Barack Obama has sleepless nights – says his close adviser Ben Rhodes. In the t-online interview, he reveals why they are both so worried about the US election and the dramatic consequences for the world they fear if Trump is re-elected.
Ben Rhodes was one of Barack Obama’s closest advisers in the White House – and has remained so after leaving the government. You exchange ideas almost every day, says the foreign policy advisor to the ex-president in an interview with t-online.
Rhodes reveals how much he and the ex-president fear for the continued existence of American democracy. “Obama is very, very concerned that we are closer to the edge than many people realize,” said Rhodes. He also talks about how to fix US democracy and where Joe Biden can turn back time.
t-online: Mr. Rhodes, what is at stake for America in this election?
Rhodes: Our democracy. One cannot exaggerate the dangers that four more years of Trump pose to American democracy. It took Trump two to three years to master the system. There were also colleagues like the three generals who checked his impulses.
You mean the so-called adults in the room who have since left: Defense Secretary Mattis, Chief of Staff Kelly, Security Advisor McMaster.
I agree. Now Trump has placed loyalists in the Justice Department and the National Security Council and is finding it much easier to break laws and norms. If he is re-elected, it will look like the Americans approve of this. Then we look like Hungarians and are a corrupt autocracy with a politicized judiciary. It is then no longer like the America in which I grew up. We are then on the way to a completely different reality.
Ben Rhodes, 42, is one of Barack Obama’s most important advisors. He served the US President as Deputy National Security Advisor for the entire eight years in office. Rhodes wrote key foreign policy speeches for the president and negotiated rapprochement with Cuba. After leaving the White House, he founded an NGO and works for Obama’s foundation.
What is at stake for the world?
Now people will say I sound alarmist, but two big things can change for the entire world: Trump’s re-election will validate this nationalist course that we are now seeing everywhere. I fear that this will not only lead to rhetorical conflicts, but to tangible conflicts. When you have authoritarian nationalists in power like Trump, Putin (Russia), Xi (China), Modi (India), Erdogan (Turkey), Bolsonaro (Brazil), it doesn’t end well. That will lead to war. We just don’t know where, whether in Taiwan or in the South China Sea, in the Eastern Mediterranean or on the borders of Russia. Have we really learned nothing from history?
And the other point?
I fear armed conflict and I worry about the problems like climate change that need to be solved but that these people will not solve. Not just because they don’t have the right approaches, but because these nationalists don’t even work together. You can see that at Covid: These leaders cannot work together. I really don’t mean to exaggerate, but what is at stake on November 3rd is democracy in America, the risk of conflict in the world, and the ability to solve big problems like climate change.
Meeting in the Oval Office (June 2010): Ben Rhodes (center) with Barack Obama and advisor David Axelrod. (Source: Pete Souza / The White House)
Many in the world – including those who mean well with the US – will probably not forgive the Americans if they elect Trump again.
I feel the same way. I often try to explain this to my fellow citizens: it is not the fact that Donald Trump is President that alarms people around the world. It is the fact that we chose someone like that. What a profoundly irresponsible act that was! The world has often disagreed with US policy, and certainly not with our foreign policy, and yet recognized that, given the alternatives, the US was the safest choice to be at the wheel of the international system.
We practically put a drunk behind the wheel and thereby endangered everyone. What will happen now, what will happen in four years? Do we choose a madman again? As a foreign politician, I would think: Why should I negotiate with the Americans, conclude an agreement, when the next madman comes along and reverses everything?
they describe in your book the agreements of the Obama years, in which you yourself played an important role: the nuclear deal with Iran, the Paris climate protection treaty, the rapprochement with Cuba. Trump reversed all of that. Now Joe Biden comes in and says he’ll go back to this deal. Is it really that easy to turn back the clock?
We can go 100 percent back to the Paris Climate Agreement and then try to improve it. It was always designed in such a way that it should develop further. But of course the world has changed since then. So you can’t just turn back the clock. What was the Trump administration spending energy on Iran? But at the moment the challenges from China and Russia are more important, climate change and disinformation, artificial intelligence and the pandemic.
What does that mean for a possible Biden government?
The Biden people should also avoid the mistake of getting stuck on the old issues. Foreign policy no longer automatically means negotiating with Iran, peace in the Middle East or terrorism, these are no longer the most important issues. They also play a role, of course, but not the most important. As a country we have new problems ahead of us and we have to break free of old thought patterns.
How can America repair itself?
You have to keep explaining to the world that the mood hasn’t shifted that much. Trump got three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. But many factors have come together: The Republicans have radicalized, more money has gone into politics, there are real echo chambers …
… Also thanks to Fox News and Facebook, where right-wing opinion makers now dominate.
Right. The world doesn’t understand why 40 percent of Americans support Trump because they don’t watch Fox News or read right-wing Facebook. Donald Trump became president not because all Americans went mad, but because some Americans went mad. To regain the world’s trust, we need to fix that. We don’t have to fix our foreign policy, although we certainly have to, but above all the world needs to see that we can fix our own democracy.
Ben Rhodes (at a press conference in August 2014): “Now we’ve kind of got a drunk behind the wheel.” (Source: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Do you think the election will be a referendum on Trump and his corona management?
Yes, there will be a referendum on Trump, not just on Corona. He’s adept at always specifying the topics: law and order, postal voting, China, whatever. But in the end it’s a vote on Trump. The Biden campaign is clever by just letting that happen. Biden offers a return to competence and normalcy and that is the clearest contrast to Trump.
Are you sure Trump will lose?
I am sure that if the people can actually vote, Trump will lose. But I’m not sure that will really be possible because there are the usual attempts to keep blacks from voting and the new attempts to disrupt the postal vote and the effort to keep the turnout low by saying that Voting makes no difference anyway. The question is, will this be a free and fair choice or not? If so, I can hardly imagine Biden losing. But I’m not sure it will be a free and fair choice. So there is a scenario in which Trump can win.
How often do you still talk to Barack Obama?
Almost every day. We mostly write text messages to each other. I sometimes work for him and his foundation. If he ever wants to speak to Angela Merkel, then I’ll do it. But most of all, we talk about the situation in the country, like all other people who want to figure out what’s going on.
And? What does he rhyme about America in 2020?
He is very worried. For years we have been talking about our democracies in danger of falling apart. Obama is very, very concerned that we are closer to the precipice than many people realize.
How does he fix that?
The democratic norms are dissolving, and now this is linked to the race question. It can get dangerous in America very quickly. Obama knows this, of course, because his successor in the White House once made a career out of the lie that Obama was born in Africa. So this is nothing new to him. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, but five years ago we couldn’t imagine that paramilitary forces would one day walk through America’s inner cities harassing protesters.
… like the units sent by Trump to the protests in Portland …
I agree. So please imagine where we could be in four years! When you tie race issues with this type of authoritarianism, you can get into very dark places quickly, and that is Obama’s concern. As the international order disintegrates, American democracy is also disintegrating, which is what gives Obama sleepless nights.
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Does he see something in Trump that gets lost in everyday reporting?
Obama does not see Trump as an outlier, but as typical of the new Republican Party. Since he was elected in 2008, Obama has watched the party radicalize itself through the Tea Party or the Birther conspiracy theory that Obama is not an American. The radical, the conspiracies, Fox News and social media spawned Trump. Obama understands this very well because he has seen it himself for eight years.
In the second part of the interview, Rhodes speaks about the German-American relationship under Trump and, if Joe Biden wins, he reveals how Barack Obama and Angela Merkel keep in touch. Part two comes out on Wednesday.