This week in Say More, PS talks with Ian Buruma, the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Year Zero: A History of 1945, A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, and, most recently, The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.
Project Syndicate: In 2019, you wrote that politicians who whip up “tribal hatreds” and encourage “the hooligan spirit” do serious damage to liberal democracy. The January 6 attack on the US Capitol, spurred by then-President Donald Trump, was a quintessential example of a political leader making people “feel licensed to violate all norms of civilized behavior.” A year later, do you think any progress has been made toward recorking the genie? Or is the focus on the “deplorable” behavior of some still distracting from the problems that Trump exploited?
Ian Buruma: I do not think the genie has been recorked at all. The lie that the election was “stolen” from Trump still has more than 60% of Republican voters convinced. Groups that believe that the country is being taken away from them, or that white Americans are being “replaced” by minorities and immigrants of color, view violence as a legitimate way to fight back. Trump’s re-election would, in their minds, give them license to act on that perception. Three retired US generals have warned of another, more serious insurrection – and “lethal chaos” within the US military – in 2024. That is why all democrats – and not just Democrats – must take every legal step possible to reduce the chances of such an outcome. To focus on the “deplorable” behavior of mobs may be a distraction, but to hold people who manipulate and spur them on accountable is essential.
PS: Last February, you predicted that US President Joe Biden’s “lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength.” A “brilliant or heroic man,” which Biden is not, would be less likely than a “skilled political operator,” which he is, to deliver the new New Deal that the United States needs. And, in terms of legislation, Biden has indeed accomplished far more than Trump, despite much smaller congressional majorities. But with his approval rating sinking, how might Americans be convinced that they need a Neville Chamberlain – not a Winston Churchill – to lead them through today’s crises?
IB: First of all, a Churchill is the last thing the US needs right now. Churchill was inspiring in war, but his leadership style was not at all suited to peace. While Biden’s approval rating is low now, that probably mostly reflects surging COVID-19 infections and steadily climbing inflation. Once the pandemic is under control and inflation comes down, his popularity may well again start rising. Alas, this may not happen before next year’s midterm elections.