It’s Identity, Stupid! An Interview with Guy Sorman on Identity as a Political Factor

Identity is a very strong political factor in the current world Guy Sorman*, philosopher and economist, the author of “The Conservative Revolution in America,” said in an interview with Michał Matlak.

Michał Matlak: What happened on the 6th of January in Washington? I understand that it is difficult to answer this question but was it a kind of serious event like the destruction of Bastille or  was it an event that will we have forgotten in a couple of weeks or months? 

Sorman: You know that it is impossible to know when history is being written. To answer your question, we have to wait a couple of years. 

My reaction is that this was an anecdote. I don’t think it’s a very significant event and I don’t think it will deeply change politics in the United States. Also, it’s not that new. There is a tradition of political violence in the United States which we tend to forget. Of course, this was spectacular because it took place at this special day in Washington D.C., but violence in civil society in political life is quite common in the United States. I just remind you that four American Presidents have been killed in office. And, so I think it’s a sign of the permanent dimension of American politics. It’s not totally new. I don’t think it’s a revolution. I don’t think it is a starting point of anything significant. 

But you would agree that the presidency under Donald Trump is quite something special when it comes to the development of American democracy?

Sorman: Yes, this is the most extraordinary event. Without Trump, of course, what happened on January 6th would never have happened. We have to consider the four years of Donald Trump and we have to ask ourselves how Donald Trump could become and remain president, what it means for modern politics, what is the role of the media in politics and also take into consideration factors which we tend to underestimate like racism, identity politics. At the Capitol there were only white people basically. The Trump presidency is kind of a reaction against modernity, against globalization, against multiculturalism. 

He plays from the very beginning the card of white racism against other people and so this is the main characteristic of this presidency. 

Attack on Capitol was a proof of it and so the question is, is racism something of the past and which is going to disappear or is it something of the future which we have to take into consideration. I could apply the same question to the regime of Viktor Orban in Hungary, for example. 

Why did he become president? Was it his special kind of charisma or was it a worsening situation in the US?

Sorman: Charisma is a very important factor. You don’t have any populist leader who is not charismatic. And 

populism is dangerous only when you have a charismatic leader. 

If you have populism without a leader like in France two years ago, we had the “yellow vest” movement which was a populist movement, but they had no Trump so they disappeared. The dangerous cocktail has always been the combination of populism and charisma. This is one thing. The second, why he became president. Clearly, he became president because half of the American people never accepted that a black man, Barack Obama, could be the president. And Trump played totally, 100 %, on that factor. He was elected by white males, he was elected against Blacks, against Latinos, against minorities. And he said “I’m the last chance for you, White People, to resist the transformation of the world and the conquest of the world by people who are not like you.” So he played the identity card and we have to keep this in mind because, you know, more than 70 million people voted for him which means that’s a large part of the Americans, and it’s true in Europe, they share this fear, because the basic factor is fear. Fear against the invasion of the immigrants, fear of feminism, fear of modernity, fear of globalization. Fear is the reason why Trump has been elected and the reason why he was able to stay the president for four years.

There is also another explanation which is more economic. It says that the blue-collar workers were looking for the economic improvement. They liked what Trump was saying about the need to bring back production to the US from, for example, China.

Sorman: Well, this is true and not true. Many of  these blue-collar workers, they have the feeling that they have been marginalized and replaced by the Chinese factories and so on. But economically it is not true. Most of the blue-collar workers are not blue-collar workers anymore they are white collar workers. And second, it’s not because of China that jobs are disappearing but because of technical innovation. So, this is not something very new. This is a fear, white identity is at the core of the Trump system and the Trump election. And then you have, what I would say, peripherical explanations, that you have also a kind of exploitation of the fear of the blue-collar workers to  lose what they have, but what they have is not only a job but also an identity. So, the question, you go back to this very question of identity becoming the center of politics and 

identity is a concept which was totally forgotten, in a way, by the intellectuals, by the liberals.

We mention left, right, liberalism, socialism, globalization, social justice, and so on, but we never talked about identity and suddenly you discover that identity is a very powerful factor, but identity, once again, is based on fear. For many people, this is the only thing they own. What do they own? You know. Maybe they have a car, maybe they have a house, they also have an identity. So, identity is a very strong political factor in the current world. 

You have watched American politics for decades. The explanation of political behavior was usually centered around economy. The difference between the Democrats and the Republicans was primarily economic – that’s how we saw it. So why did this change?

Sorman: It did not change. I think that we were wrong in a way to use some crypto, pseudo-Marxist concept explaining political behavior by the economic infrastructure. We were Marxists in spite of us. You know, 

we overestimated economics as a major factor in the political life and we did not see another reality 

and, again, what Trump brings back to the forefront or Orban in Hungary, and to a certain extend Kaczyński in Poland, is that this notion of identity is as strong, maybe stronger or weaker, we don’t know, than the economic situation of the people. 

Among many of the books you wrote, some also dealt with conservatism. In the last days we saw that many important, influential Republicans, who were supporting Trump for a long time, like Mike Pence, like the leader of the Senate majority, Mitch McConnell, they ceased to support Trump and seem to see the future of the Republican Party somewhere else. So, I wanted to ask you about this future of the Republican Party. Will it be a Trumpist Party after Biden’s inauguration or will it come back to mainstream conservatism?

Sorman: Once again, it is very difficult to make this kind of prediction. What we can say today is that the Republican Party has been destroyed by Trump. That for sure. There is nothing left. There is no Republican Party anymore. 

But their results were not that tragic. They won in many states and were not that far away from winning the presidency…

Sorman: If you look at the next presidential election prognoses, will it be a new kind of Trump playing the identity card or will the Republican Party go back to the Reagan years, with the traditional conservative position which was a combination of the free market, ethics and small state. So,  

there will be a conflict to rebuild the Republican Party, 

as the Republican Party cannot be both things together. It must be either populist or conservative. 

When I say conservative, you know, I mean in the American sense, in Europe we don’t have conservative parties, maybe a little bit in the United Kingdom, but I’m not sure, now, with Boris Johnson. So, I think that the Republican Party cannot be both, and, I do think that there will be a split which happened before. I think that there will be a populist party which will be white populist, racist and there will be a new Republican conservative party. Once again, this happened before in the U.S. politics when you had Governor Wallace for the election of McCarthy so it’s not totally new. And the Democratic Party is not so much divided between the moderate center left with Biden and more extremist leftist people like Ocasio-Cortez. 

Also, we should not think in terms of the right versus the left. I think the real division is “Open Society” versus “Closed Society” and so, I think, everywhere, we will have a sort of cooperation between people in favor of “Open Society” and people in favor of “Closed Society”. I don’t know what the name of the party will be, but this is really the dividing factor, the concept, open or closed which is a Karl Popper concept. So everywhere in the West, we see a reorganization of the political life according to this new division. 

And, if I may ask about the Trump years, could you look back at what he achieved and how America changed during his term. I remember reading in the Economist, an analysis of his presidency and what was surprising for me, that such a liberal magazine, was pretty positive about some aspects of his presidency, for example, about its economic aspects, the lower unemployment rate before the pandemics and they were saying that in the international politics he was more talking than doing things and when he did things they were not that tragic. What’s your take on those four years?

Sorman: First of all, the Economist is the magazine of business-people. So, they like everything that’s good for business, like deregulation, open borders, lower taxes on enterprises. So, this is an aspect of Trump they like very much. But, it’s no more than a lobby. 

My take is a bit different. My first observation and it’s a positive observation, 

Trump did very little. Thank God! 

He spent more time playing golf than working at his office in the White House. He spoke a lot, he tweeted a lot, but what he achieved is practically nothing. 

If you look at the economy, the influence of the U.S. President on the economy is nearly nonexistent. The high rate of growth before the pandemic came from high-tech and the innovation, entrepreneurship, start-ups, and the macroeconomics is totally regulated by the Federal Bank and not by the President. To say that the growth rate was very high because of Trump was really a combination of ignorance of economics in general and of the U.S. system in particular. 

If you look at Foreign Affairs, thank God he didn’t do much  either. The relationship with North Korea was absolutely ridiculous; he wanted to destroy NATO but the good thing with Trump is that he talks a lot, but he doesn’t do what he says. He doesn’t ‘walk  the talk’, as the Americans say. Paradoxically, he did not do much and I’m very happy that he played golf all the time and did not implement his ridiculous program. His only achievements, if we can call  these achievements, is that he was able to nominate, to appoint a significant number of conservative judges but, again, it’s not because you appoint a conservative judge that the judge will act conservatively. And the Supreme Court verdict on the elections shows that the judges are professional. He was very surprised because he thought that the conservative judge would support him, but this is not the way it works in the United States.

The interesting question is now,  have we witnessed the end of the concept of illiberal democracy, as we see that the illiberals don’t respect democracy?

Sorman: I disagree with the concept; I think it looks intelligent to put together this concept of illiberalism and democracy. It is an illusion that you have created a new political concept. But it does not really exist. It should, take Russia, for example, or Turkey, but they are not democracies. Russia is not an illiberal democracy, Russia is an illiberal, personal dictatorship. And you can say the same about Turkey. Hungary is complicated, because one wonders if Orban will want to stay in Europe. Maybe in order to transform Hungary into a total dictatorship like Russia, he will leave Europe. If he doesn’t leave Europe, at some point he will be beaten in an election and Hungary will be back to normal. Once again, this concept of illiberal democracy has no real meaning. It’s just a concept. It looks nice, it looks brilliant but it’s not real. 

Do you think Joe Biden can change American politics, can somehow heal what we are observing over the last four years? 

Sorman: I think he showed that last night when he spoke that he appeared to respect the constitution, to be decent, to keep the rule of law. This is something which is very profound in the United States and that people can understand. He will never be able, of course, to eradicate some far-right groups, because these far-right groups existed before Trump. Remember twenty years ago the attack in Oklahoma City where a far-right guy killed 300 people. So, 

he will not eradicate the extremist, but I think he will be able to rebalance the gravity center of the American political life 

and bring back some kind of decency and respect of the law. Maybe his problems will come with the far left of the democratic party. But he will be able to rebuild a center and to bring back some decency and, once again, his speech Wednesday night was rather impressive. He was not accusing anyone. He said: “This is not America. We are so much better than that.” 

But, do you think he will have enough political ideas and people to address the problems of the white male who voted Trump ? Of course, I understand that there will be always some radical right but there is a group, I guess, that can be convinced somehow. And do you think that he has kind of economical ideas, new ideas, that would change the character of American society a little bit?

Sorman: You know when Macron was elected president, he asked me: “What do you wish for me?”. And I told him: “Mr President, I wish you luck.” You know, 

luck is absolutely basic in economics. 

If the pandemic is vanquished by the end of the year and if we have a lot of innovation, if you have turmoil in China, America will be lucky, and the American economy will be growing, so we have to wish him luck.  It is very simple, you know, it is a combination of free market and protectionism, nothing new, nothing old, some regulation not too many regulations, very middle of the road and respecting the independence of the Federal Bank which is absolutely essential, and this is enough. To come up with brilliant new ideas is today in economics, is quite useless. We know what works, we know what doesn’t work, and so luck has become really a key ingredient. 

This seems not to be enough, as you need so much money now in order to be elected and to stay in the House of Representatives or the Senate. It was not always like that, I guess, and this is destroying American democracy.

Sorman: Yeah, you are absolutely right but it’s part of Biden’s platform. The idea to limit the financial contribution of the private sector and, you know, there was a decision of the Supreme Court authorizing anonymous gifts by private companies and Biden said that he will change this. I think that there will be a consensus in the United States, not in the business community, of course, to try to limit the  role of money in politics. Now, we should not be angels: money always played a main role in politics in any country and everywhere. Because, you know, when you have very strict limits on expenses, company expenses, then you know that money flows through different circuits and, I think, this is the part of the corruption of democracy and we can limit it. You know, the beauty of democracy is, it does not pretend to be perfect. 

You know, on the 6th of January, I was thinking of Karl Popper when Popper says: “Democracy is not the way to choose the best leader, it is the way to get rid of the leader at a specific date and without bloodshed.” 

Many people lost their jobs because of the automatization of work. So isn’t now the biggest challenge for, not only for Biden, but for all of us who support the idea of liberal democracy, to find a way to include people who lost their jobs because of  automatization, and we will face this problem more and more in this coming decades, I guess. 

Sorman: It is a problem since the 17th century. And we know that progress is based on destructive creation, that jobs disappear, and new jobs appear. You know I always remind my students at the Paris University that, in 1944, when I was born, 50 % of the French people were working in agriculture. Today – only 2 %! So, innovation has been able to shift the pole from jobs which were hard, not well paid, to better jobs, better paid. The question is, will this trend go on or not. And this is very difficult to predict. I think, basically, it is rooted in our education system. Our education starts too late. If you are born in a poor family, you get a poor education and you will be a victim of technical innovation. The only way to cope with technical innovation and with social justice and inequality is to start school as early as possible.

Collaboration with Karen Culver, Isabella Lasch and Robert Nemeth

*Guy Sorman – is a publisher and CEO of France-Ámerique, a bilingual magazine founded in New York in 1943. He is one of France’s leading public intellectuals. He has authored more than 20 books, several of which have been translated into English, including The Conservative Revolution in America (1985), The New Wealth of Nations (1990), The Genius of India (2001), The Children of Rifaa: In Search of a Moderate Islam (2003), Economics Does Not Lie: A Defense of the Free Market in a Time of Crisis (2009), and The Empire of Lies: The Truth About China in the Twenty-First Century (2010). In 1993–97, he was economic advisor to the French minister for foreign affairs and, later, to the prime minister. In 2008, he was appointed global advisor to South Korean president. 

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