Ep. 34 Jacob Heilbrunn: The Rise of Autocracy and the Demise of the Western Alliance?

Heilbrunn, Editor of the National Interest, reviews recent actions by President Trump and has one word of advice for citizens: “Panic.”



NICIE PANETTA: This is The MidPod, the midterms podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We are two moms traveling America to bring you the voices of the 2018 midterm elections. Our democracy is in trouble and we are here to help you become a more active citizen. We interview candidates, activists and experts on important issues. We profile key congressional races in depth, and we hold a citizens potluck supper in every district we visit. Join us in our quest to rebuild trust in our democracy, one congressional district at a time.

This week we have a special bonus podcast for you. We were in Washington D.C. and had the opportunity to interview Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest. Full disclosure: Jacob Heilbrunn has been a friend of mine for many years. We interviewed Heilbrunn on the morning of June 11th before the North Korea Summit meeting. He has a message of concern for Americans about the isolationist and authoritarian direction of the Trump administration and the absence of an effective response from Congress. Heilbrunn wants us to understand that whatever the outcome of the North Korea meeting, the Trump administration may be in the process of cutting loose our closest allies and abandoning the post World War II international order.


NICIE: Would you like to just by way of background share your thoughts about what the expectations for this G7 meeting that's just been completed were, and then talk a little bit about what happened.

JACOB HEILBRUNN: Well the G7 meeting operated in the looming shadow of the Singapore summit that President Trump is attending today with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. So Trump walked into the G7 already dismissive of it and more focused on the meeting with North Korea, and the accounts indicate that Trump was willing to deal when he was with the G7 members and they came up with a fairly anodyne communiqué that talked about a rather than the rules-based order and so on. But apparently once Trump got on his airplane to go to Singapore, he and his aides started to fume about the treatment that they believe they had received at the hands of the so-called Western allies. So Trump started sending tweets denouncing Justin Trudeau the prime minister of Canada and essentially blew up the whole meeting. So, Trump's real ambition may well be to end the Western alliance with NATO and to turn the United States into a unilateral power that doesn't really have any permanent alliances or friends.

NICIE: And what's the upside in that for him, do you think?

JACOB: Well he can present himself to his followers as the strongman who is restoring the traditional America that preceded World War II and that unlike all the presidents after World War II he isn't being duped by foreigners.

HEATHER ATWOOD: I just wanted to back up and ask what was the upside for the country being a unilateral force unaligned with the NATO countries?

JACOB: Well the idea Trump's idea is that you can extract more concessions from countries; that in fact we've been giving up our prosperity to help fuel foreign economies whether it's in Europe or in Asia. Now to some degree that was a deliberate plan after World War II to help reconstruct Europe in Asia. But the United States at the same time benefited from the markets that were opened up in those countries. So it is mutually advantageous.

NICIE: So just to be very clear for Germany and Italy and France to remain poor countries for long periods of time was not in our national interest or so we decided.

JACOB: Correct. The idea was a belief in free trade which I think history has vindicated. Now there is a backlash against free trade - we know that among certain sectors of the population as well as among some intellectuals who ridicule it as neoliberalism. But overall, I think it worked well. Unfortunately President Trump sees it differently. And really what he's moving back to is in my view the very policies that brought about the Great Depression. It's really Herbert Hoover the Republicans in the 1920s followed these policies including - excluding trying to tamp down immigration into the United States. And another thing that created the Great Depression of course was the lack of regulation on the banks. And we seem to be going down the road again of trying to deregulate.

NICIE: OK, so just to be as fair as we possibly can to President Trump. Is there anything that is...is there a kernel of truth to his taking offense at Prime Minister Trudeau's...is there...any do we know anything about what Prime Minister Trudeau did that could be a legitimate source of grievance on President Trump's part?

JACOB: No. Why should Trudeau simply sit there and take all the punishment that Trump is delivering, and then he didn't insult Trump he simply said that Canada would not stand by idly and allow the United States to pummel it. Seems to me any self-respecting leader could make such a statement rather than, as the Canadians are now pointing out, the constant stream of ad hominem attacks emanating from the Trump administration, including White House senior advisor Peter Navarro, who said that there will be a place in hell for the Canadians who defied the United States.

NICIE: Is there any precedent that you can think of, of a senior White House official delivering such an ad hominem public attack on the sitting head of one of our closest ally countries?

JACOB: No I can't. I mean, we've had tensions in the past but I don't think we've descended into mobster language.

NICIE: The whole point is if you've got a problem, you work it out behind closed doors.

JACOB: Right, or you can vent but then also work together. See, I don't think Trump is actually interested in working together. The problem with a lot of people analyzing Trump is that they're analyzing it from their own sets of presuppositions. But what if Trump's endgame is completely different? What if it is to blow up the relationship with Canada?

NICIE: And what do you make of the reaction that we've seen so far in Congress?

JACOB: Well, Congress not surprisingly has been fairly supine, because the Republicans know that Trump is very popular with the base. He seems to have about 87 percent approval rating among Republicans. Now the number of Republicans may be shrinking but nevertheless, he is popular. So none of these Congressmen are going to defy him, and the only ones that make occasional murmurs are Jeff Flake, who's retiring, or Trey Gowdy, also retiring. So retirement does embolden them slightly but even then not very much.

NICIE: The very much part comes from them having to think down the road for their own careers, right?

JACOB: Right. And they know Trump's not going to be around forever. So, they're more interested in protecting their own skin than standing up for abstract constitutional principles.

HEATHER: What does a post-NATO world look like, Jacob?

JACOB: A Post-NATO world would not be entirely unfamiliar to the United States. Again it would be a pre World War II environment, but it would be a more unstable world and more volatile - even more prone to conflict. And I think that the standard of living in the United States would decline. Essentially we have been - Trump says that we've been robbed, but I wouldn't say that we've been robbing the rest of the world but we have had advantageous terms including dollar supremacy, which means that we can borrow money from abroad at lower rates than we would ordinarily receive. So there were - people will miss it when it's gone. And I think for Americans it will be a comeuppance, because I think they live, actually have lived, in a bit of a bubble and when it's more difficult to create economic growth and the - we will also see more wealth extremes in the United States. I think in the number of the poverty rate will continue to rise and it will be more difficult for the middle class as well.

HEATHER: And how about our trade relationships? I mean, this is going to be a huge blow, right? Two great pieces of our economy?

JACOB: Yeah potentially, definitely in the Midwest, the farmers are quaking because they rely on exports to Mexico, Canada, China. So we don't know where that's headed. Right now everyone's still trying to avert their gaze from the car that is lurching out of control and the hope is abroad that this will simply be an aberration. But the question is if Trump were to be elected for a second term then things could really spin out of control.

HEATHER: We haven't asked yet about Trump's arrival at the G7 demanding that Putin be a guest there also.

JACOB: Right. Completely forgot about that, but I think that was actually a piece of trolling. He knew that - look the man has a keen sense for what will outrage people and so he arrived there and said, "Why not?" And he likes Putin anyway more than he does any of the other Western leaders. So he just threw that out there like a stink bomb, I think.

HEATHER: You think that's all that was? There was nothing more behind it except him just trying to blow up the situation?

JACOB: No, because I don't think he - I don't think he really cares about the G7 that much. So I don't think he really cares. He probably figured that this would help blow up the G7 as well.

HEATHER: But does he care about Putin? That's really my question, I think.

JACOB: Sure. The speculation is that he will visit Putin in July on the final day of the World Cup. He'll be in London anyway July 11th through 13th. He could just jet over to Moscow. But it isn't just Putin. I mean there is a consistent pattern that Trump likes dealing with the world's dictators, and I think he sees himself in them and he would like to be able to own the United States the way they own countries and have people bow and scrape to him.

HEATHER: What is Putin thinking when he sees Trump in this meeting with Kim Jong Un.

JACOB: Well, I think Putin is probably unsure of where Trump is going to head because he's so mercurial, But, from the Russian perspective they would obviously like to see Trump craft some kind of a deal with the North Koreans that involve the departure of American troops from South Korea. I think that is the aim, and the North Koreans believe their policy is reunification with the South on their terms. So, it will be interesting to see how many concessions the North Koreans can extort from Donald Trump rather than vice versa.

NICIE: Does the way in which the G7 meeting melted down affect the US's negotiating position with the North Koreans in Singapore?

JACOB: No one really knows because the North Koreans haven't really said much. So does it make Trump look weaker, or as the Trump people would argue, does it make him look stronger. I don't know. The North Koreans seem to have their own read on Trump, whatever that is. So that's what makes this meeting so interesting.

NICIE: We have such limited insight into their thinking that it is somewhat unusual from that standpoint, right? In a lot of these dramatic situations there's been a lot more ongoing contact, is that fair to say?

JACOB: Definitely. I mean everything's been behind the scenes, and I suppose the person who knows the most is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He is the author in many ways of this meeting, whereas national security adviser John Bolton clearly never wanted it to happen, which is why he invoked the 'Libya model' to try and scare off the North Koreans. Now Bolton is hanging on by his fingernails apparently to his job. But Pompeo's standing with Trump will probably also rise or fall depending on the results of the Summit.

NICIE: Now, just bringing this back to domestic politics for a minute. My understanding is that Mike Pompeo is among a number of senior administration officials with very close ties to the Koch Brothers and the Koch network. And I am so curious as to how that very important block of support for the Republican Party is processing this emerging trade war and emerging sense of U.S. isolation.

JACOB: Well, the Koch network is now launching a several million dollar ad campaign on behalf of free trade. They are, at bottom, not Republicans but Libertarians. They have more belief in ideology than in a party, which is to their credit actually. They're not lackeys of the Republican Party per se. It'll be interesting to see if Trump can convert the Republican Party against free trade, which he seems to have done to some extent, but then you have the farmers and you have a variety of other workers who are dependent on different parts of the supply chain. So, I'm skeptical that this anti-free trade stance of Trump's will benefit him politically. I believe in the end there's nothing more dangerous to the economy and to Trump's own political fortunes than to wreck the economy by launching into a trade war that the United States cannot and will not win.

NICIE: What's interesting to us too is to think about the impact on the Farm Belt which has been the source of a lot of votes for President Trump in 2016 and then also in the deeper south where a number of foreign automakers have set up significant manufacturing operations. This includes Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama.

JACOB: Well, if it really comes to an all-out break with the allies, I mean, you could see a new alliance between Western Europe, Australia, Canada focused against the United States.

NICIE: Probably Japan. It would be like TPP minus the U.S. maybe.

JACOB: Right. But they could start imposing their own sanctions on the United States and on the Trump family. That's what they're talking about in Canada, is also putting sanctions on Trump family businesses.

NICIE: OK that's new information. Tell me about that.

JACOB: Well, it's just speculation but the idea is that the only way to capture Trump's attention is to wound him personally. That he actually doesn't care if the American economy - if sectors of it tank. And they're beginning to view the United States the way they would look at Russia or China. So as a volatile, dangerous power that needs to be curbed. Essentially it would be that the United States is the rogue state.

NICIE: I think I shared with you, Jacob, that I received an investment strategy bulletin last week in which this investment strategist recommended that investors start thinking about U.S. public debt as essentially an emerging market instrument.

JACOB: Well, people are becoming concerned that the United States really is starting to resemble Greece or Italy in terms of the public debt. Now, people have always had confidence in the United States but that confidence is starting to dwindle because of the erratic nature of our political system. In fact, Trump might shut down the government this fall as well. So, investors always crave security, and they don't see it in the United States.

NICIE: What do you think ordinary Americans should do about this?

JACOB: Panic. I think it's going to take a certain amount of economic pain and political upheaval for people to realize what is transpiring. So far the economy has done very well, the stock market is up. So, the Trump administration has the 'What, Me Worry?' mantra. Now, we're going to find out what actually happens when you do everything that political scientists and economists warn you not to do, and I think it's going to be fairly obvious when it occurs.

NICIE: This is one case, that is to say trade, where we have to remind ourselves that Congress has quite a lot of authority should it choose to exercise it.

JACOB: That's right. But it ceded a lot of that authority through fast-track negotiations and other - because the assumption always was that American presidents will be pushing for more open markets and trying to expand access so that America could export more. And Trump is the first president that we've had - I mean he's something more like a William McKinley figure or something.

NICIE: What does that mean?

ACOB: Going back to the idea of tariffs on other nations and that is the way the United States did originally build up its industry. I think that's why, again, Trump is - the whole Trump presidency is an exercise in nostalgia.

NICIE: Revanchisme?

JACOB: He hasn't made any secret of this. None of this - people are acting surprised or outraged but they really shouldn't because he said it all during the campaign. In fact, Trump has been fairly consistent on delivering what he said he would when he campaigned against Hillary Clinton. The only thing he hasn't gotten is Mexico to pay for a wall. But the Mexican thing is a standoff. So Trump again is fixated with this issue and angry at the rules that prevent him from a more draconian crackdown than simply separating children from their parents.

NICIE: What would be more draconian?

JACOB: I wouldn't put it past them to build a death strip the way East Germany did against West Germany.

NICIE: What's that?

JACOB: Well, to mine the border. You know, you could set up automatic guns that would shoot people. Guard dogs. You know, you could create - in East Germany the border, to prevent people from leaving East Germany was the opposite of this, but was about six to eight miles deep with the various zones with different apparatus to stop people from leaving the country. And it was actually quite effective. So you could - I mean I wouldn't put anything past Trump to be honest. Now the other thing that we haven't talked about is if the meeting in North Korea is a failure, or in Singapore as a failure with North Korea, does Trump then start beating the war drums declaring that he had done everything possible to make the meeting a success but that it's necessary to go on the attack. So there is a level of upheaval that is possible there as well. Again you just don't know with Trump. Right now what he wants is the optics of a successful meeting to prove that he's a statesman and that the Russia investigation and the attacks against him in the United States are really a trivial sideshow that are distracting our great president from tremendous accomplishments that can secure world peace.

NICIE: I know that the U.S. has quite a number of troops in South Korea manning that border. But do we not also have allied troops there, or is it mostly a U.S. presence?

JACOB: I think as most as there are 28,000 U.S. troops there, which has actually been reduced over the decades. Again, they're more of a tripwire than a force that would be able to stop North Korea. If there were a war, people believe that there will be millions of casualties almost instantly in South Korea as Seoul and other cities were devastated simply by the artillery that North Korea has stashed away. I mean, the North Korean army appears to be a formidable fighting force. Now, the other Trump idea was to administer a so-called bloody nose. But again, when you have a war like that it can quickly escalate and spiral totally out of control. Now what would happen if Kim Jong Un lobbed - started lobbing missiles at Japan. You know, this could be the outbreak of World War Three in that in that region. And that's why presidents have always proceeded very carefully.

NICIE: And do you hear anything from the Chinese side these days how they're thinking about this summit?

JACOB: Right now it is a bit of a black box. The Chinese do clearly have a lot of influence with North Koreans but the Koreans to some extent, it appears, would like to emancipate themselves from their wardship with China. So, does Kim Jong Un really want to have economic benefits for North Korea and emancipate his country? Is that the goal? We'll find out a little bit more today, but from what we see it looks as though the negotiations are pretty testy between the two sides. And I do not believe that North Korea will denuclearize. In fact, it would be folly for them to do so.

NICIE: It's their ace in the hole, right?

JACOB: Well it is - they're about regime preservation not regime change. So for them they've been working decades to have this insurance policy. So it's unfathomable to me that they would give it up.

HEATHER: Do we have any questions about competency in the Oval Office - like do they know what they're doing?

JACOB: No they don't. I think Secretary of State Pompeo does. But I think at the White House itself it's a chaos presidency and Trump was never prepared to be come president and didn't believe that he would and has not adapted in office in any way. I don't actually think he can. The reason Trump has been able to blast his way through the first year and a half is that there really has been no serious check on him apart from the courts and some advisers, who have cautioned him away from more extreme actions.

NICIE: He's fired most of those.

JACOB: Right. And apparently there's going to be another exodus of aides. But that's the way Trump rolls and his followers do like it. I mean, he was sent to Washington D.C. to break the mold and the less conventional he is the more popular he will be with his base. But whether a base is enough to survive four years let alone win another term is an open question.


NICIE: That was Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest. You can follow him @JacobHeilbrunn - H I L B R U N N - on Twitter and you can follow The National Interest at National Interest dot org. This was a special edition of The MidPod it was provided early to our subscribers on Patreon. Head on over to our site at patreon.com/themidpod to learn more about the benefits of supporting our work. See you next Tuesday.


Eunice Panetta