As the US President comes to Europe, we had an exchange of views with co-chair Reinhard Bütikofer about Donald Trump and the EU's role in this new political landscape.
During the American Presidential campaign many political scientists misinterpreted the Trump phenomenon. Is he setting unheard of precedents for future political discourse?
Well, I guess what a lot of observers misunderstood or failed to really get interested in, was the fact that underlying all the shenanigans that they focused on, Trump was voicing a deeply grounded feeling of resentment and even hate against the predominant reality in many people’s lives. For millions of Americans, life has not improved over the last decades, and they feel betrayed by their own elites. Trump of course is an elitist himself, but he managed to present himself as the single representative who was willing to listen to these people, to use a language that they understand and to voice their concerns. Whereas on the other side, Hillary Clinton looked as if she couldn’t care less about this part of the reality, and the New York Times for instance, started discovering the world that gave Trump his electoral majority only after he won. Is this a temporary phenomenon? Well, Trump will not be president for ever, but the underlying developments are not limited to his own personality. There will be the need to cope with what he represents even though you might hate that he represents that. Unless the progressive forces in the US manage to find ways of representing the necessary change, they’ll continue to lose. Also, I think that with regards to the international engagement of the US, Trump is voicing trends that have been developing over some time. This wish to withdraw from international issues and problems is widely popular and if you listen very carefully you can find similar sentiments in Obama speeches, we cannot take that lightly. The US is in the process of withdrawing from the role of hegemonic guarantor of the established international order.
Hundreds of thousands of people protested against Trump’s immigration order and many more took to the streets right after his inauguration. How could we cooperate with the opposition in the USA?
When I visited Washington, I was struck by how inept the Democratic opposition against Trump is. There are popular movements, but the Democrats have not yet recovered from their defeat, at least not the Democrats in Washington. On the other hand, there is of course still a very promising American reality beyond Trump: there is the great state of California, where a vast majority of the population think progressively, support actively ambitious climate policies, not at all support the Trump anti-migration attitude and so on. It might be worth for a while not to focus on Washington, DC, the beltway, as the venue where we were used to find collaborators, but look also to state capitals and big metropolitan areas where mayors pursue progressive policies and build alliances there.
The list of Republicans and Conservatives who announced their opposition to Donald Trump becomes longer and longer. What can they do to moderate him?
In my opinion they are doing very little and I am not hoping for much more. There are just two senators McCain and Graham, who have stood up to Trump on foreign policy issues quite consistently, but so far, beyond that, Congress has failed to reign him in. I would not bet my money on Republicans because after all, he gave them control of all the wings of Government including the judiciary and the kind of battles that they are waging among themselves are possibly interesting, but none of the sides of the internal battles inside the Grand Old Party that I have been observing would really present us with more hopeful options.
Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, Trump’s frontrunner to become ambassador to the European Union, has commented in an interview with the Associated Press that the EU “needs a little taming” and that he would prefer for the US to trade bilaterally with European countries. What should we expect?
We might indeed get a more ignorant successor to the former Ambassador, Mr. Gardner, who was after all a good representative, but don’t give too much importance to people who are so far still would-be's and wanna-be's. I don’t know if Mr. Malloch will be nominated and whatever he says might not play such a big role. I think we should look at the policies as they are formulated in the White House, in the corridors of the Capitol and there are some troubling tendencies but I would not be ready to assume at this moment that the anti-European language will be consistently the policy that they follow.
Some analysts stated that perhaps the greatest gift Trump has given to China has been his drive to scuttle the Obama administration’s clean energy initiatives and his commitment to the Paris climate agreement. By turning the clock back on climate action and putting in office several climate-change deniers, Trump has in fact opened the door for China to emerge both as world’s leader in green technology (while creating millions of jobs for Chinese workers) and in international efforts to slow global warming. How do you see this strategy?
Well, among Trump critics, the list of gifts to China that they would enumerate might even be somewhat longer than that. He has also offered the Chinese Communist Party leader the opportunity to present himself as the hero of international trade, which was quite a show in Davos. But with regard to climate policy: I would say let’s not be that much afraid of what he can do. I would say even in the US he cannot turn back the clock completely. Renewable energies for instance are a much more promising alternative also in economic terms than fossil fuels. The train has left the station and he cannot call it back. The problem of course is: he can impede the progress. But we can, and I here came back to what I said earlier, cooperate with state governments like New York, or other states in the Northeast, or California: states that have already set their own policies and will not do Trump’s bidding on climate. On the other hand, we should not regret progress China is going to make on climate because they are the single biggest emitter in the world, so hopefully they will do as much as they can.
What could be the role of the European Union in such a complex international landscape?
Obviously the EU has to stand on its own feet and get its act together. We’ve been saying this for a long time. Still, for too long we dealt with it as if it was just a nice theoretical option. Now it is an absolute priority. That’s the change! The EU Global Strategy that the High Representative Mogherini, the Commission and the Council developed and the European Parliament supported looks more like make believe than reality. Since that new administration has taken office in Washington, there is additional pressure on us. Not only from Washington. There is pressure from Russia, Turkey, China and many other areas in Europe. We will now have to make up our minds whether we stick to lyrical text or really develop a common strategy. I believe that in the process of developing a way forward for the European Union, emphasis will have to be given to the foreign policy sector.
What will we do when Trump himself will come to Europe this week?
A lot of people will demonstrate. I hope some of the demonstrators will not forget North Korea, China and Putin: Trump is not the only authoritarian that we might stand up to in defending our values.
Trump has masterfully manipulated, as the businessman that he is, the trending conversations, through the art of distraction. What do you think are the dangers of this practice?
One of my friends in Washington says Trump is not a businessman but a real estate developer! But he does master the art of distraction. The public gets involved and distracted by some dumb tweets of his. I think it is the obligation of the political opposition and the media to counter that game. That would necessitate probably a different approach from the media and the opposition in the US. If you look at the polling numbers, he is rating the lowest of all presidents in memory this early into his term. However satisfaction among his own voters is high as the sky. Liberals and progressives have to ask themselves how to win back voters in the Midwest, in the Mountain States, in the South. But there are signals that a lot of people are willing to be mobilised, I haven’t seen yet clear leadership for this fight. Senator Sanders is not providing it. I spoke to John Podesta who said that maybe they need leadership from a new political generation. There needs to be a revolution in the progressive camp to counter successfully the revolution that Trump represents.