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21st Jan 2021

Interview

2017: 'We're lucky Trump didn't know what he was doing'

  • US president Donald Trump: EU leaders stopped meeting him (Photo: The White House)

"Are you crying, Anne Applebaum?", the British radio host asked.

It was off-the-mike and early in the morning, London time, on 9 November 2016, in the studio of BBC Radio Four's flagship Today programme and Applebaum, a US journalist and historian, was holding her head in her hands, while listening to a live-feed of Donald Trump's presidential victory speech in Washington.

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  • Anne Applebaum (l) is a US historian and journalist (Photo: msz.gov.pl)

"Of course, I wasn't [crying], but it must have looked that way," Applebaum said, recalling the moment four years later.

It was "still shocking and upsetting," she said.

"I said, at the time, this is potentially the end of the Western alliance ... the end of an era," she added.

And for the next four years, following his inauguration in January 2017, Trump did what he could to prove her right.

He made up foreign policy as he went along.

His only idea was to pick fights and his only motive was personal gain.

"The problem with him [Trump] isn't that he's stupid. [It's that] he's very uneducated. He knows very little about the world," Applebaum said.

And the other problem was that "he is amoral," she added.

"One of the reasons why he was always so hard for people to understand was that his only interest - I mean, his only interest - was himself," she said.

"All his policies were designed to benefit him personally or psychologically," she added.

"That's why he's such a confusing political figure," she said.

Trump was "rude to the [former] British leader ... Theresa May. He was rude to [German chancellor] Angela Merkel. He was rude to [French president Emmanuel] Macron," Applebaum said.

"He acted as if [Nato] was some kind of mafia, in which people had to pay up to be part of it," she added.

He picked a trade fight with China, but he lost, because he had torn up US trade pacts with the EU and with Asian democracies, which had been designed to contain Chinese power.

He picked a fight with Iran on nuclear arms-funding, but he also lost, because he destroyed Western unity on sanctions.

"Now, the US doesn't trade with Iran, but other people quietly do ... It's a mess," Applebaum said.

One of Trump's most amoral moments came in 2019, when he tried to extort Ukraine's president to fabricate dirt on his US-election rival, Joe Biden, by threatening to cut off military aid to Ukraine.

It saw Trump impeached and almost lose office, but there were similar moments on the domestic front.

"We've never had an American president before who said to the state of California: 'I won't help you with your fires because you don't vote for me'. Unthinkable, in the past, but that's what he [Trump] did," Applebaum said, referring to Californian wildfires of record proportions in summer 2020.

Trump at the EU Council in Brussels (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Nadir

Other presidents had also harmed US interests and values in the past.

But for Applebaum, Trump was "a real low in American history".

"I don't know the first half of the 19th century so well, but he was the first American president in at least a century to behave like that," she said.

Meanwhile, Trump's needs came out in other ways.

He cosied up to autocratic Russian president Vladimir Putin, for instance.

In one "odd and creepy" incident after a summit in Helsinki in 2018, Applebaum recalled, Trump publicly sided with Putin against US intelligence services in saying Russia had not interfered in the 2016 US election.

But the psychology of Trump's relations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was even stranger, Applebaum said.

"I think we'll look back at that with just wonder and amazement that that really happened - the [Trump and Jong-un] meetings and the exchange of love letters [in 2018]. That was really bizarre," she said.

For their part, EU leaders began to stop meeting Trump, as time went by.

When he invited Merkel to a summit in the US in May as a pre-election campaign stunt, for instance, "she [Merkel] didn't want to get involved and just said: 'No'," Applebaum noted.

"People came to understand that ... if you went to seem him [Trump], you'd just be humiliated. He'd say something stupid in a press conference and you'd be embarrassed," Applebaum said.

Trump (r) with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Photo: whitehouse.gov)

Lucky

Some of the harm Trump did cannot be undone.

But looking back on events - one day after Trump's mini-era ended, when he lost his re-election bid on 7 November 2020 - Applebaum said the West had also been "lucky".

"We're lucky we got that kind of autocrat, who didn't know how government works," she said.

"He [Trump] could have done a lot more damage, if he understood what he was doing," she added.

Trump has, falsely, claimed Biden rigged the 2020 election because that was his last idea how to stay alive in US politics, Applebaum said.

"I don't think he [Trump] is ever going to really concede ... he's going to use that [conspiracy theory] to galvanise his political base, to make people angry for a long time to come," she said.

But if Trump also picked a fight with reality, by screaming about "fake news" on Twitter, then, in some quarters, the truth was winning, Applebaum indicated.

"It turned out to be good for some journalism because, when people understood they needed reliable information ... there was a huge wave of subscriptions to [US publications] the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even my magazine, The Atlantic," she said.

"The Atlantic has hundreds of thousands of new subscribers," she said.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.
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