North America

Julius Krein, Trump's wunderkind

The one-time cheerleader for Trump tells Alan Philps that for all his mistakes there is still a need to address the gulf between rhetoric and reality that the president put his finger on

You set up the journal ‘American Affairs’ with a view to defining Trumpism. After almost six months of the Trump presidency, are you any closer to achieving that goal?
The journal was really launched to deal with the issues raised during the 2016 campaign that hadn’t been given a lot of attention previously. Obviously, we can call that Trumpism, but there’s no connection with the administration and it is nonpartisan. We have got a lot of attention, but there’s still a very long way to go.

How did you start?
It arose from an anonymous blog project that became very popular during the primary campaign. Most of us were at least partially sympathetic to Trump precisely because he was not a conservative. In a way, he destroyed the conventional 1990s brand of conservatism. This is the brand of conservatism represented by Republicans in Congress today. It’s an attempt to restore the culture and institutions of classical or bourgeois capitalism, while accelerating neoliberal managerial capitalism. It doesn’t make any sense now, if it ever did.

You used to work for a hedge fund. How much did that influence your views on the state of the American economy?
A lot. When you’ve spent time with financial market participants, you see all the incentives. Investors never ask chief financial officers, ‘What’s the next big, innovative project you’re investing in?’ I can’t remember that happening once. What they ask is, ‘How are you going to cut costs and increase dividends or share buybacks?’

Obviously, you can see this in the aggregate statistics. But being in the financial industry showed the distance between the rhetoric and the reality, especially the conservative libertarian market rhetoric. That’s just not how capitalism works in this country today. It’s made me very sceptical of a lot of academic dogmas. The other experience I had was in Afghanistan as a subcontractor for the Department of Defence, where again it was clear that a lot of the neoconservative rhetoric about that war, such as the talk of sending girls to school, was not reality. Those two experiences moved me from conventional conservative to conservative critic.

So the goal is to undermine the neoliberal consensus?
You phrase it in polemical terms, but insofar as the neoliberal consensus is the status quo and it is that consensus that has created this gulf between rhetoric and reality, people and institutions, then, yes, we have to take a critical approach to it. If you think the status quo isn’t working and neoliberalism is the status quo, then you probably need to change neoliberalism.

What are the other issues that Trump’s victory brought to the fore?
In an immediate practical context, I would say it’s trade, foreign policy, and immigration − although that’s not my major concern; it is for a lot of people. In a more theoretical context, this is about the place of the nation state, both in defining national interests in terms of countries vis-à-vis each other, as well as internally in defining the accountability of the bureaucracy to democratic institutions and the people.

Is this about elites who have lost touch with the people?
It’s not because they are evil people that the elites have lost touch: it’s just that the incentives of the system have created a divergence between people with global interests and people whose interests are more located in specific places and local institutions or national institutions. These institutions haven’t caught up with changes in society. We haven’t had an honest discussion about how to deal with them.

Two Trump advisers, HR McMaster and Gary Cohn, had a go at defining his view of the world: ‘He has a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a global community but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for an advantage.’ Is that a view you share?
I can give you a short answer: yes. It’s foolish to pretend otherwise. I’d also add, perhaps a little counterintuitively, that it tends to breed hostility to pretend otherwise, because if you posit this wonderful moral order or liberal order, whatever you want to call it, it creates a dynamic where you’re either with us or against us. It’s very moralistic, and everyone accuses each other of being bad actors with respect to the liberal order. Of course, because we still live in a world of nation states, no one ever perfectly upholds the world order, because they do have national interests. Whereas, if you just start from a place of ‘This is what our interests are’, you at least can have a discussion, and compromises around that. Whereas with the world order, you just end up with Europe accusing us of doing stupid things, some of which are true, and we accuse them of not paying their fair share. There’s no space to have a normal dialogue between countries.

For a long time the United States has set store by a moral element in its foreign policy. So when did the rot set in?
It happened sometime in the Clinton/George W Bush years. I blame it on the justification for the Iraq war after we didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction. Instead of just admitting it was a mistake, we had to come up with a new justification − some moralistic, democracy promotion mission. That’s where I place the blame.

I was at a conference in Berlin and someone mentioned Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, which is very idealistic and quite genuine. There’s no question that there is a moral component to foreign policy. But at that time that speech was a part of an intense global competition with the Soviet Union. It had to include both national interest and morality. It’s only very recently that we started pretending that interests don’t have a role or they have a purely negative role.

Do you think the US media should be more patriotic?
I wouldn’t put it in those terms. There’s plenty of ‘rah-rah’ rhetoric about America in the media. The problem is that in the media, every incentive is geared to creating warring tribes within the American people. I think that’s more the problem than a lack of patriotism.

If I was a foreign correspondent covering America, I would say that the ‘deep state’ was pushing back against Trump, particularly as regards the allegations – and they are still no more than allegations – about being hand in glove with Putin. Is that an assessment you would recognize?
There’s something to it, but some of it gets way too conspiratorial. Certainly the Democratic Party and opponents of Trump have every incentive to play those scandals up. It’s not that unusual. I don’t think that the so-called ‘deep state’ has done much to interfere with the foreign policy of the US to date.

But elements of bureaucracy have been leaking like a sieve to undermine Trump. Doesn’t that concern you?
What worries me more is that this was a unique opportunity, with a third-party president, to do something really interesting and change a lot of the stale dialogue in this country. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think we can blame the ‘deep state’ scandals for some of it, but a lot of it has just been due to an administration that hasn’t seized the opportunity it had and made its own mistakes.

Do you mean his inflammatory tweets?
Yes, but I place the main blame elsewhere. The Trump team came in with the view that everyone was more hostile than they necessarily were. There was never any goodwill towards Trump, but there was an attitude of, ‘All right, he won fair and square. Let’s see what he does.’ But the first thing they did was the refugee ban, the most inflammatory thing possible. The way it was done ended up being a huge mistake. Immediately after that, everything went into fortress mode.

If they had started with, say, infrastructure or trade that might have been an olive branch to the Democrats, they could have built a healthier climate. They could have revisited the refugee ban later, ordered a study, and then announced why they were doing it. Doing it in the way they did, created the most poisonous environment possible from the beginning. Now we’re stuck with total gridlock and hostility.

A big opportunity has been lost?
There’s a long way to go yet, but so far I think, unfortunately, that’s truer than I’d like it to be.

Why is it that so many of the senior posts have not been filled? This is exceptional, isn’t it?
It’s been an extreme source of frustration for me. There are a number of different causes. One of them – and if this is true, then there is, maybe, more of a ‘deep state’ scandal out there than I have given credit for – there actually were a number of appointments made, and they’ve been sitting in security clearance limbo since March, which is an extremely long time. They haven’t been approved or denied, because, if they were denied, then you could ask, ‘Why?’ but they just sit there. Those are for some NSC positions, and maybe for others. I don’t know exactly what’s going on there, but that’s one explanation for some of the appointments. There is also some infighting among factions in the administration. And finally, Trump is effectively a third-party president without a party. Normally he would rely on the Republican think-tanks [for staff to fill senior appointments], but they’re not really on the team, so it’s harder.

How would you characterize the mood in the White House?
I think most of their time is spent going from one immediate – I don’t want to say, ‘crisis’ – from one immediate issue to the next, so they don’t have a lot of time to reflect. That is part of the problem. In general the mood is defensive, but at the same time they are focused on doing some of the things that they want to do. With Wilbur Ross [Commerce Secretary], there is some momentum and you can start to see the outlines of how to think about major trade agreements and potential renegotiations, as well as minor steps on imports of Canadian lumber, aluminium and increasingly on Chinese steel. There’s a sense that they’re doing what they wanted to do.

Some of your critics say that by providing some sort of intellectual basis to the Trump phenomenon you are whitewashing a demagogue. What do you say to that?
From the discussion we’ve had so far, you could hardly call me a rogue apologist for the administration. That’s not the goal. I do think we have to take the democratic, popular rifts in this country seriously. And that means not just calling everyone who disagrees with you a racist. My critics would say, ‘You’re just apologizing for an irresponsible demagogue.’ For me it’s not about Trump at all. For me it’s about the deeper issues, and maybe much more how we respond to Trump and anything Trump does, which so far hasn’t been very much. I’m not apologizing for him at all, so, if people want to accuse me of that, they can, but it’s silly.

America is full of guns – and, indeed, proud of it. If the next election is a close victory by, say, a Democrat, do you think people could start using these guns? Could there be violence?
There already is some violence. There is a little bit more violence than anticipated, and it’s very worrying to me. It started with these ‘Antifa’ – left-wing, black-clad protesters – burning down college campuses and now you’ve got a right-wing counter-protest. I am concerned that this will intensify in the future. I don’t see anything like mass armed conflict anytime soon, or probably ever, because of the nature of policing now. The militarization of our police is another issue, but I do think it will prevent any massive armed street violence in the US. But more violent politics is definitely a reality now. Unless we can address these deeper issues and repair the social fabric and political community, I think it will only get worse.