Trump will not change

Anne Applebaum in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 15 November 2016
The obvious thing for Europe to do now is to rethink its security arrangements. The time of being able to count on the United States to provide security for the whole Continent is over.

Łukasz Pawłowski: After Trump’s victory some pundits claim that he will now be under huge pressure from the whole political system to tone down his rhetoric and move towards the political center. Do you believe this is going to happen?

Anne Applebaum: Washington is a huge system and Trump is not going to be able to make every decision. He also has a tiny number of advisers, so he will need to hire a lot of staff from somewhere. And while I think that some of them will be eccentric and incompetent, there’s a huge pool of experienced people, who know how to do bureaucratic jobs and he will end up hiring at least some of them. So bureaucracy and civil service can restrain him, as well as the reasonable part of the Republican Party.

But I don’t really believe Trump will change personally. He’s been a conman, he’s cheated people and he’s lied all his life, so I don’t know why we should expect him to suddenly transform after the elections.

Can you imagine a Republican Party controlling both houses of Congress and then blocking decisions of their own president? Or maybe it will be quite the opposite and the party will need to accept all his initiatives.

That’s certainly not true. What the party is going to do is to use him to achieve the goals the Republican leadership wants to achieve. So although they don’t like him – and there’s no question about that – they hope to be able to manipulate him for their own purposes.

Trump has no political experience, he does not understand how the system of government works. He never worked nor lived in Washington and does not know how to make things happen there. That means he will need to rely on the people who know these things and those people will want to push him in different directions.

What consequences is this situation going to have? As far as I can think of it, Trump has two major options – he can either tone down his message or stick to his campaign promises. If he chooses the first option, he will enrage his core supporters; if he choses the second he will reinforce the protests of his opponents who have already taken to the streets in many American cities. No matter what he does, there’s going to be a huge uproar and a lot of people are going to be disappointed.

He’s a populist leader, he will therefore follow the populist path and try to buy people off by subsidizing whatever constituency he think he needs. I’m sure he will do that, the only question is what form these subsidies are going to take – tax cuts, investments in infrastructure, social benefits. At the same he will be doing favors for rich people like himself. This will be one of the most corrupt administrations we’ve had in history, or at least in recent history, with a president who will want the political system to benefit his own companies. Populist leaders all over the world – in Latin America, in Poland – also seek to enrich their supporters. I see no reason to think that Trump will be different.

Where do you get the money to cover all these expenses?

You borrow it, obviously.

But Trump also promised to significantly cut the deficit.

That’s not going to happen. If you promise both subsidies and tax cuts, you can’t achieve these goals without running huge deficits.

How then is Trump going to deal with the Republican Party? Many of his promises are directly at odds with Republican free-market credo.

It’s impossible for the U.S. president to do anything by himself, so Congress might push him in certain directions. Barack Obama had a huge mandate in 2008 and it still took him a huge struggle to push the health-care reform through. And that was something Obama was really passionate about. What does Trump care about – we don’t know. My guess is that he only cares about his personal fortune and about subsidizing some of the people who voted for him.

Trump has also made some very specific promises – like appointing a special prosecutor to go after Hillary Clinton. Will he give up on them as well?

He has already said prosecuting Hillary was no longer a priority. It was a horrific thing to promise in the first place. No politician can promise to prosecute their opponents – it’s not how prosecutors operate. A lot of other things Trump said during the campaign is also off the table. Newt Gingrich, probably the future secretary of state, has already said that even the promise to build a wall on the Mexican border was just a campaign device.

How are his supporters going to react?

I don’t know, but they should have realized Trump is a conman. And if you know that somebody is a liar and yet you still fall for his lies, it’s only your fault.

Let’s then discuss Trump’s foreign policy. Many people on the Polish far-right are elevated by Trump’s victory.

Yes, but they are very foolish.

Some say that even the possible American withdrawal from Europe might be a good thing, because it will force Poland to care more about its own security and become a stronger state.

That’s ridiculous. Poland’s security in the last 25 years has been based on its relationship with Europe and the United States. I don’t think the US will withdraw from Europe the next day after Trump’s inauguration. But  without a true American interest in NATO, it will be thoroughly weakened, which means that countries around Poland – Baltic States, Hungary, Czech Republic or even Germany – will give in much more easily to Russian pressure. People will be more afraid of Moscow now and that alone will give Putin much more influence over the region. So Poland is now much less secure than it was before November 8th.

During the campaign Trump praised Vladimir Putin on numerous occasions and said he might recognize Russian actions in Ukraine. Yet, he also met with Polish-Americans. During the meeting he spoke very highly of Poland and criticized Barack Obama for not installing the missile shield in Central Europe.

That was purely cynical. The breadcrumbs Trump threw to Polish groups in the US was just a way to get them to vote for him. He has no interest in Poland, he’s never been here and probably has no knowledge of Polish history, of the Cold War, or the World War II. He feels no historic ties to Europe of any kind but his attachment to Putin is very deep and goes back many years. He has huge Russian investments in his companies, and relied heavily on Russian hackers during his campaign – this is not somebody who would have any interest in Poland at all. By the way I’m saying the same things to the British who ask me about Trump’s attitude towards the UK.

How about American relationship with China? Trump promised to protect American companies and workers from cheap good imported from China.

He literally promised a trade war with China. We don’t know if Congress will allow for that to happen but we definitely cannot exclude such possibility.

A trade war with China – or for that matter with any other major exporter to the US – will result in rising prices, which in turn will directly hurt a large chunk of Trump’s electorate.

Some people lose out when you expand trade and some people gain. There are American factories and companies that exists only because of trade with China, Mexico or Canada. If Trump decides to close the borders and give up on free trade agreements, many people will go out of business. And this might indeed hit many Midwestern towns very hard.

There are voices saying that Trump’s victory makes the European Union even more important than before. Others claim that his success will pave the way to victory for anti-European populists.

The obvious thing for Europe to do now is to rethink its security arrangements and create if not an European army, then at least a European security pact. This needs to be accompanied by serious military investments so that Europe is able to play a role independently of the Unites States. The time of being able to count on the United States to provide security for the whole Continent is over. And there’s now no single state in Europe able to defend itself by itself against such threats as Islamic terrorism, Russia or cyber-attacks. To think otherwise is just ludicrous.