Historian Anne Applebaum on Trump 'Protest Is Insufficient'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Pulitzer-winning writer and historian Anne Applebaum talks about what the rise of Donald Trump means for Europe, what the future holds for NATO and whether democracy can survive the rise of right-wing populism.

Anne Applebaum, photographed in Notting Hill, London
Andrea Artz/DER SPIEGEL

Anne Applebaum, photographed in Notting Hill, London

Interview Conducted by and


SPIEGEL: Ms. Applebaum, will the world be a more dangerous place with US President Donald Trump or should we stay relaxed?

Applebaum: The world has always been a dangerous place. Now it is dangerous in a different way, because the world order that we've known since the end of the Cold War has been radically transformed. All of the institutions that preserved peace and promoted global trade will be weaker -- NATO, the EU, NAFTA -- and US relationships with other countries will change, too.

SPIEGEL: What are you most afraid of?

Applebaum: I don't want to predict calamity. But I am afraid of a new Russian occupation of parts of Eastern Europe. Also of a new Russian campaign to exert influence in Germany or other parts Europe, aimed at making continental politics less democratic. I am afraid of a US trade war and even a shooting war with China.

SPIEGEL: Do you think these are things that can happen in the short term?

Applebaum: Much depends on who wins the arguments inside the administration. James Mattis, the new defense secretary, said he stands behind NATO, 100 percent. If Obama had said this six months ago, we would have considered this a boring statement. That's how times have changed.

SPIEGEL: Trump distrusts traditional media and has created a new kind of public sphere on Twitter. Does this undermine democracy?

Applebaum: The problem is broader than that. Trump has learned how to function in a world in which people now live in very separate realities, where they get their news from Facebook recommendations and believe in a particular set of facts. Others, who live in a different reality, know quite a different set of facts. He has never tried to reach out to all the American people, he never uses the language of unity, he doesn't try to charm or persuade. He just says, thanks to the people who voted for me and the rest of you are losers.

SPIEGEL: Do you think there is any common ground left between the Trump voters and his opponents?

Applebaum: Take one relatively trivial issue, the incident when he mocked the disabled reporter on a campaign rally. He keeps saying: "I did not do that," and there seem to be people who believe that he did not do it. And yet there is a video clip of him doing it. Although that video clip is available, not everybody has seen it or wants to see it.

SPIEGEL: Trump especially convinced working class people to vote for him...

Applebaum: Yes, though the poorest Americans voted for Clinton, many relatively wealthy people voted for Trump and generally it's a mistake to think that economics explains Trump. The US is doing relatively well, the economy has significantly recovered since 2008, unemployment rates are low. I would say rather that his appeal to the working class was cultural: "I'll bring back the kinds of jobs your fathers had," and, by implication, the whiter, simpler post-war world when America had no real economic competition.

About Anne Applebaum
    Anne Applebaum, 52, is an expert on Russia who won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, "Gulag." The Yale graduate regularly writes for The Washington Post and Foreign Policy, and is married to former Polish Foreign Affairs Minister and Parliamentary Chairman Radoslaw Sikorski.

SPIEGEL: Do you think with President Trump, the US will become a more authoritarian state?

Applebaum: Unlike most European countries, the police in the US are decentralized; even the FBI has regional offices. Amending the constitution is a long and tedious process. But he may undermine some of the traditional checks on the presidency: the press in particular, but also the various government and Congressional ethics bodies, as well as the career civil service.

SPIEGEL: Trump has often said that he admires Putin. Will this be a new friendship?

Applebaum: I don't think either of them really has friends. But Trump has openly admired Putin for many years, with no reservations. He even seems to idolize him. Neither his cabinet appointees nor the civil servants in the Pentagon and the State Department feel the same way, however, so we don't know what this admiration will bring.

SPIEGEL: Trump calls NATO obsolete while cosying up to Putin. What will become of NATO?

Applebaum: Americans have long felt that NATO isn't doing its job and that the Europeans aren't contributing enough. Trump has accelerated the decline in Atlantic solidarity by offering open contempt for NATO allies as well. The future of NATO now very much depends on Europeans. Can you begin to identify security threats, prepare yourselves and arm yourselves without the US?

SPIEGEL: What do you think?

Applebaum: My biggest fear is that Europe won't respond. Particularly Germany: You don't really want to use your military, you don't want to pay for it, you aren't comfortable with military leadership. But European security may now depend on Germany, France, Britain and one or two others, and it's better to start planning now for the possibility of European-only cyber-defense, counter-terrorism, and conventional defense too.

SPIEGEL: Europe is preoccupied with multiple crises -- with high unemployment in many regions, with refugees and Brexit. Then there's Trump, Putin and the rise of right-wing populism. Given this, how should the continent organize a common defense policy?

Applebaum: You can save time by understanding that the surge in right-wing populism and the phenomenon of Trump are related. You can think of them together as the same problem.

SPIEGEL: Isn't that a little bit simplistic? France has a serious terrorism problem which fuels the populists. Germany faces the challenge of migration. In the US, it's the growing divide between the parties, and an unequal economy.

Applebaum: But the language populists use is similar. What is the appeal of Trump, really? As I said, it's nostalgic: "Make America great again." Like European nationalists, he has a vision of a "real" America, one which predates globalization, immigration, feminism, the civil rights movement and technological change, an imaginary 1950s to which we can now return. That is actually not very different from the kind of language that Marine Le Pen uses, or parts of the Brexit movement.

SPIEGEL: How can you argue against this nostalgia?

Applebaum: We can't keep repeating the mantra that "everything is fine." The answer has to lie instead in a new appeal to younger people that stresses the virtues of the current era and offers an imaginative appeal to the future as well. Some European politicians are now trying to do that -- think of the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, Ciudadanos in Spain, Nowoczesna in Poland. These are early efforts to reimagine a liberalism which is neither right-wing nor left-wing in the traditional sense.

SPIEGEL: Are parties becoming unnecessary?

Applebaum: No, but we have the wrong parties. The old battle between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats is now meaningless, not least because the social structures that underlay those parties, the church and the unions, have faded away. Nationalists and populists understood this change earlier; now the rest of the political world needs to understand that the political lines have been redrawn and it's time to change.

SPIEGEL: In London, Theresa May is hoping to find a partner in Trump -- is she right?

Applebaum: I have been told by people close to Trump that "Brexit Britain" is the only foreign policy issue that interests him, because he thinks the UK referendum paved the way for him. He hopes to help Britain leave the EU, and possibly to damage the EU, by offering a trade deal. I worry that May, who is desperate for allies and for "success" will fall into this trap, that the UK will lose its (much larger) trade with Europe in order to gain a trade deal with the US which will not be advantageous for Britain.

SPIEGEL: Are alliances between newly nationalist governments a model for the future?

Applebaum: Ironically, yes: Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, appears to imagine an alliance between Trump, Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage. Call it the populist international, a fraternal association of the nationalist right, binding people who want borders, across borders.

SPIEGEL: Even though these populists are hostile towards internationalism.

Applebaum: They have common views. They hate the EU, they hate NATO, they dislike trade, they admire Russia. Many of them are funded by Putin.

SPIEGEL: Are we witnessing a breakup of the West?

Applebaum: I wrote an article a year and a half ago arguing that we may be reaching the end of the liberal world order. At that time that idea seemed to many people a little hysterical. It seems less hysterical now. We should be worried.

SPIEGEL: Do we risk stumbling into a war?

Applebaum: As I've said, there are plenty of possible worst-case scenarios: Trump is extremely bellicose, as we know, and the Russians have made no bones about the fact that they have nuclear weapons. They talk about them now all the time.

SPIEGEL: Do you think the risk of a nuclear confrontation is growing?

Applebaum: The Soviet Union was, by the 1970s and 1980s, relatively stable and predictable. Putin's Russia is much more volatile. Nuclear policy is really in the hands of one person, or a small group of people, instead of a huge party-state apparatus. The possibility of a mistake is greater now.

SPIEGEL: Russia's defiance of international norms is not unique. China, Turkey and some European states are also beginning to act in ways that are increasingly authoritarian and capricious. Is democracy a failing model?

Applebaum: I believe democracy can survive. But it's certainly true that the euphoria of the 1990s -- an era when democracy was spreading and more and more people found it attractive -- has ended. Trump is not a cause but rather a symptom of this change. Globalization has genuinely drained power away from national politicians and people feel it. People in our fast digital age are also frustrated with the comparably slow democratic processes. Many young people -- and some old people -- want to know, Why does everything take so long? Why can't someone just decide and then move forward?

SPIEGEL: What can we do against this anger and frustration?

Applebaum: We can't continue assuming that politics is something which is decided elsewhere by distant leaders in a distant capital. Protest is insufficient too. If people who are willing to put time into demonstrations also prove willing to work on behalf of candidates in local elections -- or to become candidates themselves -- they will achieve far more. If all of this upheaval provokes more involvement, then we have a slim chance of ending up with more vibrant democracies eventually. The alternative, as you've hinted, is that democracy fails altogether.

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peterboybarker 01/20/2017
1. Trump hate
There are so many anti-Trump stories on this site. He's the democratically elected leader of a country with a democratic tradition. You bandy around the word "populist" like its a dirty word. What you mean is democratically elected but not in line with our/Merkel's thinking. You have the same issues with Brexit. According to you the voters are uninformed/backward; leaders are deluded /uncaring etc. Why can you not get to grips with the fact that a huge amount of people (even many in Germany) have had enough of what currently passes for social democracy (which appears to despise European history and culture)
Jack Howarth 01/20/2017
2. re-arm Germany
A more productive task for Anne would be to convince the Der Speigel readers in Germany that it is appropriate and long past time for them to re-arm their nation and take responsibility for the defense of Europe in proportion to their GDP and population size. American's will no longer tolerate Germany hanging back as a mercantile state relying on the US for its defense. World War II is 70+ years ago and most of us believe the statue of limitations has long since past on using that as an excuse to not carry your own weight.
Wetoldyouso 01/21/2017
3. Consider the source . . .
Applebaum is a classic far left ideologist - she played down the Cologne attacks, supports mass immigration, and loathes nation-states. I'm sure it is eating her up that America elected Trump. She and her class of elitest metro leftists are what got Trump elected and the UK out of the EU. I'm sure she is still refusing to accept responsibility for that.
eks2040@aol.com 01/21/2017
4. Ms. Applebaum ; Protest is Insufficient
I accept the sincerity of her comments, and she may well be convinced of the dangers. I also assume that her marriage to Polish Politician R. Sikorski may influence her, in addition to focus on Russia. Her employer, the Washington Post is known for the opposition to President Trump, having hired and dedicated 36 reporters to cover Trump and his actions. Kindly allow for some balance in your reporting.
dinerouk61 01/21/2017
5. Left-wing revolt
The left are upset because their liberal, free-for-all ethos is being usurped by the right. Why cannot protestors accept the democratic votes both in the USA or the UK and stop constantly whining about it not being correct to vote for this person or that, as they are too right-wing or not what they wanted. This rejection of legal voting purely on ideological grounds is not correct either and may rebound on them.
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