If Trump moves to heal ties with Russia, establishment will oppose him fiercely – Stephen Cohen
An outcome that no mainstream media outlet predicted, a victory that the elites decried – the people have voted to make Donald Trump the next US president. Millions of Americans are tired of being ignored and want radical change. But can Trump deliver on his promises? Regarded as an outsider in his own party – will he be able to implement his foreign policy approach? We ask professor emeritus at Princeton University, contributing editor at The Nation magazine, Stephen Cohen.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at Princeton and New York University, contributing editor at “The Nation”magazine, welcome to the show, it’s always great to have you back. Now, the media backed Clinton, Hollywood backed Clinton - but Trump had a stronger social media presence - his tweets to his 14 million followers made all the news - was that what made the difference in the end? Do Americans not believe in traditional media anymore, do they find social media more trustworthy?
Stephen Cohen: I have no idea - I am not a social media person. I think, the media here has covered this, that there was a profound disenchantment, I guess, anger, with many many people, with the political establishment, both Republican and Democratic, and Trump took on the establishment. I mean, plus, the very bad domestic situation for many people, plus, I think, because he did something no other candidate had done in many years: he ran as what we call “the candidate of detente”, especially with Russia, and people are worried about all these wars, but primarily it was driven by domestic pain, social pain.
SS: I’m sorry to bring you back to social media, but I’m just saying, what analysts are saying, I’m repeating: they’re saying the social media played a big role in this outcome, so is the Internet now the future of election campaigns?
SC: Well, all the analysts were wrong about Trump winning, so I think we should forget all the other analysts. I mean, this was one of the great mis-analyses, miscalculations, mis-prognosis in American political history. It was kind of like Brexit - everybody said it wasn’t possible. And, by the way, he didn’t win the electoral college just by a few votes - he won very substantially. I don’t know, I can’t testify to this. Nonetheless, about 80% of Americans still get their political news from television, so it’s what drives people’s opinions more than the Internet. There’s a lot of chatter out there and I know Trump did a lot of tweeting late at night - but so did the Clinton campaign. After all, it was Obama who really started using social media as an election device, and it helped him win. So, both campaigns knew about it, both campaigns were doing it. I was getting emails every day from the Clinton campaign, I mean, two or three times a day, so I assume that Trump was doing the same thing.
SS: As you say all the pundits, papers, projected Trump victory near impossible – some even giving Hillary up to a 98% chance of winning - how could these predictions be so spectacularly wrong, do polls and pre-vote analysis have no substance anymore, whatsoever?
SC: I would say that all these people who told you that Trump had no chance, didn’t know the America they lived in, and the reason is that the media, the opinion-makers, live in New York and Washington, which is not the U.S. I come from Kentucky and Indiana, what you would call “the provinces”, and I knew from my friends and family down there that a lot of them were going to vote Donald Trump. So, it was only a question of a couple electoral states that we weren’t sure he could get and he got them. But a large part of the country was against Mrs. Clinton. What we don’t know yet is if this was primarily vote for Trump or a primarily vote against Mrs. Clinton.
SS: We saw Clinton supporters crying in the streets, having breakdowns, and now protesting. Their reaction has been very dramatic - why? Is this a sign that the nation is extremely polarised right now?
SC: No, it’s not, and I think their behaviour was very bad. I can tell you that the two schools here, one a law school and one a lower level high school, said to their students, the next day after the election, to all the parents, that “if your children are distressed by the outcome of the election, we will counsel them” - this is preposterous. I mean, I don’t ever recall this happening since 9/11. You recall that before the election Clinton campaign said that Trump supporters would come to the streets if Mrs. Clinton won, and they were using that to warn us against voting for Trump - but in fact it was the Clinton supporters, or whoever these people were, it was clearly organized - this is bad behaviour by American standards. When we have a Democratic election, we’re supposed to accept it, until, at least, the new President does something we don’t like - I mean, the guy hasn’t even taken office! So, these protesters are silly and all this weeping in the streets shows that we have a kind of infantile political culture sometimes. After all, Trump is meeting with President Obama - President Obama is not crying, Mrs. Clinton is not crying, at least in public - this is the infantile wing of our political society.
SS: But is this the first time this happens? Such protests, such drama, after the election? Because I’m thinking, what’s the big deal? I mean, he’s going to be there for four years and then you can re-elect a new president…
SC: Yeah. It’s been a passionate, traumatic electoral process for many people. In my lifetime, which is pretty long now, I don’t recall it happening. Normally it happens when the president dies, then people cry, or when here’s a catastrophe, like the attacks on the U.S. on 9/11 - here in my city, in New York, I saw a lot of people crying, of course, but not when there’s a Presidential election. I mean, maybe, Mrs. Clinton cried, I don’t know, and her supporters, privately, but I have not seen this kind of public grief as though it’s a catastrophe. It’s no catastrophe, it’s politics.
SS: So, once again, the losing candidate has won the popular vote - Is it possible that the country could do away with the current voting system –and go with the popular vote count?
SC: You know, it’s possible and a lot of people think that we should get rid of the Electoral College, which was created when the Republic was founded, mainly to advantage slave-holding states. The slaveholders wanted more say in a Presidential election than they were entitled to, so they rigged up this system. But getting rid of it requires a Constitutional Amendment, and that is really-really difficult in this country. There will be some discussion of it, and maybe, because it has happened twice now - you remember it happened with Gore and Bush...
SC: And then not so long after again with Trump and Clinton - there might be serious discussion about it, but to do it is really difficult.
SS: So, okay, the way Trump won was largely because he was so different, he was so outspoken, so outrageously outspoken, saying things that were so politically incorrect, so I am asking… and he’s won, he has become the President of the U.S. - so, I’m thinking, does this victory mean that mean centrist, moderate politics in America is dead, because people are just fed up with niceness, because maybe they see hypocrisy behind niceness? I’m thinking, do you have to be antagonistic and radical now for them to believe you, because then what you see is what you get?
SC: Well, you said one thing that I think is interesting and possibly true - that this election was a defeat for political correctness, and that may not be a bad thing, because political correctness has become a kind of a form, sometimes, on some subjects, of self-censorship. There has been reports about this, for example, on American college campuses, where both professors and students don’t feel themselves as free to be candid. I don’t mean it in a prejudicial way, but just to discuss certain subjects. This may have to do with ethnicity, it may have to do with gender - but I don’t know that Trump was all that outrageous, and I’m not sure what “radical” means. I think the most radical campaign was actually run by Bernie Sanders, who ran against Wall St. I think it was the motif of the Sanders’ campaign that was radical in this sense, that if he had been elected and he had pursued policies that would make Wall St. and economy less corrupt - those would have been very far-reaching changes in this country, of the kind we haven’t had since Franklin Roosevelt. Trump didn’t say anything in this regard, outside the mainstream.
SS: Alright, so, I agree that Sanders’ statements were an unusual derivation - but Trump still stands… he’s completely the opposite for what Obama stands for. So, Obama’s approval ratings right now are very high, probably the highest they have ever been. So, I’m thinking, his presidency is nearing the end, why has the country effectively voted against preserving his legacy?
SC: Well, you know, “legacy”, Sophie, is in the hands of historians. I’m sure President Obama’s feelings are badly hurt. He wanted Mrs. Clinton to be his third term, and cement his legacy. But, there are a lot of things that Obama did in this legacy that everybody agrees now have to be changed - for example, healthcare. What he did just isn’t working. It worked for, maybe, 5%,10%,15% of the American people, but it didn’t work well for others. So that is going to be reformed even if Mrs. Clinton came to power. But let me disagree with you about one thing - this election, as you know, and you must have been shocked, was also about Russia. You said that Trump is the antithesis, the opposite of Obama, and maybe, in the majority of ways, you’re absolutely right, but in one way, you may not be right - for example, you’ll remember that about three months ago President Obama and President Putin had a plan to work together in Syria, an actual military alliance. And it was defeated in this country by the DoD, we know that. But that has been one of Trump’s foreign policy proposals - I mean, he doesn’t propose anything very coherently, but he has said repeatedly: “We should work with Russia in Syria”. So in that sense, Trump as President may pick up on what was originally an Obama proposal.
SS: The Republican party has also won the House and Senate elections - but not all Republicans supported Trump during the campaign - is Congress really in his hands now or do you think he’ll have a hard time pushing through initiatives?
SC: What initiatives do you have in mind - it all depends on the policy, I think. You’re right, normally in American history, when you have a Republican President and a Republican Congress, the Republicans can do anything they want.
SS: But he’s an unusual Republican President, right?
SC: You see, that’s the question we don’t know. In effect, I exaggerate only a little - Trump ran against his own party establishment. They didn’t want him as the candidate, they didn’t help him very much, and a lot of Republican senators and governors said they wouldn't vote for him. This is extremely unusual. So, you had a man who had the formal title of the Republican nominee, but who ran in many ways against his own party - so what happens now when he’s President? Do we assume the traditional American model - Republican President, Republican Congress ,Republicans get what they want? Or, is Trump going to find himself fighting with his own Republican Congress? It will depend on the issue.
SS: Let’s take it point by point, let’s have a listen to some of Trumps pre-election pledges:
“Taxes - we’re going to provide massive tax relief to all working people!...”
“I’m going to renegotiate NAFTA, one of the worst trade deals ever…”
“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”
SS: Alright. So, I don’t know how Senate is going to react to that but I want to know your opinion - do you think he’s he planning on keeping any of those promises - or do you expect Trump to tone down his rhetoric now - is it going to be a different Trump in the White House?
SC: I don’t want to turn this into a lecture on American politics, but the reality is that all of these treaties that Trump says he wants to revise - you didn’t mention, for example, the treaty with Iran, to limit Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons - these are multilateral treaties. Some of them have the support of the UN. The President of the U.S. cannot unilaterally abrogate these treaties. So, Trump’s real problem would not be with the Congress on treaties, but with the other countries involved. On the wall - I don’t know. I think what he means when he says “Mexico will pay for it” is that we have trade balances with Mexico and that we just won’t pay Mexico what we owe them and we’ll take the cost of the wall out of it. But I don’t expect this to be a big issue. One place where Trump has made the commitment and he has Republican support, is getting rid of a weak Obamacare, health insurance, and providing a better one. Now, all the Republicans are in favor of that. The problem is, nobody has thought up a better one yet. On the other hand, if you turn to foreign affairs, I think Trump may run into a lot of opposition from his own Republican party if he pursues the kind of foreign policy….
SS: Okay, let’s talk about that, let’s talk about foreign policy - because he has no expertise in it. He is not a career politician. Clinton’s foreign policy record raises questions, but at least it's predictable. The woman has got experience, you’ve got to give it to her. With Trump - there’s no telling what he’ll do next - is this dangerous? Is America in for a wild ride?
SС: I don’t know how much time we have, but let me step back for a minute, because we need the context. One issue on which Trump was very different from Mrs. Clinton and from the whole foreign policy establishment, was on our relationship with Russia. We now - this is me speaking, not Trump - we are in a Cold War much more dangerous than the 40-year long Cold War that we fought and ended. There are three places where Russia and America could very easily suddenly be in a hot war. That’s the Baltic regions, that’s Ukraine and that’s Syria. Trump has said that he wants to do something about it to improve it. What he said is very fragmentary, but very different from what other people have said. He says he wants to work with President Putin, he said he thinks it would be great if Russia and the U.S. united to fight terrorism in Syria. He hasn’t said anything about Ukraine. These are pressing issues. If Trump were to move, and he shouldn’t do this publicly, he should begin privately but if he were to move towards a detente, as we used to call it, a reduction of conflict in a relationship with Russia and to open cooperation, let’s say, in Syria - he will find himself opposed by a fierce and powerful pro-Cold War coalition, Democratic and Republican, and including the media, here in the U.S. He will have to fight very hard. The other side of that story is, is that foreign policy is the one area where an American President can do things pretty much on his own. He doesn’t need Congressional support unless he wants a treaty. The question is, is Trump really going to do it, and you might ask, if President Putin is ready for this - I think he is! Whether Trump will now move - we’ll see.
SS: Let’s see what he said so far about President Putin. Let’s take a listen.
Donald Trump: “And I would get along with Russia, and I’ll get along with Putin, and he’s not going to make us look bad anymore. But we’re going to get along!”
SS: So, Putin congratulated Trump on his election success, and Trump even promised to pay Putin a visit - even before the inauguration day. Can we expect a special relationship to form between the two leaders? And when I say “special relationship”, I mean based on personal trust.
SC: I have a somewhat different view. Americans always want, if we’re going to have a good relationship, a friend in the Kremlin. That was the whole thing about Clinton and Yeltsin: “Ooh, good old Boris, he’s my friend” - that’s nonsense. Nations operate on the basis of what they think are their national interests. What the U.S needs, desperately - because the situation is so bad - is not a friend in the Kremlin, but a partner in the Kremlin. That’s a very different thing. Now, Trump brings to the Presidency a businessman's way of thinking. Businessmen don’t go looking for friends, they go looking for partners, people who have the same interests they have. In my opinion, there’s nothing except this Cold War mania in the U.S., nothing objective, and the demonisation of Putin in the U.S., which has become an institution - there’s no practical national interest reason why Trump and Putin should not become national security partners. But for that you need leadership. Trump has suggested he would provide that leadership - but we can’t be sure yet. And let me repeat what I said to you before, because don’t be naive - the opposition to any cooperation with Russia, any cooperation, no matter how rational, is absolutely ferocious in the American bi-partisan political establishment. They will fight Trump to the end, if that happens. So, Trump has to be exceedingly clever if he does this. Because, remember what else happened, Sophie, it’s very bad - on the one hand, it was good, that there was a little discussion of Russia in our presidential campaigns, but the discussion was terrible, it was poisonous. The Clinton campaign indulged in neo-McCarthyism, they accused Trump and anybody who thought Trump had a good idea about Russian policy, of being puppets of the Kremlin. This is beyond disgusting. We went through this many years ago in the U.S., it damaged our country very badly. I don’t know. The poison is in our political bloodstream. Will it go away with Trump’s victory? I doubt it. Therefore, Trump needs supporters in this country, who did not vote for him - do you understand what I’m saying?
SC: It means, political people who understand how dangerous this new Cold War is, did not vote for Trump, but will support him if he pursues a policy of trying to find cooperation with your President, President Putin. But will those people come forward? They don’t want to be called names either. So this is a struggle in my country. You’ve got struggles in your country. Our struggle here is that if Trump does this, pursues what used to be called detente with Putin, we need to support him.
SS: During the campaign, Trump questioned the relevance of NATO - saying that he would pour a lot less money into it, even calling it obsolete. Let’s take a listen:
Donald Trump: “NATO? We’re talking about tremendous amounts of money that we put in, and we’re defending countries, and we’re not getting reimbursed anywhere near the cost of doing it. Either they pay up, including for past deficiencies, or they have to get out. And if it breaks up NATO - it breaks up NATO.”
SS: Are we going to see that actually happen, is America’s pillar of security policy going to be reformed - or be cut of funding?
SC: No. In American Presidential campaigns - ours are little more, how should I say, extravagant, than yours. Candidates say all sorts of things, like “I’m going to reduce your taxes” - and they never do. They don’t really act on them, but Trump said something very important, and it wasn’t heretical - the media banged him over the head with this NATO thing. President Obama has been complaining for 8 years - President Obama - that all but about five NATO members are not paying what they’re supposed to pay, which is something like 2% of their GDP, and that the U.S. pays 75% of NATO’s cost. So Trump has said what Obama has been saying. The only difference is, Trump kind of threatened these countries. The U.S. is not going to leave NATO and nobody is going to get kicked out, but we need a new NATO policy, and Trump did say something even more important, he said: “What is the mission of NATO today?” - this has been debated in the U.S. since the end of the Soviet Union almost 25 years ago. The only mission that NATO seems to have today is moving its power to Russia’s borders, which is a terrible idea, and pretending that’s the United Nations, when the U.S. cannot get United Nation’s backing for attacking another country, like Iraq or Libya or something like that, and they say “okay, we’ll do it with you”. This is usually just a few NATO partners. Trump has said that we need to decide what is NATO’s mission - for example, he said NATO doesn’t fight terrorism, and that was true at the time. So, if his Presidency leads to a debate in this country, and we have almost no debate about these issues - a debate about NATO’s role, I think that would be a good thing. Debate is good, re-thinking is better.
SS:You know, the way you rephrase his statements, they sound so logical and amazing, I think you should consider running for Presidency in 4 years time. I’ll back you, Stephen. Thanks a lot for this interview. It’s a great pleasure to talk to you, as usual. We’ve been talking to Stephen Cohen, Princeton University professor emeritus, author and contributing editor at“The Nation” magazine. We were talking about Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 Presidential Race, and the new President is going to bring to America and the world. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.