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The Power of Populism, Part 2 - After The Election

Featuring Gideon Rose, Carlo Accetti, and Shannon O’Neil

On the podcast today, Foreign Affairs continues its discussion on the power of populism. Since we recorded the last show, Americans have gone to the polls and elected Donald Trump as the next U.S. president. We’ll be discussing what his victory means for populism around the world, for Europe, and for Latin America. Featuring Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose, Carlo Accetti, and Shannon O’Neil.

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This podcast has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is available below.


HOST: This is Foreign Affairs Unedited, and I’m Sarah Foster. Today on the podcast, we’re bringing you part two in our series on populism. Since we recorded the last show, Americans have gone to the polls and elected Donald Trump as the next U.S. president. We’ll be discussing what his victory means for populism around the world, for Europe, and for Latin America. But we will begin this episode by turning things over to Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose for a look at what the surprise result means for U.S. foreign policy.

ROSE: Like everybody else, pretty much, I'm still in shock, and we're all still processing what happened, why it happened, and what the implications are.

FOSTER: That’s Gideon Rose.

A lot more will become clear over time, but here are five things that I think you can say with clarity. There are two things we know, and three things we don't know, and it's important to point out all five.

ROSE: The two things we know are that Donald Trump is now or will soon become the most powerful man in the world. The second thing we know is that if he does what he has said he will do, or at least some of the things he has said he will do, it would send the world into a catastrophic spiral of disaster. Those are two pretty significant things that we know.

ROSE: But, here are three things that we don't know that cut the other way. First, we don't really know how much of the things that he has said he actually believes. During the campaign, he said many different things. Even on the most controversial issues, he often walked back many of his statements. And it's not clear from the record of his comments and positions, what Donald Trump himself actually thinks or believes. We don't know. We will find out.

ROSE: Second thing we don't know, of the things that he actually believes, how much does he care about them? What are his priorities? Presidents can't do everything. And so, even things that they might want to do, if they decide there are other things that are more important, they'll do those. The third thing we don't know is, we don't know what sort of pushback or constraint there will be from other domestic constituencies, bureaucratic constituencies, global constituencies and so forth. President of the United States may be the most powerful man in the world, but he's not all-powerful.

ROSE: So the bottom line is, therefore, what's going to happen next in the world is largely, and with the US foreign policy, is largely Donald Trump's choice. He has that power, but we don't know how he's going to exercise that choice in specific areas; foreign policy as well as the domestic policy.

ROSE: What I'm looking for, frankly, is appointments. I'm looking to see who he puts not just in the top spots in national security and foreign policy, but also who were in the spots further down. For those of you who may not know about how US government works, there are lots and lots and lots of people involved, thousands of people. There are at least dozens of people in crucial decision-making positions, and there are hundreds of people in key upper mid-level positions regarding implementation. There were not enough Trump identified supporters during the campaign to fill even the top spots, let alone the next level down. So a Trump administration is going to have to rely on the basic Republican bench, and a variety of other people to fill out its key positions.

ROSE: The vast majority of the professional foreign policy and national security class of both parties was not onboard with many of the things Trump said. Which of those people will go in, and will they oppose? Let me just say a few things about some specific issues. I find it unimaginable that United States will not live up to the Article V security guarantee, that has been the bedrock of the NATO alliance since the late 1940s, and is in many respects, the bedrock of world order.

ROSE: So to the Baltic countries, we will actually defend you whether or not you continue to pay more, and the same thing with the rest of the NATO allies. We are not going to disrupt American alliances in Asia and elsewhere. On the other hand, how much we will intervene? We just don't know. On trade, much as it pains me to say this, it really does seem like TPP is now dead. I find it hard to see how, given what happened in this election, the United States signs TPP, even a revised version.

ROSE: That's going to be big, obviously, for not just the US position in Asia, but for the global liberal order moving forward and so forth. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Trump's going to do what he said in terms of slapping 45% tariffs on Chinese goods, things like that. Trade wars are mutually destructive; so I bet that's one of the promises he'll drop.

ROSE: But there's some other problems with trade that are clearly going to last. The way to think about this, I think, is, clearly, a lot of us, a lot of people were wrong about American domestic politics, the state of the country, the feeling of different groups, the demand for certain kinds of things versus others. But I think you're going to find now, going forward increasingly, that the other side of that coin, which is that the people who just took office, are going to realize that they were wrong about the state of the world.

ROSE: The Trump campaign put forward this extraordinary dystopic vision of a world going to hell in a hand basket of impoverishment and disaster and rising threats. That's just not the way the world actually is. The United States is far away the strongest power in the world, is winning, is dominant, has the strongest military by far, leads an alliance network of wonderful partners that it shares and cooperates with, shares golds with and cooperates with that are mutually beneficial.

ROSE: There's a great line during the campaign, I forget which commentator's line it was. But in retrospect, I think it's really important. Somebody said that Trump voters took him seriously, but not literally. And Trump opponents took him literally, but not seriously. And I think that's actually very correct. Now we know we have to take him seriously, because this man is the President of the United States, or will be in a few months. But how literally he meant what he said? We'll see.

FOSTER: That was Gideon Rose, Editor of Foreign Affairs. Our next guest says that he was disappointed by the election, but unlike Rose, was not surprised.

CARLO ACCETTI: It's not the job for political science to foresee, but to analyze. But to the extent that we can foresee, what we are seeing is a global phenomenon, which is not limited to the United States, which is not limited to Britain, which is not limited to continental Europe, which is also happening in India, which is also happening in some parts of South America.

FOSTER: That is Carlo Accetti, a faculty member in the political science department of the City College of New York. 

ACCETTI: I think there is a broad movement towards populism, and I think that the causes of it are structural, and not contingent.

FOSTER: Here, he has two concepts in mind. The first is inequality.

ACCETTI: We have to start having a discussion about inequality, and inequality I think is different from economic crisis. A lot of analyses of the populist phenomenon have tried to link it to the 2008 economic crisis. I think that's a mistake. Because both in the UK and in the United States, we are not in an economic crisis at the moment. What we are experiencing is some people are getting richer, and some people are experiencing expansions in the range of their options, possibilities, opportunities; and some people are experiencing a contraction of those.

FOSTER: The second factor is a system that has been incapable of addressing inequality.

ACCETTI: The system has been constitutively incapable of addressing the problem of inequality because the language, the frameworks, the conceptual frameworks that it uses are based on a framework which I would call "technocratic". And technocratic is the idea that all we have to do is find the right policy solutions, the competent policy solution. The core of Clinton campaign was what I would describe as a very technocratic campaign. Because it was about, "I'm competent to rule, Trump is not competent.

FOSTER: But technocracy assumes that there are right and wrong policy outcomes.

ACCETTI: Whereas if the problem is inequality, the problem is a distributional problem. Which means that for some people, it's good; and for some people, it's bad. And technocracy is incapable of addressing distributional issues, because it relies on the assumption that there's consensus on what is good.

FOSTER: Resolving such conflicts, Accetti argues, is the point of democracy.

ACCETTI: There are policies that make some people better off, and some policies that make some people worse off. And that is one of the reasons why democracy is used to resolve these issues, as opposed to technocracy, because there is no one better policy. People put forward different policy options that benefit different groups, and then we vote. And who has more votes win.

FOSTER: Given that the rise of Trump was a reaction to the failed politics of technocracy in the United States, the rest of the Western world, which has likewise relied on expertise as a governing priciple, could soon see something similar.

ACCETTI: Donald Trump is the first populist leader in the West to come to power. In France, they've come close. In Austria, they've come close. In Britain, let's say the forces of populism won an election over Brexit, but they didn't elect a populist leader. Trump has opened the way, cleared the path.

ACCETTI: If there were still some people in France who thought it's a leap into the unknown to vote for Le Pen, or in Austria that the resistance against it was we don't know if... It's a leap into the unknown, to elect a populist. Now it's not a leap into the unknown anymore. It has happened. And there will be a normalization of this, which comes with a normalization of the discourse, which will make it much more likely that people like Marine Le Pen will come to power in France.

FOSTER: As to why few saw this wave coming, Accetti points to the way political scientists have looked at the world.

ACCETTI: Most of the models that political scientists, and in general, political commentators and citizens use to make sense of politics, are based on this fundamental distinction between, let's say, left and right or liberalism and conservatism, this idea that politicians can be divided on an ideological spectrum. And this is a horizontal distinction. Politicians on the left would be, for instance, more friendly towards the state, more in favor of equality, whereas politicians on the right would be more for a free market.

FOSTER: But populism replaces the horizontal way of thinking with a vertical division.

ACCETTI: Instead of left and right, we now have this vertical division, people versus the elites. And this transforms the way of doing politics. So the reason why I think it was unforeseen and difficult to foresee was that it changes the rules of the game. It changes the way in which we have to think about politics.

FOSTER: It is difficult to say whether the new politics will be good or bad for democracy.

ACCETTI: It's a question that really cuts across a fundamental distinction in the way populism is perceived in the United States and the way it is perceived in Europe.

FOSTER: In the United States, Accetti says, populism has some associations with the Left.

ACCETTI: In the United States, populism emerged as a 19th century phenomenon, this agrarian populism which was a critique, let's say to speak fast, on the left from a broadly peasant basis, against the commercial interest of the north, and was perceived as a left-wing regeneration of the Democratic Party.

FOSTER: In Europe, the picture is different.

ACCETTI: In Europe, the associations of populism are not with 19th century US agrarian populism, but more with 1930's National Socialism and Fascism. For instance, an expression like 'liberal populism' makes sense in America and is completely un-understandable for anybody in Europe. In Europe, populism is mostly seen as a right-wing phenomenon, and mostly as an anti-democratic phenomenon.

FOSTER: So whether populism is good or bad for democracy depends on what one means by populism.

ACCETTI: In general, my opinion is that even in the United States, populism is not a corrective for the sclerosis of democracy, as many Americans think. But I tend to agree with the Europeans that it is a threat to democracy, for the reasons I mentioned before. I think democracy depends on ideological conflict between the left and the right. It depends on this horizontal division between two different visions of the future for a country. Why? Because it depends on the idea of legitimate opposition. It depends on the idea that the other person might disagree with you, but is still a legitimate candidate to hold office.

ACCETTI: Populism, by replacing this horizontal division between left and right with a vertical division between people and elite, makes opposition illegitimate, makes it very difficult to be... If you're against the people, how can you be legitimate? 

FOSTER: To address the rise of populism, Accetti had two suggestions. The first is to bring back real discussions of policies.

ACCETTI: When there is a sense that mainstream political parties collude with each other and make backroom deals with each other to remain always in power, and there is no real idealogical confrontation between them, then the opposition becomes anti-system, becomes populist, becomes on that vertical axis we were talking about.

FOSTER: The second is to take into account the grievances populism taps into.

ACCETTI: So for instance, on the questions of international trade, or the questions that have to do with globalization in general, many of the supporters of this anti-system, anti-establishment and populist backlash, are in this class of losers of globalization, losers of free trade. And therefore, I think what needs to be done, is address the concerns of these people. And if it is true that free trade and globalization are on aggregate in the interest of everybody, then in principle, these people could be compensated for their losses. 

FOSTER: That was ACCETTI Accetti on the causes and consequences of populism. Next up on the podcast, we’re discussing the reaction to Trump’s victory in Latin America. Foreign Affairs’ Park MacDougald sat down with recent author Shannon O’Neil to learn more.

PARK MACDOUGALD: As you've been monitoring it, how is the reaction in Latin America, in Mexico, in South America? How are people talking about this?

SHANNON O’NEIL: Many of these countries are extremely worried, and Mexico of course as the top of the list. Mexico was part of the campaign, a conspicuous part. Trump began his first campaign event or his announcement of his campaign calling Mexicans rapists and then criminals and perhaps a few good people, and it went downhill from there. So they are very worried about his personality and also his perspective on their country and what it might mean for them.

MACDOUGALD: Have there been any positive reactions?
O’NEIL: I think they are worried. Most of them would've been much more comfortable with a Clinton administration than a Trump administration. But that said, the presidents throughout the region have tweeted to Trump, congratulating him on his victory. So these are professionals down there, almost to the T, and they are reaching out to this government. But there is a real question among many of them, and also because nobody knows yet who will be in charge of Latin America policy, who will be the point person in a Trump administration for their issues.

O’NEIL: One of the big issues, he has talked, Trump, about repealing many of Obama's executive orders, and so there will be many of those that will affect Latin America. You could imagine Cuban policy, the opening to Cuba, that rolling back a bit, so we could imagine someone leading that, someone supportive of that being a key person within the policy team. He's also talked about repealing other orders, particularly the DACA and DAPA, the Dreamers and also the parents of legal residents or US citizens. And so rescinding that will have big effects for, particularly in Mexico and Central American countries.

MACDOUGALD: So now that populism is actually here and we're going to have at least four years of a Trump presidency, what are the big lessons from Latin America of dealing with populism while it's happening?

O’NEIL: Well, we've seen through this campaign quite strong populous rhetoric, and so an anti-lead rhetoric, a throwing out of the establishment, especially in the last weeks of Trump's campaign, there's talk about draining the swamp in Washington. That is very classic populous rhetoric, and I think the real question is whether Trump is a populous President in the way I would think about it. And one of the defining factors there is what he does with political institutions. Does he work systematically to undercut the checks and balances in our governments, the checks and balances between the executive branch, between the legislative branch, the Supreme Court, the states and the federal government or the like? We have a lot of them in our system, and our system is 200-plus-years-old that's had a lot of time to solidify.

MACDOUGALD: How do you think the opposition should respond here? Is it dangerous for them to try and match this sort of populist energy, or is that maybe what they need to do?

O’NEIL: The one lesson we see in Latin America is often populists are followed by non-populists, because populists almost never can live up to the promises that they have made, that they will throw out all the bad and bring in the good, that the economy will grow and they will bring jobs back from places, and they will help everyone and everything. That is impossible to do, and so those promises turn empty, and people usually turn away. 

FOSTER: I guess we have four or eight years to see whether the same happens in the United States. And we at Foreign Affairs will be covering the story along the way.

That’s all for today. We’ll be back in two weeks with another episode. Until then, please let us know what you think of the show by leaving a review on iTunes or writing to



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