Ed Luce on an America—and a World—Divided
Yascha Mounk and Ed Luce discuss the hopes for containing authoritarian populism and easing polarization at home and in the world.
Ed Luce is the US national editor and columnist at the Financial Times. He is also a member of the Persuasion board of advisors.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Ed Luce discuss the prospects for Trump (and Trumpism) in the near future; why America no longer feels like a “can-do” nation; and whether America can defend its values in the world while avoiding escalation with China.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Mounk: I've been looking forward to our conversation, but I have been slightly depressed about one thing and I want you to lift me out of my depression (or aggravate it, I suppose, as you choose). During the Trump years, there was a lot of fear about what might happen. But there was also hope that if we beat this guy decisively in 2020 we'll turn a corner.
But over two years into the Biden administration, the Republican Party is continuing to get more extreme. Trumpism is spreading through the party. Even his rivals are sort of pretending to be the smarter Trump, or a more effective Trump, or Trump-lite. And it doesn't look like the Democratic Party is seizing the strategic opening to actually become the dominant political party. Will we ever get out of this kind of existential mode of combat?
Ed Luce: This sense that it's always the next election, and that's when we'll finally end the fever, as Obama once described the Tea Party (which now seem like very tame sort of house pets compared to what what to where we are today), is probably a little bit of wishful thinking. A lot of my friends on the more liberal side of the spectrum have an expectation that if the nominee is Trump, then that's the best thing for Biden, because Biden will be beaten by a younger person. But I have to say, although they're probably correct, I feel extremely strong déjà vu from similar conversations in 2015, where people were saying, “Now, if only Hillary could actually get Trump as her opponent, then all will be fine!” And of course, we know what happened. I feel there's a little bit of that complacency visible today. I start with the premise in today's America, that elections, presidential elections are 50-50 events. Now, maybe they're 53-47 for a moderate sort of mainstream incumbent like Biden. But they're still too close to feel remotely comfortable.
I guess your question is how long that tail end risk will go on, whether a second Trump defeat (and a third, in terms of the popular vote) would end this cycle in American politics. And I very much doubt it. We're not going to go back to the party of Jeb Bush. The question is whether there are going to be more electable versions of Trump, which is why I think that the person to fear here would be Glenn Youngkin, who has all the same views—maybe pragmatically, maybe he doesn't deep down. But who really cares? It's what people articulate in public that we measure. Glenn Youngkin has all the same views, but he gives the appearance of being a suburban dad. He's reassuring. That's more the future of the Republican Party post-Trump if Trump loses.
Mounk: One of the things that I do worry about is a tendency to start with Trump, declare that he's a terrible threat to the institutions of his country, which I believe, and then sort of come up with various reasons why any alternative to him would be just as bad: DeSantis is just as authoritarian but more electable and Youngkin—I haven't studied him very closely—strikes me as somebody who might disagree on important policy grounds and have important divergences to that but wouldn't be a threat to the basic institutions of the American republic in the kind of way in which Trump clearly is and DeSantis possibly (perhaps, probably) is.
Do we get to a point where we're just not willing to accept any Republican candidate as legitimate?
Ed Luce: I sort of start from the premise that if you do not reject the stolen election theory of January 2021, which Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis do not, then you have already shown yourself capable of challenging some of the basic norms of democracy. Now, that might be an expedient thing that they would quickly drop or try to make people forget in a post-Trump era. Maybe that's too unrealistic a benchmark to apply to any Republican with any ambition in today's still-Trump party. But I do consider it to be a pretty bad sign of where they're prepared to go. And then if you look at the fact that the Supreme Court [has heard on] a case that will determine the independent state legislature theory which would give legislatures the authority, unchallenged by local courts, to essentially pick alternative slates of electors. And if you look at the more sort of organized, beyond Trump, attempts to really manipulate the electoral system. I'm not that confident that this—what Tom Edsall calls minority authoritarianism—goes deeper than Trump. And I think Trump himself is, in some respects, a prisoner of Trumpism. Remember him trying to boast about what should have been his biggest bragging right, the vaccine, the single biggest accomplishment of his administration (not a long list, I admit, but a very significant item). He just stopped talking about it.
Mounk: There was an amazing moment, I think it was briefly after he lost office. He was talking about the vaccine in positive terms to a conservative audience, and he was booed.
Luce: He more than anybody knows how you measure the crowd, how you take its temperature. He took the temperature, and he hasn’t boasted about it since. Now, of course, he, like every member of the Murdoch family and every Fox News executive and anchor, have not just been double vaccinated, but triple, probably quadruple boosted by now. But it's remarkable that this singular accomplishment—which you can make a plausible argument would have been far more difficult to achieve at that speed in a Democratic administration—has been robbed from him. And there are others where Trump just sort of drops his line. That would suggest to me that the MAGA base is more autonomous from Trump than we might credit.
Mounk: In the early part of your remarks, it sounded to me like you were saying we might actually get to a kind of post-Trump politics, but now it sounds like you think that's very unlikely.
I think there's two parts of the story: the Trumpist Republican Party going to the extremes and the Democratic Party being so unappealing to the American electorate that, while they have won seven out of the last eight presidential elections in terms of popular vote and so on, they’ve always done so very narrowly. We're just not able to go beyond that narrow majority to the kind of victories which would force the Republican Party back to the negotiating table and force it to reform itself. If you're just completely out of office everywhere for a long time, eventually, you’ve got to move on. But the Republican Party hasn't needed to.
Luce: If you look at American history, modern-ish American history, where are the points at which there are such deep rebukes from the electorate that the party changes? You think of Hoover's Republicans being defeated by Roosevelt's New Deal coalition in 1932. You think of Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964. And you think of McGovern and the whole sort of liberal, antiwar, peacenik Democratic direction being ended by that, leading to Carter and then, ultimately, Clintonism.
Those defeats were massive by American standards. In terms of public opinion, 60-40 kinds of elections. But in terms of the Electoral College, we're talking about sweeping the board. I think Goldwater won his home state of Arizona and five Deep South states. Dukakis, I think only [ten] states. Those kinds of defeats in American history do lead to quite big ideological realignments of the defeated party. I just don't see that scale of defeat possible in the next electoral cycle. This society is way too evenly divided.
Mounk: Let me push you on that. I agree that it's very unlikely in 2024 given how the election is shaping out. I'm sure we're going to have another close election. By the way, I was at breakfast with our mutual friend Bill Galston, and he was saying that this is actually now the longest running period of very close electoral competition in American history. This period is now unique by how many consecutive elections have been that close.
But there are a few things we might consider for why that has been the case. One is that there's just fundamental cultural, economic, perhaps demographic forces, which have split the country on a knife's edge, and nothing is going to move them. The other theory is that a lot of the population actually is still somewhat moderate on both economic and cultural issues, but nobody has been effectively able to appeal to them, in part because they haven't been able to disown the less appealing parts of their own coalition.
I think it'd be perfectly possible for somebody to win perhaps not a 60% majority but 56 or 57% and win a whole bunch of states. I think it's possible. It just doesn't strike me as likely that the broader mechanisms of the primary election, the media landscape, the landscape and social media ecosystem give somebody the courage and the vision and the clarity to do that. But what do you think? Do you think there are structural factors that make it impossible? Or do you think that the right candidate might be able to build that kind of coalition?
Luce: You mentioned Bill Galston, whom I implicitly trust on these things. Bill used to be a member of No Labels, which at least began with the idea that the market is not responding to the voter, that there's something broken in the market price signaling here; that we have the parties getting more extreme, and particularly one of the parties, but neither of them really catering to the middle ground which is where most Americans are. Broadly speaking, I accept the view, backed up by a lot of data, that Americans are centrist, even center-left on economics. They do want more health care. They do want parental leave and sick leave rights and so forth. And they're not too liberal on social issues. They might even be moderately conservative on social issues—tolerant but certainly not radical. It depends where you're sitting, how you define what center-left is, but, broadly speaking, they are not represented either by DeSantis or the people who used to run the school board in San Francisco, who are outliers.
There's clearly demand there from what some people have labeled the “exhausted majority,” who tend to be moderate. There's clearly demand there for politics that better reflects their views than two parties that are going off on such different tangents. And therefore, I would tend to think some of this is structural. And a lot of the cultural, economic conditions that are affecting American politics are also affecting British politics. But you see in Britain opinion polls showing massive shifts: 61-62%, not that far off of two-thirds of British people would like to rejoin the European Union. I think it's a very hypothetical wish at this point, to be honest. But that's a big swing of public opinion because the parties can reflect that. The parties can change. And there are more than two parties now.
Mounk: What is the reason for that difference? It’s true that there is still a kind of sense of a mainstream consensus in Britain, there's a kind of sense of, you know, the ordinary person on the street feels like there's something wrong with the establishment and you can feel that sort of shifting in a good 60-65% of a population—a kind of common sense response to what's going on that’s deeply felt across a vast swath of a country, and America no longer feels like that, it feels—
Luce: —I'd say it does. It's just that the structural factors prevent it from transmitting to politics. I mean, the amount of Americans (and I'm not just talking about eggheads in Washington, D.C.) who sort of mentioned to me “Wow, Liz Truss was a disaster and 44 days later, she was gone? And you had a lettuce up and the lettuce outlived her?”—the envy expressed at being able to just press the eject buttons, because of the transmission mechanism of poll numbers swinging wildly into your own party having the ability to just get rid of you. That is obviously a flexibility built into the British system that the American system doesn't have. But I think if Americans did have it, most Americans would have been very happy to press the eject button on Trump at certain stages.
Mounk: If there had been a clear way of getting rid of Trump without the extraordinary measure of impeachment, you would probably have had majorities be able to do that. So perhaps part of the screwed up-ness of America at the moment goes back to the flaws of a semi-presidential system.
A really unpopular head of state or one that seems very threatening to institutions in the country can just be voted out by a majority of parliamentarians in different kinds of systems, whereas in so many presidential systems there is no mechanism for that. In Britain, you’re only Prime Minister as long as you have a majority in the House of Commons. When that ceases to be the case—poof, off you go. That clearly is not the case in the United States.
Luce: No, it's not. And it's not conceivably ever going to be the case. I mean, let's be frank. You're not going to get three-quarters of states and two-thirds of each chamber on Capitol Hill agreeing to a constitutional convention. And if they did, you're not going to get a constitutional convention in which consensus emerges about how America should be governed. So we are stuck within this very rigid system that isn't channeling where the median view is on most issues—gun control, for example. It does show flexibility at the local level. The abortion thing is very, very interesting. But we're stuck with this system, so we have to imagine a way out within this system rather than by analogy to differing ones. But I raised the British example precisely because I think that, generally, median opinion is not that radically different in America than it is in Britain. Of course there are different contexts and different hot-button issues. But generally, I don't think most Americans are extremists.
More in Common does a lot of very good research on this. And what their findings were about American attitudes on the education system is that overwhelming majorities of conservatives said, “Yeah, we should teach the history of America that includes slavery, that includes all the bad things that happened.” And overwhelming majorities of liberals accepted that there was a complex story which wasn't just one of oppression. Basically, it's where you or I would be, with different nuances. Give kids the tools to sort of decide for themselves. That's where clear majorities of both self-identified conservatives and liberals are pretty close to each other. That's not where their ideological leaders are.
Mounk: I've learned a lot from this conversation about what's going on in the United States. But there are big changes happening in the world and to America's role in the world.
How do you characterize, at this moment, the state of geopolitical competition between the United States and China and America's view on how that competition is going to unfold in the next years and decades?
Luce: It's a very important question and it's not going to go away. China, unlike the Soviet Union—one can't imagine it dissolving. This isn't going to end with the sort of implosion of China. China as a nation state will hopefully, at some point, democratize. Even then, though, I think that the geopolitical butting of heads between the hegemon and the rising challenger is going to be an issue. But I don't expect China to democratize. That's not a likely scenario. So this issue isn't going to go away. To some extent, it is ideological—China is, of course, a one party, Communist state and an autocracy. But to some extent, it's simply structural. It's to do with geopolitics. And what's been very striking about Washington the last few years is the strength of bipartisanship on this issue. You look at the China Committee. You look at Mike Gallagher, the Republican chair, and Krishnamoorthi, the minority leader on that committee, and there's barely any daylight between them. And that it's a pretty hawkish consensus that we're seeing expressed. The absence of a “peace faction” in Washington is particularly glaring, since the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce stopped lobbying for more trade with China. They were essentially a countervailing force because they made so much money from China, because China was such a big contributor to their bottom line. And they're basically silent now, partly because, if you've got business in America, and you've got business in China, as Hank Paulson recently told me, the shaded bit of the Venn diagram where you can say something acceptable to both, as a business leader, is so tiny that it’s better just to keep your mouth shut. And that means that lobby of a sort of restraint is gone.
We've got a pragmatic Biden administration that is very much on the more nuanced side of this hawkish bipartisan consensus. But essentially, as we saw with the balloon incident, the shooting down of the Chinese spy balloon (or what they call the rogue weather balloon), had to respond to Fox News images and shoot it down. An absurd thing to do. And the response to that has derailed any sort of dialogue between the US and China, so we're in a very dangerous period with China. Talk of war, speculation about it, is now remarkably common. Whether that means we're going to have one or not is quite different. But the ease with which we've slipped into a conversation in which great power conflict between China and the US is a normal one is very striking.
Mounk: Where do the differences lie between what you called the sort of more subtle, more refrained version of a hawkish attitude and the less subtle one?
Luce: There was a very good, very coherent speech given by Janet Yellen, the Treasury Secretary, last Thursday, in which she made it very clear what was already official policy (but perhaps we haven't really understood it very well) which is that the Biden administration does not aim to decouple from China. She said we do not aim to harm China's development or economic competitiveness. What we do aim to do, with these targeted sanctions against high-end semiconductors and anything that contributes to the AI ambitions of Xi Jinping, is not to contribute to China's military development, and that wherever there is a clash between America's national security imperatives and economics, national security will win.
And this speech was really an overture to get dialogue going again. But she made it very clear that our aim is not to decouple. Any attempt to decouple would create a global recession—deeper, perhaps, than a global recession. We underestimate the degree to which we're all entirely intertwined. That's not the line coming from Mike Gallagher's committee. Mike Gallagher says that China has the explicit aim of creating a techno-authoritarian dictatorship and submitting America to it. He's using a kind of Star Wars, Darth Vader versus Luke Skywalker language that you're not hearing from the administration. There are more hawkish people in the administration, there are more dovish people. But there is a pragmatic real-world debate going on. That's not true for the more hawkish elements of D.C. as a whole. But, as I say, the direction that the Biden administration gets pulled in tends to be more hawkish because there's no countervailing voice.
Mounk: Do you think that this hawkishness is justified even if, perhaps, the justified version of it is a more moderate, more sophisticated one? Or do you think there's a case against all of the hawks?
Luce: Xi Jinping is a far more authoritarian, autocratic leader than his predecessors—really the most authoritarian since Mao. He has one hundred times the technological capabilities and military reach that Mao ever had. And he has explicitly said that he wants to reincorporate Taiwan, by force if necessary, whilst he's president. And 2027 is the year, with China's military modernization program, where the PLA have been plausibly ordered to be able to have an amphibious assault on Taiwan. So, no—the hawks are not imagining China's challenge to the international system.
My concern is that if we drift further into this situation where the US and China are not talking—China's talking to everybody else, of course; they’ve had Macron, Lula, the Saudi foreign minister, the Iranian foreign minister, the President of the European Commission, the German Foreign Minister—everybody’s beating a path to their door, but they're not returning Joe Biden's phone calls. We have to get back into a situation of dialogue. Where we are at, I think (and this is again, a rather troubling analogy that keeps recurring), is the pre-Cuban Missile Crisis phase of the US-Soviet relationship. We do not want to go through a Cuban Missile Crisis before we learn modes of coexistence, contact and communication. China is not going to disappear. We need a strategy for dealing with it that doesn't involve continually being on the brink of war, or at least at the risk of fate—of miscommunication or accident. We have to some degree agree to peaceful coexistence and some room there to cooperate on the transcendent threats to humanity that only China and the US working together can actually realistically solve.
Mounk: One of the eerie parallels between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the potential confrontation between China and the West is the element of blockade: the Cuban Missile Crisis came to a head when American warships located an attempt by Soviet ships to bring missiles to the island of Cuba. One of the most realistic scenarios, and probably one of the smartest scenarios from the point of view of Beijing for how the CCP would try to incorporate Taiwan into the area it rules, would be to simply blockade Taiwan economically and make it impossible for the island to get energy supplies, foodstuffs and other key things it needs.
How should we think about this as people who believe in the importance and value of liberal democracy? How do we put together a strategy that contains the influence of China's autocratic system of government, that tries to preserve the liberty of Taiwan, that takes seriously our obligation to people in Japan and South Korea and other countries in the Pacific, and that minimizes the amount of terrible repression of the CCP internally, especially towards minority groups—can we accomplish all of that without raising the risk of a catastrophic World War III?
Luce: We've had trouble instituting democracy in small countries where we spent a trillion dollars and occupied, like Afghanistan. We should be realistic in what we can aim to influence or achieve within China. And to some degree, the more tense the standoff becomes, and the more sort of armed this peace becomes, the more likely that is to strengthen the forces of repression and hardliners within China. We should be modest about the extent to which we can actually affect internal Chinese political developments. But we, for sure, should certainly be steadfast in strengthening the tariff capabilities of China's neighbors and of limiting China's ability, through the sort of tech surveillance software that it exports, to do so, and should provide alternatives. But that involves building a much more overt American leadership for an open world digital culture; for leading in terms of the debate about guardrails for artificial intelligence; for being much more engaged economically with the cutting-edge, new areas of the economy than the Biden administration (or apparently, nowadays, half the Republican Party) are prepared to do. We, during the Cold War, had an America that was—to be very crude and caricaturish—a “can-do” America. Very pragmatic.
The list of the economic “can't-dos” of both Democratic administrations and the Trumpian wing of politics is pretty sobering. You can't do trade deals, can't do digital platforms, can't do the WTO (can't comply with its rulings), can't reform the Bretton Woods Institutions. Can't—I mean, there's a long list of what we just won't do. And so I think America’s stance here, in terms of a potential new cold war, or maybe an actual one with China, is a lot less American. It's kind of based on pessimism. The first time around, the Cold War, it was a lot more based on “Look, we're prepared to engage, take risks, lead.” And so, there's a psychological sort of crouch here that I think is part of the American problem. It's not leading in the way it could be. And a lot of America's partners in East Asia are very happy for the military support. But they would like to see other stuff too. And ditto for Europe.
Mounk: I have a final question. Just minutes before we pressed record on this conversation, we got a breaking news alert that Fox News and Tucker Carlson are parting ways. Now, I'm putting you in an uncomfortable position here, because we're recording this on Monday and the episode is going to air on Saturday, so by then we will have much more context.
But what is your first response? Is this a significant event? What kind of impact might it have on America?
Luce: It looks like he was pushed. I feel a little bit hesitant because I didn't see him as being more extreme than, say, Sean Hannity, who, at least at the time we're talking, has not been pushed out. So maybe there was some other event or personal disagreement. I am not going to be in mourning to see Tucker Carlson leave Fox. I believe it was a diabolical partnership with huge pollutionary effects on the American debate. And I hope that wherever he's going, it's to somewhere with a smaller platform. But I don't hold out much hope that this signals a “Road to Damascus” moment for the Murdoch family.
Remember, the Dominion case brought out the fact that Fox is a bit like Trump on vaccines: it wanted to sort of report the facts, but then it got pushed by its audience not to. So there is something bigger out there that is very powerful. And the leaders are following the followers.
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