The Good Fight
Ed Luce on America in 2024

Ed Luce on America in 2024

Yascha Mounk and Ed Luce discuss the sense of impending disaster in American politics.

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 what worries Americans most about the state of the country heading into the next election; the presumptive re-match between Biden and Trump; and why a second Trump term could be more dangerous than the first.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: One of the things I really appreciate about your view about the world, and particularly America, is that you're kind of an insider-outsider: You’re a Brit, you were trained in some ways as a foreign correspondent, but you've lived in the United States for long enough now that you know the country extremely well. 

What strikes me about the United States at the moment, even in comparison to Europe (which has severe problems of its own), is just a general sense of malaise, of things not quite working as they should, of a social fabric not quite holding together. 

What's your impression of living in the United States in 2024?

Ed Luce: That's a really good question, because if you look at all the sort of old-fashioned, what I call 20th century indicators, that America ought to be a better place to be living in, particularly for somebody in my relatively fortunate position, than Europe.

The economic numbers are much better, the unemployment numbers are much lower, the technological innovation perspective is much better. Just on those objective measures, America is a better place to live in. But it just doesn't feel like it.

A sort of intangible, anecdotal feeling I have—and a lot of friends say the same thing—is that when you get off the plane from America and land in Europe, wherever you're landing (even in Britain, which has had pretty fraught politics) you just exhale a little bit. You relax a little bit, there is less tension. There is less of an existential sort of foreboding in your system when you're outside of America than when you get back. And by the same token, when you get back, you tense up a little bit. There's a deep sort of tension to everyday life in America that just wasn't true when I first moved here, which is now quite a long time ago. And there are many reasons for it, but I think the chief one is that politics is existential and it is deeply, deeply evenly split—deep and even, and not shifting very much. You don't get wild gyrations in people's numbers. They don't seem to be performance-related, their political loyalties seem to be identity-based, and that just creates a serious feeling of uneasiness about what America is and how long it will remain so.

Mounk: I have two questions about that. On the first one, do you think that tension is in our head for those of us who really care about politics? Do you think that people writing about politics in New York and DC and so on feel that when we step off the plane? Or do you think it also pervades everyday American life if you go to a suburb of Cleveland? Is there some form of fear that wouldn't have been there 15 or 20 years ago? I'm unsure about that. I think it's plausible but I don't quite trust myself to know the answer. 

The second question is about the even split in our society. The 2016 elections were very close, the 2020 elections were pretty close, it looks like the 2024 election might be pretty close, though Donald Trump, according to the latest polls, has a significant lead. And so, therefore, you have the same two teams just entrenched, battling it out each time. But of course we are seeing some rather remarkable movement in who is a member of each of the teams: From 2020 to 2016 Biden significantly improved his performance among white voters, Trump significantly improved his performance among non-white voters. According to some of the polls for 2024, including one recent poll in The New York Times, it now looks like a majority of Hispanics is going to vote for Donald Trump, and the number of African-Americans who are going to vote for Trump has increased by something like threefold compared to the Republican share in 2008 and 2012. There is this deep division and it's very close, but there is actually movement between the teams to a larger extent that perhaps would suggest.

Luce: To your first question, my answer always comes with a health warning, which is that if you're living in Washington, DC, and you engage on sites like X (Twitter), then you're getting a very refracted and very untypical perspective on what politics is like for most Americans. So that's always got to be discounted in the price of whatever I say. But that having been said, the degree to which all Americans now consume algorithmically-directed news that confirms their prejudices and stokes their outrage, about often completely cartoonish representations of what the other side is about, is off the charts compared to 15 years ago. We're in a completely different universe of media consumption and whilst I appreciate that there is an exhausted majority who don't consume much politics, the significant minority of America who do and the way they've changed and biased perhaps consciously or maybe unconsciously their media habits into one that's more about enmity than it is about rivalry—I don't think that can be overstated. That is a big change and I do think therefore that what I feel, even though it's a very sort of exaggerated version of that being a beltway creature, does find echo in the broader American society as a whole. 

The second question is a more difficult one, because you're right, there is movement, particularly amongst blue collar voters. There is movement of non-white working class voters to the Trump banner. I'm not sure we're gonna see in 2024, whatever the outcome is, Biden retaining that higher white working class vote that he got, over what Hillary Clinton had in 2016. I think the numbers suggest that all working class voters are drifting more towards the MAGA banner. And that kind of undercuts, as you say, the idea that there's a deep, crisp and even split between the two Americas. But nevertheless, there is, even if there are movements underneath it. There is a 50-50 nature to America.

Some of that is made up for by more and more women and particularly college-educated people of all colors moving to the Democratic banner, and over the long term what I would say is that it is a good thing because the political splits are becoming more class-oriented and less racially-based. But I have to say I don't really trust that that long term is going to come into view at the moment. It's extremely hard to look past November the 5th—nobody does. The discussion about what Biden would do in the second term would, in an ordinary political cycle, now be an ordinary discussion. It would be a commonplace one to have. It's just not happening because nobody can see past that existential date. And we do know that whatever happens on that date, the side that loses, and that could apply to either side, will see the result as illegitimate. And I think that's pretty much a given. And that sort of zero-sum existentialism is just something you don't find in any other democracy.

Mounk: The one thing it appears that all Americans can agree on is that American democracy is in deep danger. Followers of Donald Trump say that because they think that the 2020 election was stolen from them. Democrats say that because they fear what Donald Trump has done in office in his first term. They are shocked and horrified by January the 6th, 2021, and they worry about what he's going to do in his second term in office. I guess it is a deeply divided country, falling into one of these camps rather than the other. But it's a remarkable fact that we sort of agree on that diagnosis as Americans, even as we disagree fundamentally about the reasons for that diagnosis. It's a very strange state of affairs.

You said perhaps it's good that our policies are coming to center more on class than about race. And I agree with that. The sort of vision in which it's something positive that Democrats would have this inevitable majority because non-white people would all, or by a great majority, vote for the Democratic Party always struck me as rather dystopian: A permanent majority is bad in a democracy, and I don't want to live in a country where I can look at somebody's skin color and know who they're voting for. That sounds actually like a recipe for deep social divisions that are very dangerous. 

But there's a strange aspect to the class story. And that is one that America does share with other countries, even as there are important differences in other areas. Namely, that suddenly it is the right-wing party that is becoming the party of the working class, at least to a greater extent than previously. And it is the left wing party that is becoming the party that in many ways is naturally at home among the old bourgeoisie. That is going on in the United States, but it has also happened in many European countries and elsewhere. What explains that and what does it say about the extent to which the American story is sort of shared with other countries or distinct from it?

Luce: A lot of that is shared with other countries: with Britain—although Britain is about to belie that with its next general election, where we're seeing a potential sort of 1997-level wipeout of the Conservative Party. Up until now, the right in Britain has been capturing a larger and larger share of the working classes. The right in France has been capturing a larger and larger share of the working classes. And that's very similar to the picture in the United States. 

When you get the working class on cultural issues to come under the right’s banner, that does mean that politics is more about working class culture than it is about working class economics. The debate amongst Democrats about why Americans aren't feeling better about their economic prospects, and why they're not expressing that with higher approval ratings for Biden, is a fascinating one to watch, because what you're seeing and hearing is very educated people, journalists, academics, DNC consultants and so forth saying, “You should be feeling happy, but you're not feeling happy,” which strikes me as a very bad political strategy. And I think there's a couple of reasons why this is happening. One, we underestimate just how big that inflation leap was, and over and above that, it's not just inflation. We talk technically about how the consumer price index is measured, but the consumer price index doesn't include interest rates. And people experience higher interest rates as inflation, even if it isn't technically defined as inflation. Their mortgage rates have gone right up. Housing has become unaffordable. The auto loan goes from $600 a month to $850 a month. That is felt as inflation. 

Another part of this debate is that Trump, on pretty much all objective measures, would be worse for inflation than Biden: cutting off immigration, putting a 10% tariff on all imports (a direct tax on the middle class) and then the anti-globalisation agenda, all of which splits up markets and raises the cost of production and therefore will be more inflationary.

Now, why are the working classes flocking to Trump's banner? I mean, I think partly it's that they do remember not January the 6th, not Trump's nonsensical commentary about how you cure COVID, they do remember a big boost to real wages for the middle classes to their own pocketbook during Trump's first three years. That's one thing. And, under Biden, they felt a certain austerity that is only now beginning to ease. 

Mounk: So we're slowly approaching the meat of what any sort of tour d'horizon in 2024 has to do, which is to actually discuss the upcoming presidential election. 

Now, in a way, when you think about Trump, it again complicates this idea that there's two teams, because you are right that there is this partisan media echo chamber in which Trump can't do very much wrong, and which blames Biden and the Democrats for everything that's wrong with America today. But it's not 50% of the population; it's not even 50% of voters who are part of that media bubble. And one of the striking things is that Donald Trump is unpopular in the American population. According to 538, his unfavorability is about 52% and his favorability is about 43 or 44%. That's a significant gap. And of course, a lot of the people who view him unfavorably view him very unfavorably. So there is this kind of key part of the electorate that actually views both Biden and Trump unfavorably, right? And there's an even broader part of the electorate that perhaps says, when push comes to shove, I'm going to vote for Trump. And that seems to me like the people who will determine in significant part this upcoming election. And I'm having trouble quite putting my finger on what they're thinking.

Why is the person who doesn't like Trump, actually has real skepticism towards him, perhaps is even concerned about what happened on January 6th—why are they looking at the Democrats and at Biden and saying “I'm going to pull the trigger for Trump after all”?

Luce: It's a very good question and I suspect there are a thousand answers to it that relate to different groups, different economic circumstances, different ages, and you'll get different answers from everybody. There isn't a simple narrative. I think that the reasons people would vote for Trump, even knowing that he's a threat to democracy, even knowing about January the 6th, relate to this relentless imagery of Biden as being old and incompetent. And your idea of a chief executive is what you're partly voting for, and maybe mainly voting for, in a presidential election: Do you see that person as able to take tough decisions, as being wakeable at 3 a.m.?

It is an unfortunate fact that even though I think, objectively speaking, Biden shows fewer signs of cognitive decline than Trump, that Trump appears more animalistic and fit physically. Biden does look more frail physically, both than he was a few years ago but also than Trump is today. And that disproportionately affects your idea of the vitality of a commander in chief. Remember: in 2020, Biden didn't campaign much out there in the great outdoors of America because it was a pandemic. The overwhelming three quarters of Americans (and that includes half of Democrats) believe he's too old to do the job. The only possible answer to that comes from Biden physically being on the stump. There is no surrogate who can assuage that problem. And so Biden has to be vigorous, seen to be vigorous and ubiquitous. I'm not sure he's got that in him.

Mounk: I'm struck by your saying there's more signs of cognitive decline in Donald Trump than in Joe Biden. Explain to us why that is. 

And separately, you're living in Washington DC, you're very well connected. What are you hearing privately about how alert and vigorous Joe Biden is?

Luce: What I'm hearing privately and anecdotally from people who work with Biden or go in and see him is he's just as clear in his own mind and able to articulate his preferences and his views, whether we agree with them or not, or whether they're classic examples of his stubbornness (as you might be seeing at the moment with the Gaza Strip). But Biden is sort of no more or less articulate than he's been in the past. He's never been articulate. He's always had what they call logorrhea, which is seeking for words to substitute for ones he stutters over. And so he's always been inarticulate. He's less long-winded than he used to be because he is older and tighter and perhaps a bit busier. His daily schedule is a shorter version of what it was when he was vice president. There's no doubt that he's older and has less energy.

Maybe I should be a bit more precise with my language: There are no signs of dementia or senility. Sure, there is cognitive decline in the sense that he's slower than he used to be. Perhaps his memory isn't as good as it used to be. Maybe that overlaps with early onset dementia, I don't know. But the people who interact with him say that he's on top of the agenda. And these are people who are not necessarily inclined to build him up and to be boosterish. So I'm persuaded that he's not in sort of some early stage of senility yet, or that the signs aren't visible. I am persuaded that with four more years as president, we could have a Reagan second term situation where he very much is. And that to me, again, it sort of relates to that we're not talking about what happens after November the 5th. And what happens after November the 5th, if Biden wins, is that Biden has four more years as president. Now, if he's already tired and showing signs of flagging towards the end of his first term, the second term's going to be a serious trial. It's going to be a wait for Biden's political exit almost from day one. And that is to me an under-debated element on the Democratic side. And I don't expect that because it's so brittle, the political debate right now. I don't expect that's gonna be given much air time, but it's a serious concern.

Trump's signs of cognitive decline—he didn't use to forget like he's been forgetting, his almost routine-now messing-up of names and confusion of who he's fighting: Is it Obama he's fighting against? His confusion, his inability to articulate words that have more than two or three syllables from his prompt. This is something that we weren't seeing four years ago, to nearly this extent. And we ought to be debating that just as much. But, as I say, because of his sort of physical primal, sort of animalistic impression, it's just not registering to the same degree amongst voters. But it's just as real if Biden had said that he was fighting Romney or somebody on the stump, as Trump said he was fighting Obama. The media would have made a lot more of a fuss about it than it did.

Mounk: So to me, the whole election has felt like a train wreck that everybody is seeing coming from a mile away and not doing anything about, right? It's been clear for a long time that Joe Biden is really quite unpopular. It's been clear for a while that Trump would turn out to be competitive. And everybody is sort of mesmerized by the possibility of Trump winning again and looking at that in fear, in some ways falling into line. 

What do you think, if anything, Democrats can do at this point to improve their chances of victory? Does Biden need to change how he campaigns? Does he need to change his political posture? Does he need to embrace policies he hasn't?

Luce: I think that what the Biden campaign assumes, and I share some of this, is that most American people are not paying attention. They're not obsessed with Supreme Court stays on immunity hearings or Colorado expedited hearings. They're just not following this stuff. Basically, they're tuned out. And in this sense, it's a normal election year. They will start paying attention to a much greater degree from July, August onwards when the conventions start, and particularly from Labor Day. So I think the Biden campaign is right that people are just not paying enough attention to the fact that Trump could be the next president again.

Trump is hated by a majority of America. It's not an overwhelming majority, but more than 50% fear and hate him to one degree or another. That just needs to be activated. He is a turnout machine for Democrats like no other. We saw that in 2020, the highest absolute numbers of votes in American history, one of the highest turnouts in decades. We saw that in the midterms in 2022, when a lot of Trump-endorsed candidates produced a turnout against them and they lost. And the famed “red wave” didn't break. So their assumption is that the third time will be the same as the first two: 2020, 2022, and then 2024. And there is some grounds for thinking that is reasonable, that the polls are underrating Biden right now. 

What makes me nervous is perhaps, because I'm a Brit—I think of David Cameron. He won the Scottish referendum. Then he won the general election. So he thought, let's just roll the dice. We keep winning. Let's just keep the message the same. Grown-ups are in charge, business as usual, and have a Brexit referendum. And we saw what happened then. I'm worried that there is too much complacency and serenity in the Biden campaign. And what they ought to be doing is two things. One is Biden's got to be out there. He has to be out there. The overwhelming issue, as we discussed earlier, is his age and competence. There's only one way to counter that. The second, and this is not in his power, is to kneel by his bed every night and pray that Jay Powell and the US Federal Reserve start cutting interest rates, because nothing would better and more quickly feed through to a sense of consumer well-being than lower interest rates. Nothing that Biden can do to influence that. If he were Trump, he'd be trying to browbeat Jay Powell into doing what he wants, but no single economic gauge could be more effective more quickly than monetary easing.

Mounk: So I broadly agree with what you're saying and I think there's a lot in that. 

But even more broadly, I think there's a perception that people have that the Democratic Party and its allied media and other institutions are way out of the American mainstream. One poll that I keep going back to is that more Americans think that the Democratic Party is too extreme than think that the Republican party is too extreme. Now, they didn't think that about Joe Biden. And in 2020, he seemed vigorous enough that they said, “Well, Biden, I can deal with. He's an old-style Democrat. He cares about working people. As long as he's there, I'm not that scared of the general movement of a Democratic Party.” Now, I think very few Americans hate Joe Biden. But they don't know that he's in charge. And that, it seems to me, is something the Democrats could do something about. You alluded briefly to Keir Starmer’s big lead in the opinion polls in the United Kingdom. Of course, that is in part because the Conservative Party has been in power for a very long time and done a very bad job of it. But it is in part because Starmer has actually cut off the left of his party and thereby demonstrated to people who haven't always voted Labour that they can trust him, that they don't have to be afraid of him in government. I do wonder whether the one thing that the Democrats and the Biden campaign could do is to just make it clear that the left of the party doesn't represent what's going to happen over the next four years.

Luce: I cannot help but remember him giving what became a notorious TikTok interview to a very well known transgender woman, at a time when he wasn't and he still isn't giving real interviews to real newspapers. That kind of virtue signaling, I think, is not confined to the target audience. It gets noticed nationally, picked up and magnified by Fox and One America News. And it gives the impression that while Biden might not be an ultra woke person himself, he's highly tolerant of wokeness. And I think that that's even more reinforced by the image that Kamala Harris has. It plays a heavy role in a lot of voters' minds about what is extreme and what is not extreme. And some of the cultural positions of the progressives in America are considered to be extreme, even if they find no sort of legislative manifestation in Capitol Hill in Washington. The whole sort of language and vocabulary is perceived to be something all Democrats support to one degree or another. So a Sister Souljah moment or a series of Sister Souljah moments, which indicate no, we are grown up here, we get your concerns, I think would be highly merited. 

One other thing that's really important is that opinion polls have shown that a lot of people who are considering voting for Trump would change their mind if he had a criminal conviction. The Supreme Court's basically just taken that away. We can speculate as to a conspiratorial element of that. I think it's a really simple question: There are six Republicans on the court and three Democrats and they tend on these issues to vote with their party, regardless of what judicial language they skillfully dress it up in. And therefore what we have is a potentially massive game changer removed from the equation between now and November. It's very, very unlikely any verdict is now possible. All three of the serious criminal trials now are basically post-November, at which point, he could shut them down. That is, in my view, political obstruction by the Supreme Court of a very, very serious, potentially game-changing nature.

Mounk: Let me challenge you on that a little bit. I've been struck by the extent to which the Supreme Court hasn't done Donald Trump's bidding over the course of the last years. Certainly it has taken deeply conservative decisions that are in keeping with the long-standing goals of the conservative legal movement, particularly when you think about something like the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

But when it has come to issues that really were about sort of helping Trump or the MAGA movement, I think the record is quite different. In 2020, there were many lawsuits that the Trump campaign filed, and they were just universally quashed. And of course, the Supreme Court decided not to come to Trump's rescue. So in light of that, I wonder whether we should give a little bit more grace to the current decision of the Supreme Court and say, look, the question of whether or not the president should enjoy immunity is an incredibly important question that the Supreme Court should consider. I should expect that the Supreme Court comes down on the side of Trump not having this immunity, and I would be saddened if they rule in a different way. But the fact that is the kind of question that the Supreme Court should consider and settle. 

And then there's an argument to be made that, you know, an upcoming election shouldn't factor into that decision to take the case one way or the other. That the Supreme Court should decide on the merits without looking in one way or the other of which political candidate that might favor or disfavor. So I know there's arguments on the other side, but I want you to sort of defend that suspicion you have that there really was a political interest at stake here.

Luce: I think you put the best possible gloss on what the Supreme Court has done. I mean, I have no doubt, in keeping with what you cited from 2020, that when it comes to their ruling on this, the opinion will be a majority in favor of saying that the president doesn't have blanket immunity for actions taken in office. So I don't doubt that the Supreme Court is not going to produce a crazy ruling, it won't. There might be some twists in there we can't anticipate.

The key thing about this is timing. The Supreme Court can hear anything at any point. Under emergency, it can set its own timetable. It has to complete carte blanche to do so. The special counsel, Jack Smith, asked them in December to expedite because of the political timetable, the hearing to the immunity appeal that the Trump lawyers had submitted. They said no, it should be heard by the Federal Appeals Court in the District of Columbia, which then produced a unanimous and very scathing judgment on the Trump team's argument that a president could use Navy SEAL-6 teams to assassinate political rivals, that he could basically do anything. It was a really clear opening shot, at which point the Supreme Court could have said “That's enough” or “We will hear it, but we will hear it quickly.” Instead, what it did was it chose to hear it on the last possible date in its term, which is April 22nd, which puts a stay on all federal trials of Trump. And means there won't be a ruling until late June, possibly early July, that the court case at the very earliest can't start till August and because of the Department of Justice rule that you can’t have materially political cases within 60 days of an election, this will almost certainly not start until after November or if it does start before November, it’s 99% sure you won't get a verdict before then, at which point he shuts down the trial if he wins. So I think this is sophisticated but blatant political interference. It's political obstruction and it's not the substance of what they would ultimately rule, but through time.

Mounk: What's the second Trump term going to look like for America and for the world? How worried should we be?

Luce: Project 2025 is worth reading. This is the Heritage-led, conservative think tank-crowdsourced plan for the next Republican president. They don't specify Trump, but it's clearly for Trump. It wouldn't work for, say, Nikki Haley. And the last time they did this was in 1980 with Reagan, and Reagan came in and he implemented about 70% of what was in the document. Reagan being Reagan, he hadn’t done deep sort of dive policy thinking. He had certain precepts and philosophical stances, but he wasn't a policy wonk and Heritage did it for him, and he implemented most of it. And so I think Trump is not that dissimilar. He has instincts. He has personal agendas. He's very dissimilar to Reagan in other respects, but he is unprepared and he will take this off the shelf. And what it suggests is, from a Financial Times point of view, very much doubling down on anti-globalisation, having a much more protectionist America, a more of a “Fortress America” in terms of immigration, federalizing national guards to have mass deportations and building and funding the detention centers to round them up. I think all of these to some degree or another will happen. Whether Trump will formally withdraw from NATO is I think almost a red herring. He would, by declaring Article 5 to be essentially conditional on whether a country is spending enough money on defense, deprive NATO of the core article of its vitality, so NATO will de facto die under Trump. I'm not sure he would start wars, the only one I sort of really fear is Iran. 

I think the results will be terrible for the West. I don't think there'll be quite the sort of roiling of global stability, as people might fear. The fear I have is for American democracy. And I think there's a very clear plan there, there are personnel available. There won't be, as in 2016, adults put in. There won't be people like Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State or General Kelly as Chief of Staff. You might get a Steve Mnuchin-type again at Treasury. But basically you'll get hardcore Trumpians who believe in the agenda like Rick Grenell, Kash Patel, Steve Bannon's come way back into favor, incidentally, maybe he would have a role again. You will have hardcore Trumpians from day one, with a plan this time. Remember in 2016, nobody had a plan, nobody was expecting this. This time there will be a fairly fleshed out Trumpianism and I think the auguries for American democracy, for the republic’s stability, would be very dark.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.