Ambassador Eric Edelman was Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the George W. Bush administration and served as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Finland. A strident critic of former President Donald Trump, he is among the foremost voices of the “Never Trump” movement.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Ambassador Edelman and Yascha Mounk discuss the trajectory of the Republican party and Donald Trump’s political future, Turkey’s illiberal slide under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the fragility of democratic norms worldwide.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: One of the things you've been doing very courageously is to stand up to the current powers-that-be within the Republican Party. [As] one of the key voices of the Never Trump movement, where do you think the hope for a sane Republican Party stands?
Eric Edelman: Let me back up for a second and address the question that I think underlies [that] line of inquiry, which is: Why is it important to have a sane Republican Party? I think it's very important for people to understand that we have a two-party system. In an era in which globally we've seen a rise of authoritarian populism [and] radical ethno-nationalism around the world, for the United States it is important that both parties be responsible and capable of alternating governance. It is very likely that the Republican Party will take back the House of Representatives, at least, and perhaps the Senate as well, although [that] map is a little less favorable to Republicans. And in my view, it's just essential that that party be committed to democracy. I think a lot of us hoped that with the departure of Donald Trump from office, the party would begin to repair itself and would look for off-ramps to get out from under the thrall of Donald Trump. But unfortunately, that has not happened. [Even after January 6th], I think he's tightening his hold on the party in many ways.
Mounk: You, I imagine, consider yourself right-of-center, and I consider myself left-of-center. But even those of us who are left-of-center need the political organization that represents those of our compatriots who are right-of-center to be committed to decency and to democratic values, because they will sometimes be in power. And I think [some] people don't see the need for that.
Edelman: I agree, but I would add one other thing, which is [that] it's great sport to look at the auto-da-fé that is the Republican Party today and to say, “Look at what a disaster it is.” There are issues in the Democratic Party as well. I don't mean to say that the crises in the two parties are the same, or that they're equivalent. They're not. What's going on in the Republican Party is much more dangerous. But there are elements of the progressive left of the Democratic Party who also harbor certain kinds of anti-democratic populist sentiments that I think are potentially also very dangerous for democracy. It's important for people on the center left and center right both to be taking up their responsibilities to police their own homes, as it were, and to try and tamp down these unhealthy anti-democratic elements.
Mounk: What would the optimistic scenario look like for the Republican Party, or for a different right-of-center political party to come in? Is the anti-democratic nature of the Trump regime so driven by the grass roots, that it is likely to prevail for the next 20 or 30 years? Or could it be that the right charismatic presidential candidate in 2024 [or] 2028 recaptures the party?
Edelman: First, I start from the proposition that it may not be possible to save the Republican Party from its current self. And that's in part because of the very strong numbers of folks in the Republican base who want this politics of grievance that seems to dominate today. I don't think that's dominant in the Republican conference, for instance, in either the Senate or the House. But there are, unfortunately, all too many members in both the House and the Senate who will either maintain a judicious silence in the face of this vociferous element of the party, which I would say probably is in the vicinity of 40% of Republican voters. So it's not trivial.
I do think it will be a decade at least before the party can exorcise itself of these forces. In the first instance, what has to happen is that Republicans like [Representatives] Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger need to win their primaries and get reelected to office. That's not a given. Then I think the Republicans have to go through some cycles losing elections. To me one of the worst things would be if they go into the 2022 cycle and they win the House and the Senate, while denying that what happened on January 6th was an insurrection against democracy, and not really addressing the major issues in front of the country—[instead] purely [focusing] on Dr. Seuss and the other symbolic grievance issues […] that they've embraced.
The other possibility is that at some point the party fractures. If you look at American political history […], it took about a decade for the Whig Party to fragment, and the Republican Party and Democratic Party to fragment into a Free Soil wing, which then coalesced into the modern Republican Party that elected Abraham Lincoln. The problem with that scenario, which in some ways might be the most attractive scenario, is that our polity is not as malleable as it was in the 1840s. It's much more routinized and bureaucratized now, and the two parties really have a monopoly on the political system. […] But if it were to happen, you would have to have a large group of current Republican office-holders who would want to break away, and probably some on the Democratic side as well, who are concerned about some of the things I've mentioned earlier. But again, I think there are considerable obstacles to that happening, and I think it's less likely.
Mounk: […] You're right that American politics is in a weird way at the forefront of a repolarization, where suddenly you have an equally strong, even deeper loyalty to one political party, but it's not based on the same kind of sociological, class [aspects] as it was in the past. One of the questions is, “Is this positive partisanship or negative partisanship?” If it's negative partisanship—just hatred of the other party—then perhaps a third party might have a way in. If it's positive partisanship as well, [where people say] “I actually have a deep identity as a Democrat,” or as a progressive Democrat, or as a Trump Republican—then the third party is dead in the water. How do you feel about that?
Edelman: [...] I suspect that at least for the Trump vote, a lot of it is negative partisanship. That’s why you see so much of the “owning the libs” performative stuff on social media among politicians like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who are vying for the mantle of Trumpism. I do worry now that there is a reasonable chance Trump might make some kind of comeback. I think the 2024 election, if he's running, is going to be way more dangerous than the 2020 election for a whole variety of reasons. But if he was excluded from it, I think that all of these Trump wannabes, the people vying for the mantle of Trumpism, are not going to be able to pull it off. I do think Trump is sort of sui generis in that sense.
Mounk: There is—and it's very hard to recognize from the perspective of somebody who deeply disdains him—but there's both a sense of humor, a carnivalesque atmosphere, and, oddly, a joyousness in his public persona. There is bitterness and anger as well, but there is a sense of the fun and the joy of challenging the structures that be, and I think that’s one of the things that's missing in his imitators.
Edelman: His rallies to me are like a professional wrestling event. And it's not an accident, because he comes from that kind of world of entertainment, and has participated in a lot of World Wrestling events. On another podcast earlier this year, I said [that] there's no amount of pork rinds that are going to turn Ted Cruz, who went to Princeton and Harvard, or Josh Hawley, who went to Stanford and Yale, into authentic populists. They themselves are elitists who are masquerading as populists. I do think it makes a difference to this whether Trump actually runs again. But if he runs, the polling all suggests he'll be formidable, and that he'll win the nomination.
Mounk: What do you think about his prospects in the general election? And does that depend on his stance and his appeal? Or does that depend in good part on both who his opponent is—whether it's Joe Biden or somebody else—and how many successes Democrats have to show for themselves, and how many mistakes we're going to make in the coming years?
Edelman: My fear is that by 2024, there might be a bout of inflation. That could be very damaging to President Biden's prospects for reelection, or Kamala Harris. I think, effectively, it's either going to be Biden or Harris. I don't think there's much chance that another Democrat would emerge.
Mounk: If Biden doesn't run, it would be incredibly hard for anybody to win a primary election against Kamala Harris.
Edelman: I agree. And I would be very concerned about Trump's chances. Right now, his polling nationally doesn't look very good. Something like 60% nationally say they don't want him to run again. But a lot can change. When you're governing, you're alienating voters. That's just the nature of the beast. And so my concern is [that] it's not even whether Trump could win the popular vote—I think he would almost certainly lose it—but by how much and in what states? Republicans ought to be very concerned by the fact that they haven't won the popular vote for president since 1988, save once in 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected, and then it was still pretty close. I think he won by 3 million votes.
Mounk: How different would [the past] four or five years have looked in countries like Hungary, like India—or for that matter Turkey, where you were ambassador—if we'd ended up with President Clinton in 2016?
Edelman: I think one thing [that] would have been different is there would have been at least somewhat more of an emphasis on both human rights violations in places like Turkey, but also more support in general for the rule of law. Whether those differences would have only been marginal, or whether they would have changed the trajectory of the democratic recession […] I think is a much harder question to answer. I think the democratic recession is rooted in a lot of structural causes that it's not very easy for one president to reverse. There are some things with regard to the general decline and appreciation globally of the importance of things like free speech and other formal elements of democracy.
But I think there are other factors that run a little bit deeper. There is the unequal distribution of economic gains from globalization, which has certainly occurred here in the United States, but also in various other societies. [Also] the cultural elements, which have been brought to the fore by things like immigration, some of which has been brought about in the EU by different institutional changes that were made to facilitate that, but also because of conflicts around the world and climate change, which have driven waves of immigration from sub-Saharan Africa—but also from conflict regions in the Middle East, from Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya. And those have obviously fueled lots of resentments in different countries.
And then one aspect that I don't think gets as much attention as it should has been a global increase of women in the workforce. This is a global phenomenon, which has displaced some male workers, or created at least some cultural dissonance for them. And I think all of those things have gone into the mix.
Mounk: There is a cross-national pattern in virtually every country in which authoritarian populists have been elected—they've been more popular among men than among women.
What should the Biden administration do in order to contain the democratic recession?
Edelman: [...] It's a complicated question. In the first instance, the damage Trump has done at home makes it tougher for his successor to try and project a policy that takes into account the many issues you've just raised abroad. And the reason is—although Biden has said all the right things about promoting democracy and human rights, and fitfully in places has tried to implement it a little bit—it's very hard. Our authoritarian adversaries like Russia and China are explicitly trying to make the point that [we’re] no better than [they] are. And it's a point that Liz Cheney tried to make in her Washington Post op-ed the other day1 about why it's important to have the January 6th commission and to dispel the big lie about what happened in our election. So, that's very much a complicating factor.
Having said that, I do think that the United States has been—[despite] all of our flaws, and believe me, I'm aware of them and I don't discount them—the most successful democratic experiment in the history of the world since 1776. And when we say that for us the condition of democracy in the world matters, it enables American presidents to play a role that they might not have been able to play elsewhere.
President Reagan famously said that he saw the United States as John Winthrop did, as a “city on a hill,” a beacon unto the nations. And you saw during his tenure, the United States actually moved to help ease Ferdinand Marcos out of power in the Philippines, Duvalier out of power in Haiti. I'm not touting them as great success stories; both of them have prolonged histories of problems. But it does enable a president—when circumstances present themselves where you can make a difference—to actually act in a way that advances democracy and freedom and human rights in the world. Moreover, when we hold ourselves up as that beacon, it also forces us to address our own deficiencies.
Mounk: What is it, concretely, that the administration [can] and should be doing?
Edelman: There's one level at the abstract where we have a kind of declaratory policy about the importance of democracy and human rights. In the real world, obviously, this gets mediated by all sorts of geopolitical factors. But to take some concrete examples: we've seen an assault on the rules-based international order by Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, with the incident of air piracy that allowed his government to force down a civilian airliner and take a Belarusian dissident and journalist prisoner, and then to produce a hostage video after he had clearly been beaten. [...]
I think [this] raises the question of how we approach Putin, because Lukashenko couldn't do any of this without support of Putin. I think [the Biden administration] has been maybe a little too timid about making a big deal about [Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny]. And this for me is more than a human rights issue, because it's part of broader trends that the Lukashenko episode also speaks to, which is the transnational repression of human rights advocates and activists and dissidents by authoritarian governments around the world. This is something we really need to get a handle on and put a stop to. I don't think it's by accident that at the NATO meeting that issued the statement about Lukashenko, it was the Turkish government that tried to water down the statement. We don't know why the Turkish government did that. But my supposition would be that Erdoğan said to himself, “This is an interesting precedent, I might be able to use that.” There are a lot of flights that go over Turkish airspace. And so this is one reason why I think we really have to try and take stronger action to put a stop to this.
Mounk: I'm intrigued by how you see the trajectory of the Erdoğan regime [in Turkey]. In the early 2000s, when you were ambassador there, there was a very lively debate about whether to see Erdoğan as a democratizer […] And [other] people saw him as a danger, either as an authoritarian or as an Islamist. How do you see the 20-year trajectory of Turkey, and what can we learn by re-examining those debates?
Edelman: When I arrived as ambassador in 2003, the Justice and Development Party had been in office for about a year. I happened to participate in President Bush's meeting in December of 2002 with Erdoğan, when he was not yet Prime Minister. He was still under a political ban at that point. But in that meeting, he made a point of telling President Bush that he described himself essentially as an Islamic democrat. In essence, [he] depicted himself as a Muslim equivalent of a European Christian Democrat and essentially said, “I want to create space in Turkey for those pious Muslims who have been somewhat excluded.”
And as you can imagine, in a period of time when we were already at war in Afghanistan, about to go to war in Iraq, and dealing with the entire panoply of jihadist terrorist adversaries—and the War on Terror was more than a military enterprise, it really was about a debate inside Islam about Islam’s accommodation to modernity—we needed people like what Erdoğan was describing in order to prevail against these Salafi jihadist influences in Islam, which were quite strong.
Mounk: It was a convincing sales pitch is what you're saying?
Edelman: It was a very convincing sales pitch. And, of course, there was motivated bias on the part of all of us [to say …] “You're the ones we've been looking for, thank God you're here!” The AKP looked like moderate Muslims from Central Casting for those who were looking for people to take up that part of the debate in the Muslim world.
[In] December 2004, the European Council formally agreed to reopen the accession process for Turkey to the European Union. [...] [But] Erdoğan was offended by some of the conditionality that was attached to the invitation. He ultimately agreed, but came to Turkey in December of 2004 and gave the sourest speech. This should have been, in my view, an occasion [to say] “Turkish governments for 40 years have been trying to accomplish this; I finally achieved it.” Instead, it was all this stuff about “They think they're gonna make us do this with the Kurds, and make up with the Armenians, and that we're going to live with these limitations on labor mobility.” It was a very, very sour speech. [...]
There were some worrying anomalies I was seeing even before. But after that, it became increasingly clear to me that the EU accession process for Erdoğan was something that he had instrumentalized to advance his own political interests.
Mounk: Where do you think that leaves the country now?
Edelman: Turkey suffers very badly from the very poor quality of its domestic political opposition. The People's Republican Party is supposed to be a Social Democratic Party, but it's really a highly nationalist party. The opposition to Erdoğan has been divided and quite feckless. And Turkey is on the cusp, I believe, of a very serious economic crisis—a debt crisis domestically and a balance of payment crisis internationally. [...] And therein lies the problem for Erdoğan, because of the corruption that he and his family have engaged in, he's got the same problem [as] a lot of [other] electoral authoritarian regimes: “I can't turn power over to anybody who's not either a blood relative, or a crony who will guarantee that I'm taken care of”—in the way that Putin himself did for some members of the Yeltsin family after they turned things over to him in December of 1999. And so the system has become more and more illiberal and undemocratic. You now see violent attacks against opposition leaders. […]
Mounk: You’ve said that you are a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. I think we've spent a lot of time covering the reasons for short-term pessimism. Why don’t you leave us with some of the reasons why you retain your long-term optimism?
Edelman: Well, I retain my long-term optimism about the United States of America because we are a very resilient society that has been through enormous upheavals in the past and always managed to come out better and stronger; I'm counting on that resilience. I think as a free society we remain one of the most innovative societies in the world, and one of the [societies] that is most open to innovation. That's put us at the forefront of technology. I do think we have a challenge now from China because of China's effort—so-called “Military-Civil Fusion”—to try [to] harness future technologies, in particular for military purposes, like AI and quantum computing. They're putting enormous investments into this. I think [the US] may have to rethink some of our traditional, more hands-off approaches.
[...] I'm a long-term optimist about the state of democracy in the world because, at the end of the day, I think human beings want to have this kind of ability to express themselves. Certainly we see that in the various global values surveys that are done. This is [more or less] universal: the desire for self-expression and the freedom to enjoy it. I don't think it's bound by ethnicity, or race, or religion; it seems to be a universal craving that people have. And I think that over a very long period of time it's tough to repress that. I remain hopeful that some of these phenomena that we have noticed about the democratic recession turn out to be epiphenomena.
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This episode of the podcast was recorded at the end of May 2021.