of Europe! So Europe without a face is doomed, and it is so doomed that I make a prediction in my book: If there is not a real wake-up call, if there is not a real saut en avant, a jump ahead, the euro will collapse.
There is no example in modern history of a common currency that works without a common political agenda. If you look at the past three centuries in the West, you have six examples of invention of a common currency. The Swiss franc in 1848 and the Italian lira both worked overnight because there was political unity. No question. All the currencies existing before disappeared instantly. Then there were two currencies, the currency of what was called the Latin Monetary Union and the Scandinavian Monetary Union, created in 1865 and 1873, which collapsed before the crises of 1929 because there was no common policy, no common tax, no common budget, no common law of labor.
And you have two other common currencies that worked. One is the German mark and the other is the dollar. But when you look at the history of the dollar, you can see that the dollar worked so-so until the Civil War. Before the Civil War, a lot of different currencies floated around the country. You had some francs, you had some thalers, you had a lot of currencies coming from Europe. The real victory of the dollar was after the Civil War, when there was federalism, a common policy, and so on.
So the euro could be like the dollar if there is a political leap forward, but it is five minutes to midnight. If not, it will disappear and you will see in the coming days what will happen with Italy. Italy is going to submit its budget for the next year. It will not work. Mr. Salvini and the populists in Italy are suddenly playing with fire, and this could be one of the beginnings of the end for the euro. That’s why I am pessimistic. After that, I continue to believe because I am optimistic, because I’m a fighter, because I’m a devoted European, because I believe that if America retreats, we have to count on Europe. I continue to hope that the spirit of Dante, of Goethe, of Robert Schuman, of Vaclav Havel prevails.
After the group discussion, Bernard-Henri Lévy sat down with Jeffrey Gedmin for a follow-on interview about the crisis of the West.
Jeffrey Gedmin: I wanted to ask you about Donald Trump: Do you think he is more symptom or cause of the current turmoil? How did we get here?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: I think he’s a symptom. First of all, in my next book, which will be released in February, I demonstrate that the retreat of America does not begin with him. It started before with Barack Obama, with Syria, and even before that. Trump might be the beginning of something, but he’s the end of something also.
Number two, he’s a symptom of a world phenomenon, which is the rise of populism everywhere, the despising of the elite, the despising of intelligence, the dismantlement of the multilateral order inherited from the war. Trump does not have enough strength enough to create all that; he is run by the wave, the wave takes him.
JG: What do you say to a hypothetical Trump voter who says, “I think Iraq was not a success, I think the 2008 financial crisis was a big problem, the bankers went free and the little guys did not, and President Obama confused me completely with his transgender bathroom policy, so I just don’t trust the Democratic or Republican Party as much as I did 20 years ago.” That’s shorthand, but how do you respond to that kind of voter?
BHL: I respond to them, alas, that they will be cheated even more. For example, the financial crisis that is to come might be much worse than the one of 2008. At least in 2008, you had on board some women and men who knew how to maneuver, who had some ideas and some command of the situation. We might face a crisis without anyone in command, and these voters you evoke, good-faith voters I’m sure, they might have a very difficult awakening.
JG: When you talk about Brexit and the future of the European Union, specifically, I wonder: if we have Britain out, less America, and more Russia, does this mean a dysfunctional, weak Europe, or does this mean democratic Europe in jeopardy? In other words, is this a crisis of democracy, or is this just a weaker, more dysfunctional continent, which we might not like but can live with?
BHL: No. What I described means a new world, it means the closing of the blessed parentheses of democracy, it means a new sort of order where authority, identity, nationalism, reduction of the human being to his roots, will prevail against liberty, emancipation, and so on. It is a new world, so of course this new world can work, but we will breathe infinitely less well in this new world than in the one we have known since 1945. It will be a bad world to live in, and in Europe, some of us who lived under the boot of communism know exactly what it means. The most lucid of them don’t want to return to that, but we will return.
JG: Under these circumstances, what do you think the shape of a post-Merkel Germany could start looking like? Because we’re talking about structural issues internally and structural issues externally, and the relationship with the United States for the Federal Republic was very important for decades. It’s changed in the past couple decades, but maybe it’s changing more quickly now. Do you have specific apprehensions as a convinced European, as a Frenchman, as a French Jew? What does the shape of Germany look like in the next 10 years?
BHL: A moral “tutorization” of the decent Right by the extreme Right, and the moral “tutorization” of the decent Left by the extreme Left. There will be a polarization on the two sides, which will be a disaster for Germany, a disaster for Europe. It will be a disaster because when the Right does not draw the line with the extreme Right, it is swallowed by the extreme Right. Same on the Left. If you let the line be confused, you are swallowed. There are some laws of political physics which are absolutely unbreakable. If the Right does not put Chinese walls between herself and the extreme Right, the extreme Right wins. This is the history of Europe.
The resistance to fascism in Europe has always been the Right, but only when the Right holds firm, when the Right wages merciless war against the extremes. Today, I have seen the beginning of the contrary in Germany. You see the party, the coalition around Merkel, afraid of PEGIDA, afraid of the AfD. This is suicide.
JG: Now some people in Germany say that Angela Merkel’s mistake was to move the CDU too far to the center or Left on issues like gay marriage or on borders, and that she opened space to the Right. You know this line from Franz Josef Strauss, who said, “Between me and the right is the wall, I occupy this space.” Is there some truth to that tactically?
BHL: I don’t know if I am the most capable person to speak about political tactics. Probably there is some truth to this. I think that Merkel did well personally, on borders and refugees. She did well according to democratic values, she did well for the prosperity of her country, she did well for the economy of Germany and Europe. Maybe it will have some bad consequences in the short term. This isn’t important. What is important is the deeper current: Does it drive Germany back to the old ghosts of the past or not? We’ll see, I cannot predict that.
JG: You said convincingly that Viktor Orban has large ambitions, that he doesn’t see himself just as a man of his country and region. How do you understand his vision of so-called “illiberal democracy”? What does that aspire to, and what would Europe look like if Viktor Orban and his allies had their way?
BHL: Democracy traditionally means the power to the people, plus the rule of law, plus human rights. This was traditional democracy. Today, we are facing the rise of a new concept of democracy, which says that the rule of law is not important, that human rights are out of fashion, and that the only main commandment of democracy is the rule of the people. It’s a conception of democracy which is consistent, but which is the opposite of all that we believed in as democrats in America. It’s a new regime, and it may work, but it keeps only one of the three pillars of the former democracy. So is it still a democracy? Probably not.
JG: The populists per definition attack the establishment, so we’ll finish up and attack elites. Are there any mistakes that you think the establishment and elites have made the last five, 10, 15 years?
BHL: Of course.
JG: What are they? What are the primary mistakes that are legitimate grievances of populist voters?
BHL: To think that Europe would build itself automatically, to think that we could just take a nap on the backseat of the train of history, and that the train will arrive at its destination mechanically by its own motion. This was a big mistake, maybe our worst mistake. We should have told them that there is no automaticity in history, that there is no sense of history, that men and mankind does it itself by efforts, by will, by reason, and so on. We made a huge mistake to forget that.