In August, Yale Law School professor and historian Samuel Moyn—one of academia’s most prolific essayists and commentators on current affairs and global politics—co-wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled, “Trump Isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is.” The piece formed a nice complement to some of his work on other issues, which locates our current predicament not in what he calls “tyrannophobia” but rather in the structural problems facing our economy and our political parties.
I recently spoke by phone with Moyn, whose new book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, arrives next year. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether the Democratic Party is effectively moving to win back some of the voters it has lost, why the left’s focus on the Russia investigation might be a bad thing, and how presidential power was too vast even before Trump came along.
Isaac Chotiner: It seemed like back in August, when you wrote your piece, you thought the balance was out of whack in terms of what people were fretting about. Do you still feel that way?
Samuel Moyn: I do feel that way, more than ever. I don’t want to say that David Priestland, who co-wrote the article, and I have been vindicated, but from the first we were quite aghast at the return of the anti-tyrannical posture, that the United States was on the brink of some kind of coup or dictatorship. The reason was that I worried that it distracted the country from the real work that needs to be done, which is basically saving each party from its demons. I’m a Democrat, so I think that’s much more important within the Democratic Party, and as things happen, I still worry that the opportunity to do so is going to get missed.
OK but how is it possible to combat these long-term issues when Trump is in office? It’s not only that there is so much else going on to combat, but he himself is contributing to making the problems worse.
For sure. We came up with this pushback from far earlier. It just was published when it was. I think that the tax cut is the only real achievement of the Trump administration legislatively to date, and that was very far from people’s minds. Instead, some unseemly collusion with Russia was at the forefront, as I think it still is even more a mainstream concern than the tax cut.
We’ve been talking a lot about the tax cut. It got a lot of ink.
It did in recent weeks. I’ll give you that. Of course, what that showed is that where Trump can win and get something done is where mainstream Republicans want the result. On social morality, that’s the Neil Gorsuch nomination, and [it’s also] on tax cuts and neoliberal policy. Trump is actually, when he has any power at all, a symptom of very old policy, social conservatism in the courts, and neoliberalism in economics, which sadly has been shared by the Democratic Party in the past generation.
One thing you mention in your piece as being stymied is the Muslim ban. But now a version of the ban is being implemented. I’m not saying this ban means that American democracy is over, but it does seem like the type of thing that five years ago, if you and I were sitting around having a drink, and I said, “Five years from now, an American president is essentially going to have a Muslim ban on a number of countries,” you would have said, “Wow, American democracy sure went to a shitty place for that to happen.”
Sure. I don’t know if I would have said it, because the fact is there’s a strain of nativism in American politics. Barack Obama fought the war on terror tooth and nail and deported far more people than any president so far, so I think America is already cruel in some of these areas, with respect to the Muslim world, at least. It’s true there’s a blatant racism and Islamophobia in Trump’s policies that is of course shocking, and I think it’s great that it’s stoked rage. I think the bad thing is that constitutional law gives close-to-unfettered power to the president and Congress to set the terms of who gets in the country.
This opposition may turn out to be a loser, unless certain arguments succeed, but I don’t think that tells us that Trump is a tyrant in the making. I think it means that he tried to throw some red meat to a section of his supporters and to a much broader set of Americans who think the war on terror is very important to keep them safe. Unfortunately, the Democrats have bought in, too.
You described the neoliberalism in the Democratic Party, and you describe some of these Trump policies as neoliberal. Every Democrat in both Houses of Congress voted against this tax cut bill.
If the bill is a neoliberal giveaway and the Democrats have also been captured by neoliberalism, how do we understand every Democrat, every single one, voting against it?
I think that’s a totally fair question. For one thing, these things come in degrees. Of course, the Democrats have always been neoliberal with a discount for some humane policies to soften the blow. Those haven’t actually been directed at the old rank and file of the Democratic Party and the white male working class, and that’s why they voted for the populist after waiting so long for the Democrats.
The pretend populist, yes.
I don’t think that’s a tough one to explain. It’s very notable, and the question is whether it portends something other than resistance. If the Democrats and civil society are just in the business of resisting, whether tyranny or tax cuts, then I don’t think they frame an alternative program. It’s to figure out how not to destroy the state, as Democrats have helped do in the past generation, but to figure out what to do with it and to figure out how to construct a transracial majority.
If the white working-class men that you just described have gone populist because of Democrats coming up short in terms of economics, then if Trump delivers plutocracy rather than populism, do you think a lot of them are going to go back?
It’s hard to say. It’s something that many of us would have said in the face of prior tax cuts, but of course it didn’t happen. The fact is that if you look at the world the way I do, these voters don’t understand their own interests perfectly, and so this kind of policy has appealed to people and anti-statism has become something that appeals to the stagnating. I would hope that Trump loses support, and we have to acknowledge that there are a lot of reasons why people voted for Trump, including racism. It’s not as if the white male working class is just going to vote because its interests aren’t being served.
I agree with you that these anti-statist policies actually appeal to the stagnating classes, but does that contradict the idea that the way Democrats should win them back is with big government policies?
I think that Democrats have been so afraid to give it a shot that they’ve colluded with their enemies. That’s true in so many areas: defense, taxation, the welfare state, and so forth. Politics is about convincing people of what’s in their own interests and opposing those who disagree. I’m not a politician. I don’t know exactly. I’m not going to pretend that politics is about rationality. It’s about charisma, and it’s about persuasion. These are tough things, but ultimately, I think that the hypothesis is that ultimately these people are waiting for a message that they think speaks to them, including to their interests.
You may be right. It’s weird, though, because when anti-statist Republicans speak to them, they like it. It makes me more skeptical of the idea that Democrats are going to win them back with the opposite pitch.
I agree, but it’s not all or nothing. Remember, after the op-ed appeared, a lot of people, including you, were extremely distraught because it came out the day before Charlottesville. I agree there’s a hard core of racism in this country, and it’s as much structural as economic injustice, but remember there were a few hundred skinheads in 10 states on the streets of Charlottesville and 60 million who voted for Trump. It’s a matter of peeling some away.
By the way, it’s a matter of serving blacks, too. One very convincing analysis of the election, in my view, is not that the white male working class turned out for Trump, but that urban blacks didn’t turn out for Clinton and not because they were suppressed. Again, what is the kind of party that can turn to class both for blacks and whites and start to assemble a new coalition than the one we’ve seen?
Think back to how many Democrats voted for Bush’s tax cuts and Reagan’s tax cuts. If you had asked me even nine months ago, I would have said there would have been a fair amount of red-state Democrats who would vote to repeal Obamacare in some fashion, but more likely they would vote for these tax cuts. I’m wondering what you think that says that they didn’t do that—if it says more about Trump’s political incompetence and weakness or about the ways in which the Democratic Party is already trending left, even if it’s not trending as far in some directions as you would like.
As of today, I’d have to say that the former explanation makes more sense, that the Democrats are not going to join in Trump’s legislative victories almost no matter what. For them, resistance trumps all. The extent to which you rely on another explanation that says they’ve changed their ways, I don’t know. You can also argue that Democrats have colluded in cutting the welfare state to the bone already, so that there’s nowhere else to go in their eyes.
I hope you’re right, that the worm has turned and we’ll see a very different Democratic Party, but opposing tax cuts is not the same as selling a new economic vision to the country.
You said something to do with Democrats not wanting to be part of any Trump legislative victory. I do think there’s a way in which the fervor of the base, whether it’s been on things like Russia, which I know you don’t think should be as focused on as maybe I do, has made him a toxic figure in some way, which is helpful in resisting some aspects of his economic agenda.
That sounds right to me. Again, I think the Russia investigation ought to be pursued to the end. I don’t differ with you there. I just think again it ought to be done in the context of a bigger game, but absolutely, I think it’s true that we may have been saved from a lot of Democratic Party collusion with Republican policies precisely because of who’s in the driver’s seat of the Republican Party right now.
Since we disagree about how much of a threat Trump poses, I guess I’m curious about what in your mind would set off alarm bells for Americans to take to the streets about this administration being a threat to American democracy. Would it be firing Robert Mueller and closing down the Russia investigation?
That would be disturbing, and I’m not sure. I don’t think there’s rock-solid agreement that the president doesn’t have the power to fire Robert Mueller. He may have to do it through an intermediary. It’s within his constitutional power.
I think the investigation should be pursued to the end, and in the end, there’s the heavy weaponry of impeachment, which is the way you remove a president for suspicion of wrongdoing. I don’t know that two-thirds of the Republicans will ever think Trump needs to be removed, and if he is, it [would be] for someone potentially worse.
I guess I come back to the fact that Trump is in a box. We’ve shown our power with respect to his feints, which is largely what we’ve seen in the direction of policies that are truly beyond the pale. In that situation, we need to focus much more on beating him, first of all, in a congressional majority mounted against him, and in the long run to defeat him the next time around. I just think it’s shortsighted not to focus as soon as possible on what would make those things happen.
I guess my reason to think that we should be scared about something like firing Robert Mueller, even if it is legal, is what it portends, the norms it violates. You say that we want someone to run against Trump and to challenge him. We also want to be in a position where Trump does not use the Justice Department in 2020 to go after his political opponents or something else like that.
That’s entirely fair. Norm violation, even if you think [this country has] never been much of a democracy in the first place, it’s still a very serious matter. Even if people are now willing to agree that there’s no coup in the offing—the military’s not with Trump except to the extent his agenda serves them—we can worry that he’ll abuse his power. We can worry that any president abuses his power, because we’ve created a very powerful institution with norms alone, and often weak ones, restraining it.
I don’t want to fail to concede your point, which is that he’s potentially dangerous in certain circumstances. I think the main takeaway I have after a year is that he’s not as dangerous as many people feared, because he’s much weaker, largely as a result of mobilization and pushback. But that’s resistance alone, and the alternatives need to be much clearer than they have been.
I think for someone like me who was pretty freaked out about Trump when he won, if you asked me what I was most freaked about, it was two things. One was that he was going to weaken our democracy, even if it was already very weak in certain ways, past some sort of breaking point and be a tyrant of some sort. I’m worried about that, but I also think he’s too stupid, and incompetent, and unfocused to really pursue that to the degree to which he could.
It was also that the downside risk of some event, whether fumbling into a nuclear war or just a case of something like 9/11 but worse happening with him as president. If one of those two things were to happen, or something else, it really could be catastrophic for the world. My argument would be that those risks are why he is such a danger.
I think that has some merit. I think I would respond that it’s our fault if we are living in an age of a dysfunctional legislature and have as a result an entire generation that failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate and empowered the president to an extraordinary extent, especially if his name was Barack Obama. Then someone else inherits the job, and that’s not the time to get scared, because power for us. We’ve made presidential power much more absolute now.