Populist seduction

Anne Applebaum in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 27 April 2016
“Just because something can’t work or doesn’t work, doesn’t mean people aren’t going to try it. Just because it’s a bad idea to break up Europe doesn’t mean people won’t want to try that too”.

Łukasz Pawłowski: In one of your articles in the Washington Post you wrote “we are two or three bad elections away from the end of NATO, the end of the European Union and maybe the end of the liberal world order as we know it”. You also said that should Donald Trump get the Republican nomination we need to seriously think about the danger of president Trump, because “elections are funny things, and electorates are fickle”. But Trump did not get where he already is because “elections are funny things, and electorates are fickle”. What are the reasons behind his popularity?

Anne Applebaum: I wrote that “elections are funny things” precisely because it is always a mistake to try to predict how people will vote. Nobody thought anybody would vote for Trump, a New York businessman famous for his vulgarity and shady dealings, but here we are. To explain why that is happening, I think we need start by examining the discontent which has produced anti-establishment candidates in both of the main American political parties – though I should say that the sources of that discontent are very varied. If forced to choose among them, I would name five, starting with the argument that we are now witnessing a delayed reaction to the economic crash of 2008. At the time it happened, the American government felt compelled to bail out the banking industry, for understandable reasons: Many believed that if the banking system collapsed, the whole economy would collapse. But the impression many people had was that bankers were saved while many ordinary Americans lost their homes. The resentment that caused produced the Occupy Wall Street movement, and has also fueled support for the “anti-establishment” candidacies of Trump as well as Bernie Sanders.

The support for Sanders and Trump have the same causes?

Yes, I think they both represent a general search for “new” solutions. Though of course economics provides you with only a limited explanation, since it doesn’t tell you why Trump in particular is benefiting from this wave of discontent, and not somebody different.

What are the other reasons for his popularity then?

Secondly, he is the product of the fact that the leadership of the Republican Party grew ideologically very far away from its voters.

The party’s views are very in line with those of business community – it is for shrinking the government, ending public health-care and promoting some degree of immigration, which has always been good for business. It is also a party of traditional social views so it attracts lower-middle class electorate, but poor Americans like public health-care and state retirement benefits. Unlike other Republicans, Trump is not particularly interested in rolling back the state. That has appealed to people.

How about immigration?

The reaction to immigration is interesting because it is coming at a time when immigration is actually dropping. I suspect that the stronger feelings about “outsiders” right now are in fact connected to something else: a backlash against the first black president. It’s not an accident that Obama’s victory has never been accepted as legitimate by a surprisingly large proportion of the population. To many people it seemed to reverse the traditional order of things – as if somehow white Americans had lost their leading position. Trump has appealed directly to this racist anger.

He didn’t even immediately denounce the support he received from the Grand Master of the Ku-Klux-Klan. He said he needed to verify who that person is…

His father held all kinds of radical white supremacist views. Trump plays with similar sentiments.

And yet he wins among ethnic minorities…

That’s not true.

In Nevada he got 44 percent of the vote among the Hispanics, he won in states with large populations of Black Americans…

Maybe a few people in Nevada voted for him, but think about who’s voting right now: the registered Republicans who care enough to go and vote. That’s a tiny proportion of the population. And of that tiny proportion the number of people who are Hispanics is incredibly small. The vast majority of Hispanics, and of blacks, have not voted yet. And I don’t believe they are going to vote for him. 

The fourth factor?

The fourth factor is cultural. I recently read a new biography of Ronald Reagan which contained quite a lot of material on Reagan and Hollywood. The biographer argued that Reagan was not just attracted to the Hollywood values of the 1950s, he strove to embody them.

What values?

That good always triumphs over evil, that it’s important to be polite and kind, that there’s a clear code of moral conduct. These values dominated American mainstream culture at the time and Reagan symbolized them. People could see him – and he really saw himself – as a cowboy in a movie in which the good guys win and villains lose. Trump is a product of a different media culture, a celebrity culture that values vulgarity and excess. He is playing the elections not like a Hollywood movie, but like a reality TV show in which the loudest, the most outrageous and the crudest person wins. And that’s a contest that many people now understand.

Some conservatives say that Trump triumphs are liberals’ fault because they are behind this process of degenerating media culture.

Its more complicated than that. The ‘conservative entertainment complex’ – Fox Television, right-wing radio talk shows – also help create the vulgarity in the public space, as well as the anger. A lot of it – and here you can see a parallel to Poland – relies on conspiratorial thinking. Right-wing talk radio started the “birther” movement for example, arguing that Barack Obama was not really born in the US, that he is a Kenyan, a Muslim, an illegitimate president. Many have forgotten that Trump made his name in the most recent political cycle by echoing this conspiracy theory and claiming Obama was not really an American.

Which obviously proved to be untrue.

Yes, but a part of the public doesn’t care about truth any more. Which brings me to a fifth factor – the death of what we used to call the “mainstream media.” Though rightly condemned for smugness and predictability, large newspapers and important broadcasts did once play a number of important roles. They served as a filter, eliminating most conspiracy theories from the central debate. They also created the possibility of a national conversation. When everybody in the US watched the same news programme at 6 o’clock, then at least they could discuss the same issues afterwards. Obviously this had its drawbacks – the field of discussion was limited – but there were also advantages. Now – not only in the United States but in most other countries as well – there is no common narrative. People don’t even have the same facts – one group thinks one set of things is true, another believes in something quite different. There are a few exceptions to this international trend: one of the reasons Britain doesn’t have strong far-right parties as most other European countries do is because of the BBC. Though of course it is a flawed institution too, it unifies people and at least theoretically tries to verify facts and be objective.

But in most places, if they don’t like what the mainstream is saying, people can easily escape to their own niches.

One of the first shocking things that Trump said during this campaign was that on the day of 9/11, “thousands” of Muslims stood on on the other side of the river, in New Jersey and cheered while the World Trade Center burned. That’s not true, it simply didn’t happen. But if you go to certain parts of the Web you can easily find articles on the Muslim crowds cheering after 9/11. And then you can be part of a Twitter feed, Facebook page or e-mail group in which people are repeating this message. You can live in a world in which everyone around you agrees there were thousands of people cheering in the streets on that day, and there’s no way to disprove it. Social media allow people to live in separate realities. This is hugely important for understanding the current rise of populism.

Where will this process lead us? In order to maintain a functioning democracy people need to have something in commons and agree on certain, basic rules.

That’s why constitutions are so important and why abusing them is so dangerous. If political parties try to change them by breaking the rules, we are left with chaos.

You listed many reasons behind the rise of such politicians as Trump but many pundits argue they all could be boiled down to one – the state of the economy. And it’s not only about the crash in 2008, but rather about last 30-40 years of economic policies which squeezed and impoverished not only the poor but above all the middle class.

Yes, of course that is part of the story. But I don’t like reducing everything to economics.

But if you look at the statistics you see that the real income of an average American family is declining, that inequality in the US is growing, that the value created by GDP growth goes primarily to the top 1 percent of the society…

But that was also true eight years ago, and the result was that people elected Obama. So the fact of growing inequality cannot entirely explain why people are voting for Trump now – especially because he doesn’t offer any answers to people on the lower end of the spectrum. He doesn’t explain how he is going to change the economy and make the society more equal. He doesn’t represent any economic ideas at all. All he focuses on is building walls and kicking out migrants, which can’t solve the problem of the squeezed middle class.

Would you not say – as many left-wing journalists and commentators claim – that the US is no longer the land of opportunity as it used to be back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and that the American Dream is over?

I’m old enough to remember people saying that American Dream was over in the 1970’s – the time of the first big oil crisis, the war in Vietnam, Watergate, etc. We have experienced many waves of frustration which produced claims the American Dream was over but every time they also produced different political outcomes. Once again, economics alone are not enough to explain why people are voting for Trump.

Yet you do think he is more dangerous than all the previous threats. “In my adult life, I cannot remember a moment as dramatic as this”, you wrote.

I was thinking more broadly of the threat to the West, and to the Western alliance, not only from Trump but from Marine Le Pen and other populists across who no longer believe in NATO, don’t care about traditional allies and want their countries to withdraw from the world. Trump is not the first isolationist in US politics, but he is the first who gained this much traction in a long time. Isolationism has been a fringe argument in American politics since at least the end of the World War II, but now it is suddenly central.

Illustration by Zofia Rogula

Why can’t the Republican Party leaders force him to drop out? When you read about American politics almost every author says it’s driven by big money.

This is clearly not true…if you could buy elections, then Jeb Bush would already be the candidate.

Trump’s candidacy and also, but for different reasons, Bernie Sanders’ indeed show the matter is more complicated.

Obama also didn’t have big money behind him when he started his first campaign.

Where are the biggest Republican donors right now?

They lost, they put their bets on the wrong candidate – and that put people off. And this is another reason why people have supported Trump as well as Ted Cruz: voters really didn’t like the idea that the Republican Party donors wanted to buy up Jeb Bush’s nomination in advance. For the same reason many Democratic Party voters don’t want to support Hillary Clinton. The influence of big money has backfired. The more money you spend, the angrier people get.

Can you therefore say this is a triumph of American democracy and what we are now hearing is the voice of real, average people?

I think we can agree that American democracy is not rigged. But what’s worrying is that Trump is winning by using divisive language, of a kind we have not heard in many decades, and that he isn’t even pretending to offer any solutions to America’s problems. So I’m not sure that ‘triumph” is the right word.

In Europe we can also see a nationalist turn in many countries. Many people, including you, claim that because of the crises Europe is now experiencing – Euro crisis, migrant crisis, war in Ukraine – we need more international cooperation not less. This is precisely against the social mood – people want to go back to the nation states as we knew it. Why?

Globalization has made people insecure: they feel that they no longer control what is happening to them. A factory can close somewhere in Northern England because of a decision someone has made in China. An idea that someone had in France can influence someone in India. The sense of losing control over their economic and political fortunes, has made many people conclude – mistakenly, I think – that the only answer is to bring the power back to nation states.

The left would tell you this is precisely the failure of the free-market right which lifted all the barriers to capital and all the social protections.

But the left has not offered a real alternative either. Instead, left-wing ideas which have failed in the past – the nationalization of industry, for example – have been revived by the far right. Many of Marine Le Pen’s economic policies could have been written by Marxists in the 1950’s, just like some of PiS’s economic policies. The left has disappeared but those ideas have not.

At the same time, it is important to make distinctions between different countries. In Poland, for example, you cannot argue that inequality is growing worse, because it is not. And there is absolutely no measure by which most Poles are poorer today than they were fifteen years ago. So to explain the rise of the far-right and the rejection of free markets in Poland you need to look somewhere else – the explanation needs to be at partly cultural, political or psychological, not just economic.

How about Britain? You know the country well, you even know personally the staunchest advocates of Brexit. What is their line of thinking?

Brexit is yet another story in which the most important arguments are not economic. If you press Brexit advocates hard – and I’ve done it – they will sooner or later concede, that leaving the EU might be bad for Britain in economic terms. But they don’t care. It’s really, really not about economy.

What is about then?

It’s about an idea of Britain as a nation, it’s about the idea that “nobody can tell us what to do”.

But even if they leave, people will tell them what to do

Of course, and this is the problem with this whole movement, this yearning to bring power back to nation states. If Britain does leave the European Union, that doesn’t mean that decisions made in Brussels won’t continue to affect the British. Just because you want to be free of international influence doesn’t mean that it is possible to make that happen any more.

Paradoxically, Britain has lost a good deal of its ability to influence events just by starting the conversation about Brexit. It has no role in the conversation on how to resolve the migrant crisis, it has played no role in talks with Russia. Britain has sidelined itself.

And even if they leave the EU they will have the same problems as they have now.

Of course. Removing yourself from the debate doesn’t mean that the debate won’t affect you anyway. If Britain wants to trade with Europe, it will have to accept the rules of the Single Market, but without having any influence on how they are made.

It’s always very short-sighted to cut yourself off, because it doesn’t help you build the alliances you might need in the future. This is why Poland’s refusal even to discuss the migrant crisis, let alone find ways to solve it, is such a huge mistake. Of course refugees from the Middle East are not your problem right now, they’re the problem of Italy, Greece and Germany. But what if Russia becomes aggressive again and you suddenly need the goodwill of Italy, Greece and Germany?

If Russia sends its troops to Eastern Ukraine again…

Then, for example, you might need Italy, Greece and Germany to collaborate with you on extending sanctions with Russia, or on agreeing to activate NATO’s defense plan. Poland cannot be defended without West European troops, and right now you are drifting away from Western Europe. That’s what dangerous about the current, anti-European turn for Poland. You don’t have the luxury, as the British do, of wondering whether or not to be part of Europe: You are not an island in the Atlantic. If you aren’t part of Europe, you are vulnerable to economic and political pressure from Russia.

So why people are making this kind of decisions?

Maybe things were going too well, and people have forgotten what things were like before there were international institutions which helped nations share burdens. It is a human instinct to get energy from revolutionary movements. People love drama: It’s not interesting to have center left- and center right parties that change regularly in government. Although, of course, I should stress that at least in Britain, France and Germany, the establishment parties are still in power. Angela Merkel is still the leading politicians and the center still has the support of the majority.

But you yourself wrote that we could be two or three elections from breaking up the West.

Because the anti-establishment far-right French or German politicians might eventually win, even if they don’t represent the majority. And then anything can happen. Look what’s just happened here. People in Europe keep asking me – why has Poland changed? Why has it suddenly become anti-European?

What is your answer?

I say it has not changed. PiS did not run an anti-European election campaign. People did not think that they were voting for an anti-European government. But even if the majority of Poles don’t want to leave Europe, that is where the government’s rhetoric is now heading, and that’s where it might take the country, even though it doesn’t yet realize it. PiS has already managed to create the impression of a civilizational gap between Poland and Western Europe, something which I thought was really gone forever.

Populist politicians do not care about the consequences?

Just because something can’t work or doesn’t work, doesn’t mean people aren’t going to try it. Just because it’s a bad idea to break up Europe doesn’t mean people won’t want to try that too. If you look back at the 1930’s you can see why the far left and far right did grow so much then. There was a universal disdain for and exhaustion with liberal democracy. People were frustrated that the system wasn’t delivering results fast enough. The Soviet Union seemed like a better alternative for some and Nazi Germany for others. Almost every nation in Europe began seeing the appeal of alternatives.

Do you think it’s because people tend to forget?

Yes, and the current rise of a radical right which proposes radically left-wing economic policies is absolute evidence that people forget. You can make the same mistake, over and over again. And maybe that’s going to happen.