Last week, TAI contributing editor Laure Mandeville interviewed TAI editor-in-chief Jeffrey Gedmin for Le Figaro on long-term threats to American democracy, beyond the “danger” of Trump. Scroll down to read the full interview in English. Click here for the original French.
Laure Mandeville: Once again, America seems to have plunged into one of those profound crises that have characterized Trump’s presidency from the beginning. The impeachment inquiry is moving forward, Trump’s choice to move out of Northern Syria and allow Turkey to move in is being hotly debated. The battle with the Democrats has reached a peak. His adversaries mock a President totally out of control and a White House mired in chaos. Nancy Pelosi talks about a “meltdown.” How do you judge the current state of affairs in Washington and in the country?
Jeffrey Gedmin: I confess that I was appalled by the election of Donald Trump. I still see him as a problem and an embarrassment. But I’ve come to see a wider context. The situation is indeed fluid and volatile. Many concentrate on the person of Donald J. Trump. His lack of experience in foreign policy, and in governing, turns out to be a significant liability. His lack of discipline and impulsivity make him, as Commander-in-Chief, a danger in my view. National security is not a real estate deal. Managing alliances is not a protection racket.
But let’s look deeper too. Trump is as much symptom as cause of the current turmoil. Voters’ ties to our two establishment parties have been loosening. Trust in elites has been eroding. Why? Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis, the dizzying and disorienting effects of technology and globalization—it’s a confluence of factors that have gotten us into our current predicament. And while our problems are home-grown, we still have adversaries in this world. Russia, for example, has become exceptionally skillful in dropping poison in our wounds.
LM: Trump is seen by his adversaries as a madman, a fool, a puppet of Russia who is putting American democracy in jeopardy and betraying his allies. But his supporters still see in him the “outsider” and the patriot, who has many shortcomings, but is strong enough to put America’s national interests first and redefine globalization, fight political correctness, and defend the American worker and the small man against Washington’s elites. How do you see him?
JG: Trump arrived at just the right time. He’s a demagogue who smelled grievance. A part of the country was fed up—with Washington and Wall Street, with experts and coastal elites. They felt neglected and condescended to. Talk radio plus Fox News plus social media created an atmosphere of rebellion. Enter Donald Trump. He had a nose for the problems. He will bring none of the solutions, to be sure. He’s a wrecking ball. When he disappoints them—and he will in the end—where will Trump voters turn? There is still danger for democracy ahead.
LM: Can Donald Trump be re-elected if voters feel the Democrats are trying to deprive them of a real political battle?
JG: This way or that, Donald Trump may well go down. But the roots of Trumpism will not disappear so easily. If voters feel that Trump is driven from office unfairly, expect a severe backlash from a part of the electorate. We are in need of a broad political realignment. This will take time.
LM: After a long career in foreign policy, you have become the editor-in-chief of The American Interest, one of the most interesting journals of political thought in Washington. In this time of ideological tensions and deep political crisis, you are also getting into the ring. Your ambition, recently expressed in a very interesting statement of purpose, is to recreate a “political center” and to fight the acute polarization that has enveloped the country. Can you explain why this is so necessary and how this polarization is different from the divides of the past?
JG: We need healthy, constructive partisanship. Political competition, in policy, in ideas. That’s democracy! But polarization becomes dangerous. Democracy depends on trust and compromise.
Anger breeds contempt. In some cases, families and friends have a hard time speaking to each other. I, myself, have some friends who think Trump is a threat to democracy, while others are convinced he is a savior, fighting for ordinary citizens against arrogant and out-of-touch elites. None of this is unique to the United States. A woman recently stood outside Parliament in London with a sign, “The Day Democracy Died.” Was she for or against Brexit?
In a democracy, you defeat your opponent. You do not destroy him or her. We witness in the United States—and in many places across the West—a challenge to our institutions, but also to the culture of democracy, to democracy’s habits, values, and behaviors. We must look for ways to restore the broad center. Only by doing this can we push the fringes back to the extremes.
We have two main parties in the United States, and they must absolutely reconnect with voters and regain trust. When their support declines, vacuums are created. That’s what Trump saw. He emerged to fill a void. Imagine that the trend continues. We cannot exclude the possibility, in the future, of more gifted demagogues than the current President. Trump is a narcissistic tactician. Beware of the visionary strategist!
LM: But what is the main cause of these vacuums? Has the “anywhere” elite that British writer David Goodhart describes forgotten that most people are “somewhere” individuals, attached to their roots and national cultures? What has Trump understood that the elites don’t?
JG: There are different divides in play. David Goodhart gives us a useful handle. “Anywheres,” he says, are cosmopolitans who travel, who speak foreign languages, who know technology, and who feel generally at ease with rapid social and economic change. “Somewheres,” on the other hand, tend to be more locally rooted, traditionalist, old-fashioned patriotic, perhaps more religious in some instances. This is the group Trump is speaking to when he rails against immigration, attacks tech giants, and mocks transgender bathroom use.
LM: Is it possible to go back to “normal” after Trump?
JG: I fear the present is the new normal. In this sense, it does not matter who is elected in 2020. We now all have deep structural and cultural changes to contend with. We are riding waves, looking for dry land.
LM: It is striking to see that on the Left of the political spectrum a political uprising led by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others is gaining strength, somehow reminiscent of Trump’s anti-establishment game.
JG: Right! What is destabilizing, on the Right as well as the Left, is the anti-elite mood. It’s not going to disappear. The Democrats may well be headed toward their own version of Trumpism. Less vulgar, perhaps, yet populist, protectionist, isolationist. We would need statesmen to navigate, to balance, to build coalitions. To assure voters.
LM: Trump’s choices in Syria have once more triggered a big debate about the purpose of American foreign policy. The Democrats criticize Trump’s attempt to withdraw from the Middle East and limit America’s involvement abroad. But they don’t seem very clear on what they would do in his place. Is the path open for China’s and Russia’s influence?
JG: First comes vision, then strategy, then tactics. We have lost any sense of vision. What should the region look like in five and 15 years? How do we define our interests? And those of our allies? Do we have priorities? We’ve lost our way. Exit strategy has become our vision. We are short-term, tactical, and reactive. The Russians and Iranians have a vision. They get power and influence, they play a longer game.
LM: You spent several years as the President of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in Prague. You belong to a generation that saw Europe as home and key to America’s security. Has this approach shifted with the Obama and Trump presidencies? Will America let down Europe, or vice versa?
JG: Times change, we unlearn history. It’s painful, and dangerous. Just do the thought experiment. Imagine the world in 2030—with America turned inward, Europe fragmented and dysfunctional. God help us.