Where is Mr. Donald Trump trained
Donald Trump in the White House. A balance sheet
Interview with Prof. Stephan Bierling about his new book, which illuminates the presidency of Donald Trump
August 27, 2020
Jan Kleine: Prof. Bierling, thank you very much for taking the time for this interview and for talking to me about your new book: “America first. Donald Trump in the White House. A balance sheet ”has just been published by C. H. Beck-Verlag. With the Democratic Congress last week and the Republican Convention this week in mind, it is a near-perfect moment to discuss this issue. I kindly had the opportunity to read the work beforehand and did so with great interest. Right at the beginning you write in the opening words, which are entitled "An arsonist as president", that the most amazing thing about Trump is that he has violated almost every established rule of American politics and has even made this rule violation a trademark. At the same time, you make it clear that the survey results have remained very stable over a long period of time. More than 90 percent of those who voted for him in 2016 would do so again. How do these paradoxical opposites fit together? So how did the “Trump phenomenon” work?
Prof. Dr. Stephan Bierling: If you take a closer look at American politics, it is fascinating to see how a 230-year-old state can survive with such a razor-thin constitution that, moreover, has hardly been changed in this long period of time. We Germans are familiar with our Basic Law: very detailed, very comprehensive, very much provided with exegesis, and changed very often. For us it is difficult to imagine that in a system like the USA the written or interpreted word is not always the basis of democratic work. In the USA it is rather established norms, traditions and rituals that hold the state together. That applied to all democratic and republican presidents of the past; certain basic rules of the election campaign, the culture of debate, dealing with the citizens, approaching the other side and dealing with power were adhered to. This is completely different with Trump. Trump is a rule-breaker par excellence, as you can see from the fact that he was the first president in 230-year American history to hold neither a military nor a political office in which he would have been tied to the rules of the system before he was elected has been. His big election campaign hit was breaking the established rules. Above all against the background that a large group of Americans was and is at war with this system and wants someone in the White House who would go into a culture war against Washington, against the liberal elite of the coasts. Trump made this the core of his election campaign and, contrary to expectations, got a majority of the electoral votes.
In just under four years in the White House, he has succeeded in tying the three large groups that made his election even closer to himself. On the one hand, there are the classic economic liberals, i.e. entrepreneurs and small businesses, who are on the republican side because they are against regulation, against new requirements in the social system and against environmental protection and in favor of fewer taxes. As the second important group of voters, he has tied the evangelicals to himself, which is really amazing, because how does someone who comes from New York, who has arrived at the third wife, lead a life that is certainly not true to the Bible, some of his money in the casino business deserves to be an Evangelical candidate To the candidate of those fundamentalist Christians who see the secularization of America as a threat and the question of abortion as the greatest danger. For this clientele he has positioned himself as a savior, as a champion: Trump would defend old America of the 1950s, when the white male Christian was the central point of reference of society, come what may. He managed to give the evangelicals exactly what they wanted.
Now we come to the group that is most interesting to me because it was not a traditional Republican electoral group: the Trumpists or angry citizens, consisting partly of former non-voters, partly of people disappointed by the Democrats, of citizens and former factory workers that has been swept away by dramatic social and economic change. All of them can be described as people who no longer felt they were in good hands in the established political system and therefore relied on someone who not only promised to reform the system, but also to fundamentally reshape it. Trump was so committed to these three groups that he always had between 40 and 45 percent approval during his entire term of office. He never had a majority of Americans behind him - that wasn’t the case in the election - but even during the worst crises he didn’t take these people off the flag.
Professor Bierling, in the first chapter of your book you write, although Trump is one of the easiest presidents in American history to tick, it is worth discussing him because his presidency and his actions have a lot of meaningfulness about the state and the limits of American democracy to have. So your book not only sheds light on the person Trump and his way of filling the presidency, but also the development of democracy in the USA and its current state?
That was the claim. There are a lot of books by people from Trump's immediate circle of acquaintances and working groups who drop out and then reveal the terrible things they have experienced. There are also background books, for example by Bob Woodward, the master of investigative journalism at the Washington Post. What has not been done so far, however, is the attempt to classify the Trump presidency with all its unspeakable political science and history. A question that runs through the whole book is: Can this political democracy in the USA, which has been functioning for 230 years, withstand someone like Trump? Or is it reaching its limits?
In fact, there are always examples where Trump proves himself to be a man with authoritarian instincts, where he is not very different from Putin or Erdogan, but: The American system ultimately opposes him and tries to contain him. It doesn't work perfectly, but it works to a large extent - and everyone contributes a little - the Congress, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the media. At least the Congress, especially in the first two years of office, was suspended as a countervailing power to the President, since he had Republican majorities in both houses during this period and the Republicans have almost completely submitted to Trump. Pointing out boundaries is also less due to the media, because Trump has created his own media biotope in this area with the help of his Twitter messages, FOX News and Breitbart. The courts, too, did only a little to contain it. Although there was resistance to Trump’s initiatives at federal court level, i.e. appellate judges or federal judges, the Supreme Court did not act as a real counterweight to it, not least because of the two new right-wing judges who swore on Trump.
So what did Donald Trump stand up against most? That was federalism, supported by mostly democratic, but also by a few republican-dominated states and many large cities. This shows how important it is to have a vertical separation of powers that resist a claim to power by the headquarters - embodied by Trump. If we compare the USA with Turkey or Russia, we see that these federal structures exist here to a much lesser extent. Russian district governors, for example, are appointed by Putin himself.
The first chapter of your book highlights the stages in Donald Trump's life: home, university, entry into business life, points of contact with politics. They say that what makes Trump special is that he never held any office in the military or in politics until his presidency. To me, however, it seems that he planned or prepared his way to the presidency longer than is generally assumed. Would you agree with this impression?
Even before 2015, he occasionally toyed with the idea of running for President of the United States. But like many things with Trump, this was taken for his typical loud mouth. Even when he announced his presidential candidacy in Trump Tower in 2015, he had neither good advisors, nor a well-rehearsed campaign team, nor financial resources. So it was a trial and error process, typical behavior for this man who is incapable of strategic long-term planning. But he can read emotions and moods in the population fantastically, which he learned above all as the host of his very successful casting show "The Apprentice". His entire campaign basically consisted of him, his plane, and his Twitter account. The fact that he has overridden all established rules on how to stand out as a presidential candidate - that was his stroke of genius. This also includes the fact that he took his chance to join the Republicans as a right-wing populist as part of the tea party movement - and that as a complete political outsider, who to this day does not have much in common with the Republican Party. He got his foot in the door, hijacked the party, and then moved into the White House with that machine.
A Trump flag from the 2016 election year; Photo: © iStock.com / LPETTET
The federal system in the USA has been able to absorb some of what has steered Trump in the wrong direction or what he could have used to further expand his personal power. In the penultimate chapter of your book you write that there were even a few domestic political successes of Trump. Do you think it possible that his failures, his overall meager political record would have taken a back seat without his obviously inadequate crisis management during the corona pandemic?
That's how I would see it. On the one hand, he really managed to achieve a lot for the three groups of voters mentioned at the beginning. But he never tried to appear as the father of the country for all Americans, even for those who did not vote for him. That was never about him and that too is completely new to this presidency.
Legislative, it wasn't a very productive term. In the first two years he got through a few items on his agenda, such as tax reform, but he failed to abolish Obamacare - which was a big goal. After the House of Representatives became democratic in early 2019, he did not bring a single significant legislative initiative through Congress until the outbreak of the pandemic.
For Trump, the pandemic is above all a wasted opportunity, because Corona would have given him the opportunity to divert attention from this rather poor record of his term in office. Many politicians took advantage of this opportunity, think for example of the Bavarian Prime Minister Söder, who has meanwhile achieved 94 percent approval thanks to his committed anti-corona policy; think of Angela Merkel, who got up again at the end of her last term of office because she manages Corona very well; even for the Italian Prime Minister and the French President the numbers of public approval have risen. If Trump had shown competent, determined, empathic leadership during this time, I am sure that he would have had excellent re-election chances. But in his case, the pandemic revealed that America does not currently have a president of the size of Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt in the White House, but an incumbent who is completely overwhelmed in both character and leadership. This fact has also reached some of his followers. At the end of March and beginning of April 2020, the approval rates for Trump were almost 50 percent. Due to his catastrophic mismanagement of the corona pandemic, he has fallen back to his 40 to 45 percent and he will not get out of this corset - as long as Corona remains the dominant topic in American politics.
Taking stock now, how great would you suspect is the overall damage that Trump has caused to the political system at the international level, at the national level and, more specifically, for the Republican Party?
These three levels are a very good distinction, because the balance is actually different in each case: Domestically, Trump has found the most massive party political polarization in American history - and has further intensified it. He split America into two tribes, and the entire domestic political discourse is now so massively obscured that normal compromise finding, as is required in the political industry, is hardly possible any more. He severely damaged the functioning of the political system with his authoritarian instincts.
In terms of party politics, however, he has managed to undermine the demographic change with his strategy of mobilizing whites from the poorly educated middle and lower classes. Nobody really thought about that, the consensus was that if the Republicans in the USA want to remain viable in the long term, they have to open up more to the booming groups: the Hispanics, the better educated and the Asian Americans. Trump has sworn the Republicans on a strategy from the 1950s and revising that strategy will not be easy. We know that young people between the ages of 18 and 30 develop voting preferences that they will hold onto for most of their lives, and this generation has pushed Trump into the arms of the Democrats. At the same time, the typical Trump electorate is shrinking as a percentage of the total population. With the backward-looking fixation on strategies that are actually outdated given the demographic trend, Trump has done his party a disservice in the long term.
In terms of foreign policy, Trump naturally found himself in a very difficult situation, because America was weakened: Because of the rise of China, because of Russia's hyperaggressive politics, because of its own massive mistakes, for example the Iraq war. In addition, he had no strategic understanding of the needs of America in the 21st century. His idea of “America first” and “Make America great again” are basically things that, in terms of terminology, come from the last century. "America first" was a slogan that Lindbergh used in the 1930s to rail against the Americans' entry into the war against Nazi Germany. “Make America great again” was a Ronald Reagan slogan, which was used at a completely different time, namely when Reagan put the staggering Soviet Union economically, politically and militarily on the defensive in the final phase of the Cold War. Those slogans are no longer appropriate for today's world, because given the shift in global power, economic strength is not necessarily the greatest pound the US can bring against rivals like China and Russia. Probably no longer the military strength either, although the USA is still clearly superior to the others here. In fact, it is the strength of the alliances and the alliance system that the Americans have established over 70 years. Americans today work very closely with almost 70 countries in collective or bilateral alliances. They have dozens of bases across the planet that are based with Allies. That is the pound that America would have to use to preserve its global political position and to oppose the destroyers of the liberal world order in Moscow and Beijing in close coordination with allies. Trump, however, plays into the hands of Russia and China when he weakens the US alliances by not showing a long-term perspective, by repeatedly posing as Putin's poodle for personal reasons, or by merely engaging in the dispute with China makes a small part, namely the trade balance, a problem. There are completely different problems, but of which he has no idea because he lacks the basic political understanding of world politics.
Your book ends with an outlook for the US presidential election on November 3, 2020. Let's assume that the Trump presidency will end in November 2020 and Joe Biden will follow as the 46th president. How do you see the prerequisites for an upcoming Democratic presidency? How can Biden differentiate himself from what Trump has done and how difficult are the framework conditions at the moment, especially in view of the likely ongoing corona pandemic?
I am even more convinced that Joe Biden will be president four years ago than I was convinced that Hilary Clinton would be president four years ago (laughs). The polls are more stable for Biden, the gap to Trump is higher. Especially in the important swing states, he is well ahead of Trump. But last time I paid for three bottles of Brunello because I made a bet ... The future is open, I can be wrong. But let's assume that Biden will be elected on November 3rd and move into the White House on January 20th next year. Then I think the new tone in particular will make the biggest difference to Trump. In my opinion, the majority of Americans are exhausted by the incompetence, the lies, the hypocrisy, the self-glorification of the incumbent. And there will be someone with Biden who already has a completely different tone: not the aggressive, divisive, sometimes mean tone of Donald Trump, but the tone of a person who strives to bring rationality, competence and a certain humility into the White House to move in. This will not solve a single problem, but trust in the leadership ability of a government is very important, and that has shaken Trump most severely among the majority of Americans.
The most concrete challenge will continue to be the corona pandemic after January 20. Perhaps Biden will be lucky enough to find a vaccine as early as the summer of 2021. But he has already suggested that a mask requirement be introduced - even if he cannot enforce it himself because it is a matter for the individual states. But of course it is completely illusory to believe that this is how the pandemic will end. We see that in Germany or in Spain or in other countries with very rational, sensible governments - and even New Zealand, which had almost defeated the pandemic. Something like that can break out again and again. Coincidence is involved. And the behavior of the population cannot be controlled at will in democracies. But at least the feeling that someone is taking care of the great worries of many Americans and not just wanting to abuse them as political voting cattle, so to speak, that I believe will make the difference in a Biden presidency.
If Joe Biden moved into the White House in January 2020, he would be the oldest elected President of the United States. Despite or maybe even because of his age, is Biden the right candidate - a kind of interim president who is familiar with the political system and more established than a very fresh democrat of the younger generation and or the first female president?
Indeed, Biden would be the oldest president in American history. Biden has his "senior moments", his "pensioner moments", where he forgets things and doesn't finish sentences. Incidentally, even at a young age, he always had small dropouts in debates. He does not have the standing of a fresh, innovative man who will lead the party into the future. But Biden is the best candidate the Democrats could put forward because he is the last of a generation that can still embody the entire party: a party that is increasingly disintegrating into particular interests. There you have the blacks, then you have the Hispanics, there you have the feminists, there you have the environmentalists, there you have the Bernie Sanders-Left, in general this unfortunate identity politics, where you no longer feel as an individual but as a member of one Group defined. Some of these groups cannot interact with each other at all. For Biden, it is true that he still comes from the generation of Bill Clinton, which has a mantle function for the entire party. That puts him in this extraordinary position of defining himself as the interim president and seeing his presidency as a handover to the next generation of Democrats.
I wouldn't be surprised if Biden really only did one term, and that would be truly exceptional in America's 230 year history. I am not aware of any other president who has stood with the intention of serving only one term. It would be comparable to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the greatest achievement of his term in office. The nomination of Kamala Harris as a candidate for the office of Vice President shows how important this path is and how quickly it can be taken. She is black, Indian on the motherly side, female. These are things that ten, twenty or thirty years ago would have been more of a criterion for exclusion from running. Today Harris has a majority and is an “ordinary” candidate in the best sense of the word - and her candidacy embodies this demographic and ideological change in the USA that I have already mentioned. For comparison: Geraldine Ferraro ran for the Democrats in the 1980s as the vice-presidential candidate for candidate Mondale - at the time that was seen as a cheap attempt to get the female electorate on his side. There was no black candidate for the vice presidency at all. Until recently, that too could have been seen as a weakness. That Kamala Harris's decision as an establishment candidacy, an unsurprising candidate, is now seen as the safest choice Biden could bet says a lot about America's change.
Let's end this interview optimistically: Perhaps Trump did a lot of negative and destructive damage to American democracy by turning back to the 1950s. But if he is really replaced on November 3rd, then one could perhaps also see it as a wake-up call for democracy, as a wake-up call for the democrats to finally work together again and not split up into many factions. However, the Democrats have to prove that they can make the Trump voters an attractive offer and not ignore them like Obama and Hillary Clinton and even mock them. Because if they just as divisively focus on left-wing and peculiar issues, as was sometimes the case in the primary campaign, then they too are sinning against the political system of the USA. In the end, this system has always distinguished itself in that it produced parties with mass appeal. That will be the great job of the Democrats: not just a party for the 53 percent they may bring to the White House on November 3rd, but a party that wants to represent all of America. This would be THE great legacy that Biden was to instill in his party.
Professor Bierling, thank you very much for your time and this interview. Thank you very much for the book, which is very interesting to read and from which - even if you thought you already knew a lot about Trump's presidency - you can still learn a lot.
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