INTERVIEW

David Remnick: ‘The United States has been an imperfect democracy since its founding’

The editor of ‘The New Yorker’ talks to EL PAÍS about Donald Trump and the deepening ideological differences his country faces as it heads toward elections in November

David Remnick, the editor of ‘The New Yorker.’
David Remnick, the editor of ‘The New Yorker.’Hindustan Times /

The night that Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election, David Remnick, the editor of the prestigious magazine The New Yorker, impulsively wrote a column that went viral within seconds. “The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic,” he wrote. “[It is] a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. [...] Fascism is not our future – it cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so – but this is surely the way fascism can begin.” Four years on, Remnick says he would not change a word of it.

Remnick was born in New Jersey and has been the editor of The New Yorker since 1998. The 61-year-old is an internationally renowned columnist. His book Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire won the Pulitzer prize in 1994. And since then, he has written a number of books and profiles on the most powerful men in politics, such as former US presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Over the last four years, Remnick has also written dozens of columns on the authoritarian personality of the current Republican president of the United States. “If Donald Trump possessed a soul, a trace of conscience or character, he would resign the presidency. He will not resign the presidency,” he wrote in one of his latest pieces.

Remnick spoke to EL PAÍS from his apartment in Manhattan, just days before The New Yorker decided to publicly endorse Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden for president ahead of the upcoming election in November. In the endorsement, the magazine wrote that in the United States “public institutions [are] threatened but not yet defeated.”

Question. Four years ago journalists did not know that Trump was going to win. What lessons did that experience bring to journalism?

Answer. I was never under the illusion that The New Yorker was a polling organization. So I, of course, admit entirely that we were surprised by the outcome. But surprises happen in the history of American elections, there’s no question. On election eve, the web [team] had little or nothing prepared for the eventuality of a Trump victory. We had a lot prepared for the first woman president, Hillary Clinton, that was on what we call push-button readiness. I went to a party to watch the results and I figured that the outcome would be by 10pm. Hillary would be ahead, we would press those buttons and our job would be finished.

But instead, I’m watching like everybody else, incredulous, as we started seeing patterns, and the most telling pattern was that in Trump areas, or Republican areas, Trump was getting much higher than expected. In other words, we expected him to win in rural Pennsylvania or non-urban Florida. But he was winning by bigger margins than expected.

By 10pm, I had made the mistake of having a rather healthy beverage. I never carry my laptop with me, but I happened to have it with me and I went into the kitchen of this apartment and I wrote in very short order a piece called An American Tragedy, basically to be a good team player so that we had a piece for the next day. It was a very angry piece and it looked forward to what I thought was going to be a terrible period of American history.

So yes, the polls were wrong, surprises do happen, but much more profoundly, why did they happen? And I think we’re still trying to sort that out today. I don’t think there’s one reason. Clearly Trump had been preceded by a Black president, by Barack Obama, and there was a reaction to that. So it’s absolutely true to say that racism, or at least a tolerance to overlook racism and Donald Trump, was a huge factor. Was it the only factor? I don’t think so. I don’t believe in mono-causal outcomes. But it was enormously important.

Q. How can we avoid an omission like that one in 2016?

A. I think we’ve become much more cautious about polls. Right now, the polls have Joe Biden ahead by six, seven, eight points, which is a lot nationally. He’s ahead with significant margins in places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, places that Trump won last time. But do I think Donald Trump has a chance to have a second term? Absolutely. I absolutely do think he has a chance. I would be an idiot not to. The definition of an idiot is somebody who never learns from experience.

I think part of the tragedy is the depths of the division in our society. From my side, the inability of thousands of people to recognize that we have a president whose every instinct is anti-democratic, authoritarian, who plays on racism so blatantly, whose main personality is contempt. Contempt for Hispanics, for Black people, for democratic institutions, for science. He didn’t invent these tendencies in American life, but like the [coronavirus] pandemic itself, he’s brought it into high relief.

Q. After Trump won, you interviewed Barack Obama and he said the following: “Trump understands the new ecosystem, in which facts and truth don’t matter. You attract attention, rouse emotions and then move on.” Obama was very charismatic and Trump, to his supporters, is also a very charismatic person. Is Trump still winning in this ecosystem?

A. Trump, as a demagogue, has mad skills. He can be funny, demonically funny. But there’s an element to him, and the origins are obvious from show business, that he has an entertainment background. Look how he dominated cable television in 2016. Why? Because it was fantastic ratings. We now think of CNN as so critical, but CNN was just giving him hours and hours and hours of free airtime because ratings were up when he was on the air.

The problem is that one ecosystem seems to be impenetrable. In other words, if you live in an ecosystem that you create on social media or however, that you created it psychically or technologically, of Fox News and Breitbart and Infowars and QAnon, you can create an information universe for yourself. When I was young, there were three television networks, and you read a newspaper and the ideological range was [very narrow]. Now, the ideological range is much vaster, and you can inhabit just one side or the other if you so choose. Roger Ailes came up with a brilliant invention when he came up with Fox News. It spoke to a lot of people, but he was incredibly unscrupulous in the way he did it and his utter disregard of facts was amazing. This may shock you, but I think it is possible to have a conservative view of the world without living outside the realm of facts. Technology changed a lot of the equation here.

Q. Now we have a Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, who lacks the charisma of Obama or and Trump. How can he win despite that?

A. Obama was an outlier. Most politicians don’t have those kinds of charismatic skills that Obama did, it’s very unusual. Lyndon Johnson didn’t have that, Richard Nixon didn’t have that. John Kennedy obviously did. Joe Biden has something else, and maybe the time is right for it. One of the biggest deficits in Trump is a lack of empathy. It is very clear that he does not give a shit about anybody, other than himself and maybe a few other people. It’s very obvious. And the people he pretends to love, he despises as well. The idea of him as a leader of the working class is just on the face of it, preposterous, both in policy and in character. But he’s a fantastic demagogue.

Joe Biden’s quality, you might find corny, it’s certainly not terribly intellectual, but I think when people listen to them, they get a sense of a kind of emotional genuineness. Sincerity. He advertises to a great degree the tragedies that have occurred in his personal life, the loss of his wife and small child many years ago, and the loss of a grown child much more recently. I think people find that in him genuine, and it’s the polar opposite of the lack of empathy in Trump.

Right now, why is Biden winning? Certainly not for economic reasons. It’s because the pandemic has highlighted not only what a terrible administrator and executive Donald Trump is, but also that he doesn’t particularly care about people. We’re speaking on a day where it was announced that 200,000 Americans had died. I don’t think Donald Trump invented the virus. He’s not responsible for the outbreak of a virus. But you’re judged on how you respond to it and he responded to it with immense cynicism as well as incompetence. A lot of people are dead in a lot of different countries, but we seem to have done far worse than many others, despite the level of science and medicine that we have in the United States.

Q. And despite all that, Trump still has the support of the Republican Party. How has that party changed in the past years?

A. I think cynicism is at the root of this. Starting in the 1930s we’ve seen two, very broadly speaking, two epical periods in American history. The period that begins with the New Deal that’s characterized by Rooseveltian democratic politics, which then takes in things like Lyndon Johnson and the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. Then you have the other main tenet, the rise of a countervailing tendency, which is the rise of [Republican president] Ronald Reagan who was elected for the first time in 1980. His influence is not only on his own party, but on the Democrats, too. It was a Democratic president who declared “the era of big government is over.” That was Bill Clinton. Some people would call that neoliberalism. And there are critics even of Barack Obama who find at least some of his politics – although I don’t think it’s fair – are characterized by the hangover of Reaganism.

What you’re seeing in the Democratic Party is a debate between say [Democratic lawmaker] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or [Democratic senator] Bernie Sanders against this other more centrist side. But what’s so horrifying about the Republican Party is, in addition to the things that I find objectionable ideologically, the component of just immense cynicism. In 2016, during the presidential campaign, [Republican senator] Lindsey Graham called Donald Trump a bigot and a xenophobe. Now he’s his best buddy and they play golf together. [Republican senator] Mitch McConnell wants two things in life, ideologically: lower taxes and as many right-wing judges as you can in every court in the United States. I don’t think he likes Donald Trump, but he sees him as a useful idiot.

In 2016, Mitch McConnell blocked the Supreme Court nomination by Barack Obama of Merrick Garland, with eight months to go before the election. He invented this reason that a campaign has begun, and [Republican senator] Lindsey Graham said, well, of course, if this happens again, we will be consistent in our principles. Well, that’s total horseshit. And Lindsey Graham just finds a way to rationalize it. The level and instances of cynicism are outsized and beyond reckoning. This is in the realm of politics, where cynicism is an everyday occurrence. So to distinguish yourself for cynicism in politics is an achievement.

Q. You were a correspondent in the Soviet Union when it collapsed. Outside the US, people are debating if Donald Trump will bring an end to the country as a superpower. What do you think of those debates?

A. Russia has been in an authoritarian political realm for a thousand years, communism was a 70-year episode, and now it’s authoritarian again. The illusion, that lasted from about 1989 to the mid 1990s, was that Russia would somehow transform itself into a constitutional democracy. It didn’t turn out that way.

The United States has been an imperfect democracy since its founding. It was stained from the start not only by the near elimination of its indigenous peoples but also by the institution of slavery and Jim Crow laws [that enforced racial segregation in the southern United States]. But there has always been an America at its best as well, which is at least trying to achieve its ideals as a constitutional democracy, despite all its flaws.

The struggle that we’ve seen since election night [in 2016] is a stress test of that imperfect democracy. We’ve always had stresses on our democracy, but we’ve never had it quite so profoundly from its commander in chief. That’s the danger. In foreign policy, for example, it’s very nice what the secretary of defense or the secretary of state thinks, but in the end, one person decides. His power is immense and so is, unfortunately, his malevolence and his incompetence. That’s the drama. How much of this stress test can we stand?

Q. Are you worried about Donald Trump’s reelection and how it would hurt the US' democratic institutions?

A. Of course I worry about it. The attorney general has proven himself repeatedly willing to violate a sense of what the law is. When I hear an attorney general of the United States using the word “sedition” to describe protests, which are constitutionally protected in the First Amendment, or when I have a president who describes a free press as enemies of the people – which is a phrase used by the Jacobins after the French Revolution and then more prominently by Stalin – then, of course, my concerns are profound.

Even if Biden is elected, we still have in front of ourselves a crisis that makes the pandemic look like child’s play. There is no vaccine for climate change. The degree of economic transformation, policy initiative and international cooperation that’s needed to move the dial on climate change so that we’re not in a state of ruin in large parts of the world is immense. But how can that possibly move forward if the president of the United States is of the firm belief that the whole question is a Chinese hoax? You can’t.

I don’t think the United States is the only problematic country in the world. Autocracy has taken hold in a way I never would have imagined. The year 1989 was the first time we were hearing about climate change in any serious way, and democracies really did seem to blossom in so many parts of the world: Eastern Europe, Central Europe, Latin America. But a very short period of time has proven how fragile these things are. The United States has the great advantage of being in the constitutional democratic game for well over two centuries, which matters. But things are fragile, institutions are fragile, publications are fragile.

Q. But even with all these challenges, dissent and civil society have been stronger than ever in these past four years: from protests in airports against the travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries to the protests of Black Lives Matter. What role have these movements played?

A. I think we should be inspired by that. What was really encouraging about the Black Lives Matter movement was not only the scale of the protests. This wasn’t just one protest march in the streets of Washington or Minneapolis or New York. This was everywhere. It was even in small towns in upstate New York, which often didn’t have any Black people. So that was encouraging. And also, they were incredibly diverse. They included people of all kinds: Black, white, brown, Asian. The final encouraging thing is that the polls – although we worry sometimes about polls – but the polls showed that the great majority of the people in the United States, people who would probably never dream to go out on the streets themselves, were in favor of the movement. That’s encouraging.

Look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who I find to be a talented young politician. But somebody of her politics is not necessarily going to win in every district in the country. She’s a New York City figure and New York City, generally speaking, is to the left of Kansas, left to rural Missouri. But to see a movement like that, gain much wider purchase, is encouraging.

So there’s hope despite the fact that we just lost a great dissenter, [Supreme Court judge] Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was 87 years old. Or [civil rights leader] John Lewis, who I knew pretty well was. They lived good, long lives. We can cherish their memory and learn from them and value what they accomplished.

I’m not a praying man, but I think I know from the Bible that the only unforgivable sin is despair. I know that people are anxious. But a lot of what’s happened in the last period of time gives me enormous hope about the resilience and courage and intelligence of so many people and their determination to not just to return to normal, but also to achieve their country.

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