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The Rise Of Populism Abroad: It's Not Just Trump


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon, coming to you this week from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. I understand the World Series is being played in town, a World Series between the Cubs and the Indians in the heart and soul of America.

But if you've been looking for a break from election news - not yet. Stay tuned. We're going to be joined now by Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to NATO. Mr. Ambassador, thanks for being with us.

IVO DAALDER: It's great to be here.

SIMON: And I'm introducing you as a statesman. But you flew back from Shanghai for the World Series, didn't you?

DAALDER: Yeah, kind of - at least for the last game of the NLCS.

SIMON: You are the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, as we note. And you've spoken out about a tide of populism you see rising in the West - Western Europe and the United States. What have you seen?

DAALDER: Well, you see increasing anxiety in both the United States and in Europe about the conditions - both economic and, in some ways, demographic - of many people in these countries. There is a fear that growing globalization and, particularly, technological change is leaving sort of the middle class and the lower class behind economically - that the future, economically, is worse for the next generation than for this generation.

That combined with the changing demographic nature of societies in the West, in part because of immigration and migration in Europe and in immigration here - but also just the changing nature of society. Increasingly non-white people are becoming part of the fabric of our society. And there is an anxiety, particularly among white Americans but also in Europe, that their future is at stake.

So they're looking for new solutions. And they're therefore ripe to graft on to political solutions put forward by populists who are campaigning against the elite and the establishment as a way to fundamentally change societies.

SIMON: Populist is one word. I think you've also used the phrase the new demagogue.

DAALDER: Yes, because, in some ways, the solutions being offered by some of these populist leaders are simplistic. They won't work. They're not going to deal with the fundamental nature of a change in society effectively, whether it is an end to an immigration policy or an end to free trade or building bigger walls or taller fences.

These are not lasting solutions. They are - they're placebos in some ways. But they're offered in a in a populist way, in a way that says it's all the fault of the elites. It's all the fault of the establishment. Elect me or put me in charge, and everything will be fine. And that is a kind of demagoguery.

SIMON: But if politics doesn't address those concerns, can any government be effective?

DAALDER: Well, politics needs to address those concerns. And government needs to be more effective in understanding the anxiety that is producing the support for populist movements. And that is the challenge. It's a challenge to the elites.

It's a challenge to the party establishment that exists to start thinking through the kinds of policies that are going to start addressing the anxieties that are out there. They're not simplistic. These are tough things to do. But they're not impossible to do.

We can have trade policies and adjustments to employment conditions that take account of technological change, that take account of the fact that there may be cheaper labor in other places through retraining and education. But it will take investment. It will take time.

And at a time of anxiety, it's much easier to support somebody who's offering simplistic solutions than to work with an elite that, in some ways, has failed many of them for quite a while - quite a long time.

SIMON: Forgive me. I have Wrigley Field throat today. We want to turn to - we have another guest in the studio, another Chicagoan by way of Sarajevo, another great city. Aleksandar Hemon, the writer, the novelist, the essayist has also received a MacArthur grant for his work. His latest book is "The Book Of My Lives." Thank you for also being with us, Sasha.

ALEKSANDAR HEMON: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: And, recognizing we have to be careful with this, do you see any trends in the United States and Western Europe now that you recognize from Bosnia?

HEMON: I do, of course. There was a rise of populism in former Yugoslavia - Yugoslavia before the war. The difference was - and it's important difference - that the populist leaders, particularly Slobodan Milosevic, had access to the state infrastructure, to the police and the army and the secret police and the Parliament and so on, which is a major difference.

And with those infrastructural elements, he waged a war. So I do not expect a civil war here. I do expect a damaging period, a period where the infrastructure will be damaged. There will be an increased social disorder.

SIMON: When you say infrastructure, you don't mean roads and bridges. But you mean...

HEMON: Well, that's already, you know, not doing too well.

SIMON: What politically holds the country...

HEMON: Sort of a fraying of social fabric, the fraying off of a common reality. We're already seeing this - that, you know, the people who hate Hillary Clinton - whatever new fact about her comes up - it's absorbed into this narrative. So there's no undoing of the narrative.

And similarly, on the side of Clinton supporters are anti-Trump supporters. There's nothing that Trump can do right now that would change him from what we already know and believe he is. So that makes any kind of negotiation or compromise-making increasingly difficult.

But the alternative to that, if some solution needs to be found, is conflict. And we're moving in the direction of conflict.

SIMON: I was struck by your reasoning a couple of months ago. You decided not to add your name to an open letter that was opposing Donald Trump's candidacy. And share your reasoning with us, if you could, please.

HEMON: Well, I thought that, you know, if you find - if one finds American democracy to be a legitimate operation, then there's nothing we can do about Trump being where he is. He followed all the rules of American electoral procedures. And this - it's what it is. But if we find - and we could - the American political system that allows for Donald Trump, then we should object to that system.

So, in other words, that letter should've been not about Trump but a political context or situation or a society that allows Donald Trump to be where his and allows a set of conditions that enable Donald Trumps in the United States to become so prominent and to have so much power in a given situation. In other words, you're either political from the beginning or just stay out of it.

SIMON: But he's put his name on a ballot. He's given the American people a chance to vote for him or someone else.

HEMON: Yes. So he - that's the job interviews. You know, I'm terrified by that fact. But he's - the job interview's on. If American people elect him, then we'll have to contend with it. And there will be other ways to contend with it - I mean, not just signing letters.

SIMON: Yeah. As I believe a politician once told me, there - the 23 people who've won the Nobel Prize at the University of Chicago don't get any more votes than 23 people who think they've had sex with space aliens.

HEMON: That's right.

SIMON: And that's democracy. I say that with respect. Ambassador Daalder, do you have any concerns over the next 10 days that this election will be an election - and there'll be a transfer of power - but things - events - will happen thereafter?

DAALDER: I think there will be an election. I think we will count the votes. The votes will lead to one winner or another. And then I hope that whoever loses accepts that result. There is, in part because of the heat of this election campaign - the deep polarization we're seeing - there's reason to worry that that may not be the case for everyone.

We see reports in newspapers - yesterday in The New York Times - and other papers of interviews with supporters of, in this case, Donald Trump. And there may be supporters of Hillary Clinton who feel the same way - that the system is rigged and that the outcome of an election should not be accepted and lead to actions that are extraconstitutional or certainly illegal.

And that's the fear. The fear is that populism makes this not about an electoral ballot but really about the future, fundamentally of oneself within one society. And it - and populists win, in particular, not only by having solutions that people can hang onto but by demonizing the opposition. And that's the danger in the society we're living into today.

And it's not just in the United States. It's beyond that, which means that the period after November 8 really is the critical period because that will determine whether our electoral system and democratic system based on on the alternation - the peaceful alternation - of power is acceptable.

My sense is we still live in a country where that will happen, as it indeed has happened in, say, Great Britain, where Brexit won. And the remaining forces said, we'll leave government. And now somebody else will need to take care of it. And it's moving forward. Not easy - but it's moving forward within the established order.

SIMON: Aleksandar Hemon, as a man of letters, are - in the minute we have left, are Americans speaking the same language when it comes to the news and facts and politics these days?

HEMON: No. I think there's a fraying of common reality. And I think that in itself is something that will have to be repaired to - the sense that we all live in the same country has been severely damaged.

I also worry about - and this is what I've seen for Yugoslavia - this natural human belief in the inertia of reality - that everything will continue as it is because it can't be any other way - so that what we cannot imagine cannot happen.

SIMON: It can't happen here.

HEMON: Right. And so - but it can. It'll happen in ways...

SIMON: You sure saw that in Saudi Arabia.

HEMON: Right. It'll happen in a way that we cannot imagine right now. And the fact that everyone's claiming, no, no, it can't happen is in itself a symptom of the possibility of it happening.

SIMON: Ambassador Daalder?

DAALDER: Well, that's one of the fears. It's - and we are living in uncertain times. One hopes that the reality that one believes in will continue. And probably, we'll only find out that it isn't after it's too late.

SIMON: Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Aleksandar Hemon, author of "The Book Of My Lives," among so many other fine books. I want to thank both of you for being with us. Thanks.

HEMON: Thank you.

DAALDER: Great to be here.

SIMON: Pleasure to be with you here at the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.