I Am Not Sure American Democracy Could Have Survived the Second Term of Donald Trump

The Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland is the Alamo of Trumpism, says Radosław Sikorski in an interview with Tomáš Klvaňa.

Klvaňa: What is your reading of the result of the US presidential election and what might be the future of European-American relations?

Sikorski: On European terms, with proportional and equal vote, Joe Biden’s victory would be quite substantial. The difference is between 6 and 7 million votes and that is a convincing victory. Biden is an old-style Atlanticist, an American of European origin and the second Catholic President in the history of the United States. I expect him to be personally more interested in links with Europe even than President Barack Obama was. I expect that the name calling will stop, that America’s trade war on two fronts against China and the EU at the same time will stop and that we will be able to sit down like adults. We as Europe will make proposals to the United States for a new opening.

I know that the US is planning proposals for the road ahead. I am sure many of them will be mutually compatible. I hope we will return to, and actually intensify a concert of democracies at a time when non-democracies are exploiting our system. I am very glad that the result of this election is what it is. I hope it means a return of the tide for global populism, and not just in the US.

Should we then be glad that Biden won, or should we worry that Trump received more than 73 million votes and will not leave politics any time soon?

We don’t know whether he will leave politics or not. He clearly doesn’t want to. But I think he has some lawsuits and indictments coming his way. He will be busy with those. Remember that he hinted two weeks before the election that should he lose he might have to leave the country.

The Electoral College was designed to prevent demagogues coming to power even if they won the popular vote. It’s served the exact opposite purpose. Trump lost the popular vote and still became President in 2016.

I think it’s good for American democracy that Biden has won because the stripping of the constitutional conventions and the breach of some of the checks and balances that we witnessed will stop. I am not sure American democracy could have survived a second term of Donald Trump. I think the American constitution has shown weakness in this emergency. Take the institution of the Electoral College. It was designed to prevent demagogues coming to power even if they won the popular vote. It’s served the exact opposite purpose. Trump lost the popular vote and still became President in 2016.

That brings to mind the question about the future of the Republican Party. Do you see any chance that it will return to a more standard kind of politics?

It has a problem. The ethnic populism commands a smaller and diminishing proportion of support in the United States. The rural conservative, suburban and exurban vote is overrepresented in the United States like everywhere else in the world. The overrepresentation is now becoming grotesque, particularly in the Senate races. I am told that something like 40 million people more vote for Democratic senatorial candidates than Republican ones, yet the Senate remains Republican. This is becoming undemocratic. A particular problem for the Republican party is how to retain electability when your society becomes more diverse. George Bush’s formula was to try to make inroads into the electorate of conservative religiously inspired Hispanics and blacks. This time, the GOP idea seems to be minority voter suppression and more gerrymandering, which is not healthy.

Do I detect in your answer that you are not optimistic about the future of the GOP?

There are some people who are belatedly standing up to President Trump, telling him to leave like a man, behave with decorum and show some class, but they are a small minority. One wonders who owns the Republican party now.

What will be the impact of Trump’s loss on the kindred political parties in Europe like PiS in Poland, Fidesz in Hungary, as well as the populists in the West?

PiS in Poland is the Alamo of Trumpism: the last global fortress for weeks and weeks after the elections not acknowledging that Biden has won. On Polish TV, you could see reports that it was not over yet at a time when it was clear to everybody else in the world. The Polish President has not for a long time unequivocally congratulated Joe Biden. He was stating that if Biden won, we would have strong disagreements with the next American administration. Instead of doing the traditional thing, which we have seen from pro-Trump leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, or even from Vladimir Putin, Polish national socialists were digging in. For them it’s going to be a lonely world from now on.

Trump’s victory in 2016 was a huge boost to these parties. Do you think that his loss in 2020 might mean that the tide has turned?

Hopefully. The Polish ruling party had an option explaining: No, we were just for the United States, not for Trump, you know, trying to establish the best possible relations with the new administration. But it looks like they are incapable of doing that, therefore risking that the Biden administration will make them a target for criticism. And in Poland being criticized by the United States is not a vote winner. They are taking a risk because their right-wing fundamentalism is just too strong.

There are clear similarities among right wing populists across countries but also quite significant differences among them. How successful will the attempts be to unify them? We have seen Steve Bannon’s push to create some kind of platform for nationalists.

I think that Bannon is a busted flush. Not only is there no longer the presumption that he still has some links to the White House, the White House couldn’t be more un-Bannon-like, come January, but he is also charged with criminal offences. We have seen the zenith of his political influence and ideological attractiveness.

Activists like him are heavily into social media, spreading disinformation. How big a problem is social media as a category?

That is something we should regulate. We are working on it in the European Parliament, because we now know that the algorithms of these private companies, mostly American, are designed to keep your attention, and what keeps your attention is polarization, getting angry at your fellow citizens. In other words, the shape of these arguments is actually encouraging the ripping up of our society and damaging our democracies. We have the right to intervene in that. And we will.

We know that the algorithms of these private companies, mostly American, are designed to keep your attention, and what keeps your attention is polarization, getting angry at your fellow citizens.

So one value – free speech – would be outweighed by our concern for democracy itself?

No. This is not free speech. This is encouraging people to quarrel and fight each other. Why should that be somebody’s business model? Why should people make billions of dollars out of making us all angry? That is not a human right and neither is it a business right.

Twitter and Facebook each have a different approach. Twitter tried to label Trump’s lies, whereas Facebook took a more laissez faire approach. Which is better?

I am not talking about whether they monitor and flag lies. It is the algorithm itself that is skewed.

I get that. I know that the algorithm tries to keep us on their platforms as long as possible, and that keeping us angry, or even playing to our vanity, is a crucial part of their business model. I am asking about something slightly different, and that is, what to do with clear lies and disinformation. Which is the smarter approach? Was Twitter right?

Yes, but they were too late doing that. If they had started 10 years ago, we probably would not have Brexit, and we wouldn’t have Trump.

Trump and other populists were good at identifying real problems that the mainstream politics neglected. Are the mainstream parties catching up?

That is the traditional way, isn’t it? That if the establishment neglects something people feel keenly, you get single-issue populist parties bringing it to the fore. The establishment then accommodates some of the agenda and finds sensible ways of addressing real problems. We clearly have a genuine problem of regulating migration and making migrants into good citizens. We have a problem of too much wealth concentrated in the financial industry, and there is an issue of the industry rewards, which are out of proportion of what people think is its usefulness. We need to address that, and I do not think we have done it yet.

With regards to Trump’s policy toward China, there seems to be a consensus that he identified something real…

… well, he didn’t identify it, come on! The Trans-Pacific Free Trade Area was proposed by President Barack Obama. His government had already identified it, but he did not shout about it.

Right.

He talked about a pivot to Asia instead of taking out China – you know what I mean. Yes, what populists propose as a cure is usually worse than the disease. I hope we will get a sensible collaboration between the United States and other democracies, not just in Europe, in order to try to influence China. China is not like the Soviet Union. All right, it is communist but it is intermingled with us economically, and we don’t want to lose that market. We would rather persuade China to grow up and stop misusing the system. If we act collectively, maybe we still have a chance.

I hope we will get a sensible collaboration between the United States and other democracies, not just in Europe, in order to try to influence China. China is not like the Soviet Union.

Is it realistic to hope that Biden would go back to the Transpacific Partnership?

They have done it without the United States, so I think yes, the US should do what is in its interest. And we should also return to discussing the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Area.

Let me switch to Brexit. How do you see the post-Brexit settlement between Britain and the EU?

I actually voted against the withdrawal agreement just to signal that Brexit was a terrible idea. I am kind of sadly vindicated now that the withdrawal agreement itself is being breached on the British side. We are talking on the 18 November 2020, which is to say a month after a self-imposed British deadline has expired, and six weeks before the British imposed ban on extending the transition period is due to expire, and we have a draft agreement, which is not yet fully agreed, over 1,000 pages long. There is the expectation that even if they agree on it, we in the European Parliament are supposed to examine and ratify 1,000 pages in a matter of days, or weeks, something that normally takes many months! Which I think is another reminder of how irresponsible this process has been.

You sound fairly down.

We already know that several thousand jobs have left London. Well over 100,000 Polish citizens have left Britain. Britain has lost the pharmaceutical regulatory agency and the financial industry regulatory agency, lost MEPs, the EU Commissioner, lost its veto power in Brussels… Britain has inconvenienced four million EU citizens in Britain by having to fill out silly forms. Tell me, what the upside is.

We Europeans should get serious about defense both under our NATO hat – pay what we pledged to pay, which is 2% of GDP. That is one of the things on which Trump was right not only on substance but also on style.

Finally, a question on NATO. There is a consensus that Biden will go back to a more reasonable rhetoric on NATO and there is no danger of a NATO breakup, as there would have been had Trump won. What do you expect will be the real, substantive policies of the new US administration towards NATO?

We Europeans should get serious about defense both under our NATO hat – pay what we pledged to pay, which is 2% of GDP. That is one of the things on which Trump was right not only on substance but also on style, when he lashed out at us. Because when Bush and Obama said that politely, it did not work. But we should also get serious about our own defense independently, as we can’t be sure that the US will not mismanage its relationship with China. If they get involved in something more serious than a trade war in the Far East, they will need the forces out there that are now in Europe, and then we’ll be left on our own. So we should have a second insurance policy in case the first is withdrawn.

Tomáš Klvaňa

is Visiting Professor at New York University Prague and Senior International Management Consultant. His most recent book is Perhaps Even a Dictator Will Show Up (Možná přijde i diktátor, Bourdon Prague 2017).

Radosław Sikorski

Radosław Sikorski (57) is a Member of European Parliament where he chairs the EP Delegation for relations with the United States. He served as Minister of National Defense of Poland from 2005 to 2007, Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2007 to 2014, and speaker of Poland’s parliament from 2014 to 2015. Sikorski graduated from the University of Oxford with a B.A. and an M.A. in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE). He headed the students’ strike committee during the unrest in Bydgoszcz in March 1981 and was granted political asylum in Great Britain in 1982-89. He was a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Angola in 1986-89. Sikorski won the World Press Photo award for a photograph taken in Afghanistan in 1987. As deputy minister of national defense in 1992, Sikorski initiated Poland’s NATO accession campaign. From 2002 to 2005, he was resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative. Sikorski is the author of several books, including Dust of the Saints and The Polish House: An Intimate History of Poland. In 2012, he was named one of the top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine “for telling the truth, even when it’s not diplomatic.”

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