Katarzyna Nowicka: In your piece published last year in the NY Review of Books as well as a piece published today, you reminded us to be cautious with hard historical analogies of Trump’s political style with that of fascism. You warned about treating Trump’s presidency as an aberration, which says nothing about the state of American democracy. What does the storming of the US Capitol say about American democracy and what does his being impeached twice signify?
Samuel Moyn: We’re all interpreting fragmentary information. The January 6 events were frightening, and I was surprised by them, and we’re only learning more and more each day about what went on and will probably take place for years. From the beginning it’s been clear that Trump had a hold over his followers of which 300 or 500 breached the Capitol, and what we infer from that is that there are politically mobilized people in the US. In general, that’s not a bad thing and it depends on what their goals are and how they pursue them, and so what I want to do is acknowledge the extreme, serious events that happened on January 6 and make sure we interpret them correctly.
The first thing I want to say is that on the overall day showed that
Trump was driven to incitement out of rage at not even controlling his own alleged henchmen,
and it was clear by this point that Mitch McConnell is more powerful than Trump. The master of the Senate was not going to help Trump in this desperate attempt at an auto coup. More extraordinarily, Mike Pence, who was elevated to national fame by the Trump movement abandoned Trump at the decisive moment. And of course, the events led more to vote for Joe Biden’s victory than they would have otherwise. So, from the perspective of those actually holding power and the results, the day was a massive loss for Trump.
Now, it is scary that there are these roving bands of white nationalists. I think we need to take caution and imagine what would have happened if there were more of them, or if they chose to use violence, remember that none of them chose to fire a gun. One person fired, and it was a policeman who shot and killed that confused young woman. Maybe it could have been worse, maybe it was an accident that security let them in to all intents and purposes. In order to know how scary an event it was, we have to go further. But I think that we would make a mistake if we saw Trump’s role in it as the last desperate act of someone who had failed all along. To the extent that he wanted to exercise a lot of power, he failed to do so over 4 years. Except of course when he let Mitch McConnell or others institutionalize familiar right-wing ideologies, like tax cuts or putting reactionary judges on the bench.
So, it’s an early sign of something that could become really abnormal, what we’ve seen in the last few years, but I’m hesitant to analyze too much about Trump’s voters and the behavior of that mob. Not least because there are people who need to be convinced to vote differently if America is going to survive in the coming decades.
You also asked about precedents in American history. I think
Trump is unique but many of the things he draws upon are authentically American traditions.
There are some resemblances to politicians abroad as well. And the question is, in the end, what are the best ways of measuring his significance. I think he has, in the way some politicians abroad have done, allowed us to see some unholy forces – but so far, I’m not sure if those forces are as scary in the short term as a lot of others seem to think.
Would you say that more continuation or rupture with American history, or a continuation of the so-called ‘paranoid’ style of American politics?
I think it is a break, no doubt, relative to what came before, and liberals had a very different understanding of America and hopes for its future than Trump. There’s no denying that the experience that many have had over the past four years is one of break, and that must mean that he’s brought about something that made America seem strange and unfamiliar, but I think that there’s much more continuity than meets the eye. With all these arguments I’m not trying to deny that Trump is bad or original, to the contrary, I’m trying to figure out what’s old and what’s new without seeing him as an absolute break or a foreign import or as exceedingly dangerous, because I think the record shows that someone in his position could be, but he wasn’t, and we have to understand why that was. And what opportunities it gives us to make sure that nothing like this happens again.
Do you agree that while Trump will be gone, his supporters will stay with us? For example, Jan Werner Muller claims that the blame for the fact that Trump will stay with us should be put on liberals who constantly decried his supporters as Trumpist and therefore shaped these values that they believe in.
I think that just from a boring, mercenary perspective, whatever the response to Trump was over the last four years, it failed miserably, just to judge by election returns in which more people supported him than before. Now, again, I sympathize completely with those who have been horrified by Trump and just wanted to repudiate him since that’s the natural reaction – and some of the things he’s done have been vile. I’m not sure I would go as far as Jan if the claim is that we have alienated Trump’s followers and made it more difficult for them to change their minds. I think that’s true to a limited extent. I think
the real question is what the liberals are prepared to do to decrease polarization and win elections more resoundingly on their terms,
because we’re going to see some folks who think that the right can capitalize on the Trump years and they’re not going away, even if Trump doesn’t run for President again, or he doesn’t succeed, or is accused of crimes or whatever. I would put it this way – 70 odd million voters are a lot of people. And they’re all very different, Once we stop reducing them to fascist QAnon coup plotters, then we see that some number of them, probably tens of millions, many of whom voted for Barack Obama, are looking for love. And that comes in the form of recognition, of the kind that Jan was probably talking about, and it comes also in the form of policies that meet their needs.
In the end, we have a bunch of victims attacking victims who are even worse off. That’s the story, not just of American history lately and for most of its time, but also in worse situations like genuine fascist politics. My sense is that, precisely by making the situation less dramatic, we can see how much opportunity we have to save the situation in the time we have allowed to do so.
So how do we interpret the fact that Trump gained more votes than in 2016 – is this a sign of a deeper polarization that is already happening, or is it the identity card that played so well in the 2016 elections?
I don’t think we should make too much of the fact that he increased his gains just because many, many more people voted. But still it’s interesting that the Republicans as a party did pretty well, even better than Trump and Trump didn’t suffer some kind of repudiation, some grievous defeat, and so I would put less stock in the fact that more voted for him although it’s interesting that seemingly more women and more people of color voted for him proportionally. I would put more stock in the fact that
the responses to Trump for four years left his credibility intact which is amazing because he’s not credible.
He’s a buffoon and a charlatan and evil, so the question is what would be a way of making clear how bad a choice he is. Well, I think you have to put a better choice on the table and the Democrats failed to do that clearly. I think it’s partly identity, it’s partly class as a big a factor as any. The Democrats need to figure out how – without selling their souls – and adopting a kind of kinder gentler white nationalism for which honestly they’ve stood for decades since they built mass incarceration they’ve declared a lot of wars against black and brown people. How did the Democrats seize the opportunity and put out an incredible vision for America that would kind of attract lots of voters rather than just enough.
Today I saw the polls which actually said that it was not the case of Trump that Republicans wanted to vote for – if they had a choice, they would vote for someone who is not Trump, which is a kind of consolation in the times that we live in now. I have another question, whether Trump was the president of fear, of immigrants, of globalization perhaps, feminization perhaps?
I think all presidents reflect hopes and fears but it’s hard to deny Trump reflected fears even more. Obviously, it’s irrational to blame the fate of white Midwesterners who are stagnating on immigrants in particular, or even to think that manufacturing of the kind that made those places solidly middle class could ever return and in remotely the form it had. I’ve interpreted the 2016 was much more of a protest vote, but how real the fears are I think is hard to assess.
It may be that there’s a lot of fear of living in a non-white country that this election showed it’s certainly very scary. I still think that’s hard to square with the fact that there was an African American president for which a number of these people, voted for, so I would say it’s more about discontent. It’s about awareness that America as a superpower is in decline, and I think that with all the failed wars, it’s just obvious that it’s in decline as even in strictly military terms. It’s in decline economically as a relative matter and nothing can stop it.
Do you think Democrats currently are capable of producing a narrative that would encompass people who are somehow neglected by Republicans, let’s say?
I think that in theory the Democrats are capable of a lot of things, but I think first of all that what exactly a message that would go beyond kind of complacent restoration would look like, is up for debate. I haven’t, and I don’t think anyone has rock solid answers about how to recruit a lot of former Trump voters to a better cause. I think we can say that it seems as if there’s not much of a will amongst mainstream Democrats even to try, so the attempt was made to stigmatize Trump for four years and then run on a kind of anti-Trump or decency platform in 2020, but it didn’t work very well. It only provided a bare majority for Joe Biden, admittedly in the terrible, undemocratic system with the Electoral College and so forth, that the United States has, but that’s the game.
So, I would say we’re looking at a couple of years more of restoration politics and spurning the opportunity, which is urgent, to explore how it is the Democrats could evolve to manage the crisis. It’s not going to go away.
Can we try to put Trump’s presidency in a broader context and locate it in theory, provided by Jack Balkin, who in his recent book, The Cycles of Constitutional Time wrote that Trump’s era is a cycle of polarization, similar to that which happened in the 1890s and that vast material inequality and waves of immigration and the era of media, which includes invented stories. But then came the Progressive era and then the New Deal, clearly giving American democracy some hope about this being a time of transition. Do you share his perspective?
Well, I’m generally happy to sign. I think there’s definitely a transition going on. It could go different ways.
What I wouldn’t do is coax from some kind of theory of the way American history works any extra optimism about which direction it will have next
because it seems like there are open possibilities. In particular, you have some on the right saying it will be more credible for them to build a working-class majority than for the woke left. I hope they’re wrong. And especially I hope they don’t succeed, but if there’s going to be a kind of realignment, I think the shape of it is very indeterminant right now. Jack relies very heavily on an empirical political science account of the way things work and I would place much more emphasis on agency, and to be creative, and do things that aren’t anticipated by history. The guidance of history is not some set of laws that will unerringly be followed. Instead history shows that it’s up to human beings in which direction to take history and the same is true now.
So, in these terms, do you see Biden as being the agent who heals American democracy?
Well clearly not. Not enough people supported him. He barely won, so he’s not a Franklin Roosevelt figure who won repeated elections massively with a program. I am very skeptical that Biden is more than a kind of placeholder, playing for time. And I don’t know who will follow him – it could be good or bad.
But we agree that it couldn’t be worse?
It could be worse. I mean Trump could have won the election. I’m not sure Biden was the worst candidate among the Democrats. I don’t think he was the best, but mainly I think the verdict of the electorate is that he’s not in command of a mandate that is a super-majority mandate.
What is also coming to my mind is how big tech companies are a source of polarization in the country and the fact that Kamala Harris is the Vice President is also worrying, because now, there are concerns that she will not challenge the big tech companies, and that is a big issue now.
I think that there’s cause for concern, especially given the role that Twitter, etc., played in containing Trump at the very end of his term. But the Vice President has no real duties. It is not clear exactly what role she will actually play other than to wait for her turn to run for president. But there is a broader concern we ought to have about the friendliness of the Democrats to big business which goes back decades. And the tech companies are just the kind of new corporate overlords. They introduce big new problems, but not the fact that that big business has friends in politics, which is not a new problem. It’s one we still have to solve but one thing for sure is that it’s not new.
There’s been some writing about the political constitution and the corporate constitution that are now competing with each other…
Someone wrote about that yesterday. I read that piece too. That was in Michael Lind piece that dropped today. I think there’s a lot to the basic idea that the political constitution proved more durable than many expected in the last four years, even as the corporate constitution, or let’s say, the collective control of business proved even less than we might have hoped. So, I don’t agree with everything in that article, but it’s true that private power is probably a much greater worry about our time than public power.
What do you think will be biggest source of social challenges for the Biden presidency?
I think it will be a quiet time. I may turn out to be totally wrong, but I think two days from now people will take a break from history and that’s actually much scarier to me than a lot of alternatives. Because if we do learn something from the Trump years it is that there are certain nefarious possibilities that could come about if we don’t save this situation.
I’ve been chastised for downplaying Trump’s fascism but it’s only in the name of my belief in that the alternatives now are socialism and barbarism.
So, it’s not that I think that we’re facing clear sailing now that we’ve gotten the ogre out of the way. It’s rather that the risk is that Biden will represent complacency. Not just himself but for a huge number of Americans who will go back to using Facebook for cat photos rather than anti-fascism and that was the mistake in the Obama years as all of these forces came to a head and if we repeat it there will be a disaster in our future.
Katarzyna Nowicka: But let’s hope for the best for a few months?
Samuel Moyn: Always.
Cooperation: Gaurav Mukherjee, Karen Culver, Robert Nemeth