«Restoration or Transformative Change? Biden Will Need to Choose». A Conversation with Thomas Wright
Sofia de Benedictis, Jonathan Laurence 30 June 2020

Can the US regain its place as a beacon for democracy and multilateralism in the world? As the country moves closer to an election which could mark the end of a four-year-long political maelstrom, that is the crucial question that many around the world are asking. Reset Dialogues discussed it with Thomas Wright, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic. Perhaps it is not too late, he argues in this conversation; George Floyd’s last words are the modern “shot heard around the world.” As the Covid crisis has pitted populist governments against science and rationality, some having emerged weaker for it, many look in fact to the US for the first time since 2016 for guidance on venting their own frustrations with populism and its consequences. Yet will a Biden administration be up to the task of healing the wounds or have the countervailing forces left too deep a scar?


Dr. Wright, a US Senator wrote an article in Foreign Affairs arguing that the protest movement presents an opportunity for the US to reassert some moral leadership in the world. Would you agree with that?

I remember a small discussion about 15 years ago, with former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who was also a very famous protester in the late 1960s. He talked about how he considered himself to be pro-American because he took his inspiration from the protesters in the Civil Rights movement and from what was happening on campuses.  He was inspired by American culture and American politics, and I think there’s an echo of that today. Very few publics around the world would take any inspiration from Donald Trump. Most of them are appalled by him and fairly disillusioned with what’s happening with the US overall. But the way in which the Black Lives Matter protest spread all over the world, with tens of thousands of people coming out in many different countries, sometimes with larger crowds than in the US, and then it filtering down into dissatisfaction with their own practices on race issues and on policing — I think was a reminder that what Fischer spoke about remains very much true today. What happens in the US matters, the political debates matter and people can take inspiration and lead from that.


Is the Covid crisis a missed opportunity for Trump? He delegated so much power to states in dealing with the virus, when it could have been a moment to centralize his own authority. Isn’t that a contradiction of his own ideology?

He has this powerful view of the executive, but in this case, the irony is that he didn’t want to exercise any of the power. It’s the worst possible crisis for him. It’s the crisis that he is the least equipped to deal with. It involves science, data and public health, very difficult decisions and inter-agency, whole-of-government approaches, and he has no real attention span, he has no ability to know what he doesn’t know, he just assumes he gets what he wants; easy solutions. He loves things like banning travel or closing borders, measures that are eye catching and simple, but the difficult stuff, which Covid involves, he doesn’t want to do at all. He could have sent a different, extraodrinary message. “We had a great economy, we’ve had to shut it down, it’s going to be very difficult for a long time, and I can’t promise anything except that we’re going to get through this, even if it were after the election. I’m going to set politics aside, not to tweet anymore during this crisis or to have personal vendettas. I’m going to invite Nancy Pelosi into the West Wing and appoint a Democrat to the Cabinet, and we’re going to trust the experts and have a national response.” That’s 101 in terms of unifying the country. And I think his approval numbers would have been as high as those of most leaders around the world, who have experienced a huge jump in their popularity because they’re seen as trying to do the right thing. When he faces this crisis, even though there are obvious things he should do, he can’t do them and he just falls apart and defaults to the to the factory settings of Donald Trump, which is to make it all personal, be vindictive, pass responsibility to someone else, and that’s what we’ve seen. If he had any capacity for change, I think this crisis actually could have worked to his political benefit.


Do you think that there are members of the Republican Party that would be willing to curb Trump’s inclinations and preserve the government, fundamentally for what would be the next Democratic administration? 

I’ve always said that the only person who really matters in the administration is Trump. Ultimately, Trump is the most important person in his administration and what he says matters. And I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing play out. Having said that, it is also true that not everybody in the administration is Trumpist, including in his team, particularly at the deputy level, and I think some of them are trying to do the right thing as best they can. I don’t think they will be able to prevail over Trump, but I think they will basically try to keep the ship afloat as best they can over the next six or seven months. So maybe they won’t try to get Trump to do something big and just try to work around him and avoid putting things up to the presidential level. My advice to those officials is: just try to buy time, try to just steady the ship quietly and try to have as many work-arounds as possible, and I think in certain quarters that’s what’s happening.


Have populist governments suffered during this crisis? Have multilateralist or pro-EU forces been strengthened if so?

I don’t know what the answer is to that; it’s possible that everyone loses. But I hope, and I think there’s some evidence behind it, that the crisis will reward expertise, competency, science and data and just a rational approach, and discredit the Trump-Bolsonaro reaction. But in Europe in particular, the crisis is pretty bad and it might get worse later this year. President Macron, I think, has done a reasonable job of responding, but he’s politically pretty damaged by it, and it could quite easily help Le Pen politically in the next French election, so that would be a very big exception to the argument that populists aren’t benefiting. Sometimes these crises can take a while to have their effect, after 2008-9, as Adam Tooze wrote in his 2018 book. If you were to ask the same question in 2012, after Obama’s reelection, you could say it was the dog that didn’t bark, it was evaded and liberalism had won out. But in 2016, the political landscape looked totally different. So, I think there’s still a fair way to go and in Europe in particular it’s complicated, because health is a competency of the national governments, not the EU. There are still a lot of roadblocks to that Franco-German idea of greater European cooperation and that agenda could still all fall apart. The Italians and Spanish and others, I think, would feel pretty aggrieved in that eventuality.


Is the Democratic Party and more specifically a Biden presidency, up to the task of responding to the national shift incited by the Black Lives Matter movement together with the necessary work of repairing a post-Covid/post-Trump world?

I think originally Biden saw himself as a transitional, stabilizing figure, that he would come in after Trump and quieten things down, perhaps not a huge amount would happen, just reversals of Trumpism, maybe a big infrastructure bill, some improvement on health care. But basically, it would be more about a pause, a breathing space or just space for people to return to normal. Then in 2024, there would be open primaries in each party, so that they could figure out what their agenda is for the future. That may have been the rationale behind his candidacy, and it’s not a terrible rationale actually. That’s not very popular with Democratic activists, but it’s the type of thing that could appeal to those Republicans who were voting for Trump before but don’t want him anymore, but wouldn’t want Elizabeth Warren either. I think the challenge that both Covid and the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the economic crisis pose, is that we are headed into a moment when the country probably needs more transformative change. The big question facing Biden, if he wins, is will he go big or will he be more modest and a continuation of Obama? I think on the domestic agenda, the inclinations are generally to go big now, but obviously that depends on the Senate, on foreign policy, which is a bit more divided. I think there are different schools of thought and different impulses in the Biden campaign. I generally describe it as restorationists versus reformers and I think the restorationists would say “we think we need to change too, because things have changed.” It’s the big question the country is asking. On the economic side, on social change domestically and internationally, my own view is that there needs to be a bigger transformative agenda.


Photo: Ralph Alswang / Brookings Institution

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