Hatred is not a word that I would personally use. I don’t hate President Obama. I think he’s a good man, a good family man, but someone I disagree with on policy. But there’s no question that there are a lot of strong feelings about him. That’s not unique to Obama, though – it’s kind of the nature of politics these days. It has gotten so divided and so intense that leaders on both sides tend to be quite disliked by the other side.
There is a lot of disappointment with Obama’s presidency. He came into office as someone who was promising hope and change, someone who was supposed to be a transformational figure, and his presidency hasn’t accomplished that much. The legacy of his presidency, basically, is that of disappointment – and of Trump. Trump’s election was a reaction to eight years of Obama. People wanted a different direction. Obama couldn’t hand it off to a successor who would preserve his policies. You look at successful presidents, like Ronald Reagan, who was able to get that third term by handing it off to his vice-president, George H.W. Bush, who won handily in 1988.
“Instead of selling a bipartisan immigration reform bill, Obama kind of poisoned the well by issuing executive orders which were hated by Republicans.”
Obama basically governed by executive order, and didn’t work with Congress. Certainly there are different perspectives within both parties, but on an issue like immigration, there was a willingness to work across the aisle – you saw the Senate pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill, and instead of selling it in the House, he kind of poisoned the well by issuing executive orders which were hated by Republicans. He never worked with Congress, he never built relationships across the aisle – he came into office with an entirely Democratic congress, and they over-reached in those first two years. Instead of working on a bipartisan healthcare package, it was my way or the highway, and it set a bad tone, and he wasted a lot of his capital early on.
“There’s a sense that this White House – not just the president but the administration in general – has been somewhat arrogant.”
I’m sure that for some, it is personal, but I think by and large, it’s about policy. I do think there’s a sense that this White House – not just the president but the administration in general – has been somewhat arrogant. That’s a word you hear commonly associated with the Obama White House. You can’t make a blanket statement about everybody’s motives, but by and large, the Republican party’s opposition to Obama has been policy-related. Just as I don’t think Democrats had anything against George W. Bush personally – I think that was just about policy.
In my time in politics, it has gotten more divided and more divisive with every election cycle. You’re seeing a real rift within the country over attitudes. I think this election shows that – that Trump could win a pretty convincing victory in the Electoral College, winning in places where Republicans don’t win, like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, while Hillary Clinton took a pretty convincing win in the popular vote, because she racked up such huge margins on the coasts, in traditionally Democratic states like California, New York and Massachusetts. It just shows how divided the country is.
We used to call ‘alternative facts’ lies! But lets go with the phrase ‘alternative facts’.
We’re in a post-truth era, and very strange things are happening in the world. I watched CNN at the weekend and ideologues are still supporting Trump – it doesn’t matter what he does. And with the Brexit debate in the UK, we’re seeing similar things happen. I don’t want to sound like a typical liberal left wing remainer, but if you look at the reality versus the bravado of how Brexit is being discussed by some of the media, there’s no relation to what’s actually happening.
At the end of the day, I think journalists, and newspaper journalists specifically, have always thought more of ourselves than perhaps the world does. We know now because we have analytics, that hard news – public service journalism – isn’t at the top of the list. Cat memes are. I hate to admit it but that’s the truth. Pictures or videos of funny dogs, those are the kind of things that draw that kind of volume. There is a niche audience for public service journalism for fact checking, for counter post truth.
“In the era of all the noise, truth is still important and valuable.”
I think the only way to fight back is to start doing what journalists do best, which is to offer a service that is fact-based, that is accountable in terms of its role in journalistic accountability, and to try and stand out from the noise that way. In the era of all the noise, truth is still important and valuable. If journalism and journalists want to fight back, then rigorous fact checking is the way to do it. You have to go where the audience is. Nobody can say I’m going to retreat back to print and hope the audience comes – you have to work in the landscape we live in, and we live in a digital era, so these journalists are going to have to accept that.
There will be less journalism, there will be fewer jobs for reporters and for news, but the news that remains has to stay true to itself. It’s a simple, old-fashioned approach to storytelling where integrity, impartiality, and the facts are sacred – that’s what matters.
One of the best examples of that has been in recent weeks where the Washington Post have a Donald Trump factometer of sorts, so every tweet that Donald Trump publishes, you can put it through a fact-checking process, and it will say ‘This objectively isn’t true’, or, ‘This objectively is true’, or ‘There’s context missing’. That role for the journalists is important, and readers appreciate a reliable source. We know for example that the New York Times has seen a surge of subscriptions off the back of its coverage of the American presidential election.
So it’s going to be niche, it’s not going to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but if professional journalists want to fight back, the best way to do that is to stay true to traditional journalism. It’s about objectivity, impartiality, and holding power to account.
A Trump presidency doesn't necessarily mean the end of the United States as a policeman but it does mean that the US is going to be stepping back during the next four years from a number of roles that it's traditionally taken. The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of the era in which the United States had assumed the role of policing the world. But Donald Trump doesn’t think like that. He thinks more in transactional terms about alliances than any previous American president – certainly the only American president since the end of the Second World War.
I don't necessarily think that he's going to go through with all the promises that he made in the run up to the elections because I think a lot of what he said was campaign rhetoric.And in any case there will be a lot of other people in institutions like Congress, in the military and in the State Department whose main interests lie in maintaining things like American military bases abroad, upholding American alliances, keeping America’s membership prominent in NATO and that kind of thing. But certainly Donald Trump doesn't have the instinct to have the US carry out global policing duties in the interest of preserving the US-led world order, that presidents of both parties have done since the end of the Cold War.
"The problem is that the US has been the world's policeman for such a long time that we don't know what could happen with existing security arrangements."
But how this will play out is not clear. The problem is that the US has been the world's policeman for such a long time that we don't know what could happen with existing security arrangements. We just don’t know how they will hold with the US no longer as engaged.
Some things will no doubt require a strong police presence from the US. I think we can probably confidently assume that the major danger points are in the Middle East and in the Asia-Pacific region with Eastern Europe a possibility as well.
And here’s the worry: Trump will probably try to limit the US military deployments in Europe that are currently seen as a means of containing Russia. He will try to renegotiate the US relationship with Russia. But while the attitude towards Russia is expected to soften, by the same token he will probably be much more aggressive in the Pacific. Trump clearly thinks that the major strategic challenge to the United States is China, so he will be very friendly to Russia.
We certainly live in times when facts are treated differently in public debate, but it is worth pinning down what has changed and what hasn’t. There is nothing new in politicians deliberately making inaccurate claims to suit their agendas; that is as old as politics itself. What feels different today is the way they respond when their claims are refuted.
“What has changed in recent years is that some politicians in democratic countries have shed the fear of being caught in lies.”
In the past, public figures tended to be uncomfortable when it was shown they had said something untrue, because public opinion frowned on demonstrable falsehood. Instead, they often relied on half-truths and equivocation – conveying the impression they wanted without explicitly stating falsehoods. The outright lie was associated with dictatorships, where politicians had no fear of public refutation.
What has changed in recent years is that some politicians in democratic countries have shed the fear of being caught in lies. They are prepared knowingly to assert a falsehood and, when rebuttal follows, to respond either by denigrating the source of the rebuttal or by brazenly doubling up on the falsehood. Thus Michael Gove was prepared to say, during the Brexit campaign, that the UK had had enough of experts, while Donald Trump dismisses press rebuttals of his claims as the work of the dishonest liberal media and U.S. mainstream journalism is currently debating.
For this change to have occurred it was not enough that politicians became more aggressive. The public changed. While most people probably still dislike demonstrable falsehood, there is greater uncertainty about who is qualified to demonstrate it. Over a long period, and accelerating since the crash of 2008, trust in institutions, including the media, has declined. Many people feel hostility towards politics and towards social structures which they believe have served them poorly. Thus, the politician who lies brazenly today knows that many voters do not trust the experts and the mainstream media whose responsibility it is to challenge the lie. At the very least there will be doubt and confusion, which often seems to be enough, especially if another big lie follows in short order.
“For this change to have occurred it was not enough that politicians became more aggressive. The public changed.”
Changes in communications helped make this possible. The ‘filter bubble’ effect means that the increasing number of people who receive news online, and particularly through social media, may see only the lie and the dismissal of any rebuttal, or alternatively they may see only the rebuttal. Many people therefore never even glimpse the whole picture, or see it summarised. This effect is exacerbated in the UK, where the extreme partisanship of the corporate press (overwhelmingly pro-Conservative and pro-Brexit, for example) has led to very weak public fact-checking of claims by the politicians these papers support.
Syria. Let’s recognise the magnitude of what we’re talking about here. Half a million dead, in five years. Eleven million displaced, or refugees. It’s not just the magnitude of that; it becomes a focal case that everybody watches, that everybody looks at. Vietnam was not just a failure back in the 1960s and 70s because America was defeated – it was what Vietnam symbolised for American power around the world for many decades afterwards. So Syria becomes a symbolic failure of American power, and American values, for decades to come.
As a president, you can anticipate the way things go. It isn’t the case that Syria completely caught Obama by surprise. If things go completely pear-shaped in a country, as president you either have to say ‘We’re standing aside from this, however bad it gets for the people there,’ or you can say ‘We will not tolerate a leader mass-murdering his people.’ What Obama said, in 2011, was ‘We will not tolerate a leader mass-murdering his people.’ We remember the ‘red line’ on chemical attacks, but there was also basically a red line on mass murder – and Assad had started doing precisely that, well before the chemical attacks.
A burning house in Homs, Syria, after government bombing (Photo: Bo Yaser)
Obama had put himself in a position where you either back that up, and at least protect some of these people, or you stand aside. If Obama had said at this point ‘You know what? This is just too difficult. We just can’t protect these people,’ it’s a horrible decision, but it’s there. But what he continued to do was give the public the idea that Assad was terrible, while blocking any effective action. That’s why August 2013 is such a marker – it’s not the numbers of deaths, but the fact that Assad used chemical weapons, Obama had said we were going to protect these people, and then invisibly U-turns, and walks away from them.
The short answer is: he won’t. The genie is out of the bottle in terms of globalisation. We live in a global world. So the idea that we can just build walls and imagine that the problems out there won’t affect us is misreading what the 21st century is about.
If you try to go down that path, you’re going to build a wall and for a short time you might have the illusion of America First or making America great again. But those problems are going to come over the wall. For example the EU has learned the hard way that not paying attention to Syria actually has an impact on the EU itself.
Not paying attention to how societies govern themselves when they break apart catastrophically has an impact on the West. And the West is the only power that can really clean up these messes or prevent them in the first place. I think most people would say if we could have dealt with Syria in 2010 and brokered a peace deal, oh my God that would have been worth the money.
"That said, the line Make America Great Again is brilliant. It taps into the feeling of loss of white identity. That's the beast that Trump woke up in white rural America."
The more that you ignore the problem, the more that you just blind yourselves to the eventual deluge of a much bigger problem down the road. That’s what Trump’s America first policy is risking. To my mind it’s believing that we can just go back to some fake nostalgia for a period that was actually less prosperous and less safe than it is now. It’s really shortsighted. That said, the tagline 'Make America Great Again' is brilliant. There are a lot of people who feel nostalgic for the past because they don’t like multiculturalism. This idea of identity politics to make America great again is genius. It really taps into the feeling of loss of white identity, and to people who are uncomfortable with the complexion of the electorate and how it’s becoming darker really respond to this. That’s the beast he really woke up in white rural America.
Brian Klass is the author of The Despot’s Accomplice: How The West Is Aiding And Abetting The Decline Of Democracy.