Steven Erlanger is the London Bureau Chief for the New York Times. He has reported in over 120 countries and is the recipient of numerous awards for journalistic excellence, including the Pulitzer prize for Explanatory Reporting on al Qaeda in 2002. We were able to speak to him following the London School of Economic’s US Centre’s panel discussion on, “The Evening After the Night Before: analysing Super Tuesday”, which was held on 2nd March 2016.
(AH) I wanted to start by challenging a couple of points about Media orthodoxy during the campaign. The first point is that the media has been really shocked about the rise of Trump, and he’s rather like Berlusconi rolled into the playbook of Marine le Pen in France and the rise of the National Front. So firstly, why is the media so surprised? Wasn’t this idea of a radical populist party in the US coming our way? Secondly, Trump’s comments have been perceived as “mistakes”, but are these really mistakes or is he just very astute about who his voter base is and what message will connect with them?
I don’t usually think of the media as a collective, because its very varied. But I think in this case, its true the media generally were surprised. Why? Partly because we are actually fairly conventional thinkers, which is part of the problem. There is an issue about the same sorts of people in the media. That’s less true now in social media and blogs and so on. But I think it is surprising – I mean, to have someone so vulgar, so noisy, so willing to say whatever comes into his head, to offend all sorts of people; breaks taboos of political rhetoric that I find shocking, and I think many people do too. Its made him popular but I think also people knew there was anger about inequality and jobs. At the same time, the economy’s not so bad, unemployment’s 5%, but there really is a – if I can characterize it – a white, male anger about the way the world is going and the way the United States seems to be going that Trump has really tapped into.
(AH) You were Paris Bureau Chief before you came to London, and it seems that Trump has assembled the same sort of coalition as the National Front, with voters who used to vote for the French Communist Party, and Trump is tapping into these anti-globalisation sentiments..
In a way, yes, but of course France really is a very different place and Trump’s father wasn’t running the National Front before him and we don’t have the same problems of identity and integration that the French do. We don’t have licente, we don’t have lots of things. We’re a much more accommodating culture of migrants – that’s our myth. So I’m not sure that’s an exact parallel, but what does work is the anger of people who’ve suffered from globalisation, who’ve suffered because factories have shut, because output has moved abroad; not just to China, but to Turkey, to Cambodia, to lots of places. People who don’t see their lives getting better, who don’t see their children’s lives getting better, who feel that the United States is not as respected in the world. All that is parallel to what drives Marine le Pen. I’m not sure these people were left-wing in the same way. In France, the far left and the far right are kissing cousins, in America we don’t really have either one.
(AH) The media has responded to Trump’s candidacy as being vulgar and over the top in ways we haven’t seen before, and we’ve also seen a shift in the way the media has chosen to cover him. The New York Times wrote in an Editorial that he was a shady, bombastic liar which was surprising as it seems that they think that covering him objectively means something completely different than taking a non-partisan stance..
Well the other thing you should remember is we really do keep a division between the Editorial opinion of the paper and our reporting. What you’re citing is an Editorial, by the Editorial writers, and not by reporters. And the reporters are having a very difficult time because they’re trying to be as balanced as they can be, to be analytical, to be cold. I think part of the problem is that he’s intimidated so many people. I mean, if you look at his rallies, any source of criticism is met with insult and people gather around protestors – these are not journalists who are protesting – and they yell, “Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump!” and its actually a little terrifying, frankly. We’ve had a hard time. Have we done a perfect job? No. We started covering Hillary Clinton a very long time ago and we’ve only caught up with Trump more recently. But as I said downstairs, I’m not sure Trump himself expected to get this far along in the process, so I think its been a learning experience for everybody!
(AH) One of Trump’s latest lines is about expanding libel law to allow people to go after the press more easily for the things they write. And he’s been quite restrictive with a lot of the press at his events, treating access as a bargaining chip – because he loves bargaining! Is there a conflict of interest where Trump is a click-bait dream but at the same time he’s dangling access to the press?
Well what he’s doing, is he’s running a television campaign. Everybody’s running a television campaign. If you’re in mainstream print media, its not new that you’re having trouble getting time and attention. People aren’t interested - I mean, candidates see it as riskier to sit down with someone like me, and a tape recorder, than to go live on TV. So those have been restricted. He’s actually opened himself up to all kinds of interviews. I mean, the man loves to talk about himself! But media management has gotten very sophisticated, I have to say. And its hard to break through it. Have we asked always the right questions? Its hard to know.
(TO) Super Tuesday is a tremendously important date in the US political calendar, and it’s the first real test of a presidential candidate’s national electability. So does it worry you that the Republicans have not been able to stop the Trump train, and do you think they’re probably wishing they could time travel back to nine months ago, and stop it in its tracks?
Its not for me to worry one way or another, but I’m surprised! One thing that interests me is the closeness of the Republican party. I mean, I expected Jeb Bush to do better – not necessarily to win – but to last longer, to have a bigger impact. He turned out to be a very weak candidate. The other disappointment I think for the Republicans, is that they settled on Rubio as the next best candidate and he hasn’t done very well. I mean, he’s come in third or second in most places. The only state he’s won now is Minnesota. And that was caucuses. There’ll be a big test in two weeks when Florida votes, because Florida is a winner-take-all states. He’s from Florida, so if he loses to Trump there, I think its really over. But it’ll be a fight for the delegates and one of our panellists said quite rightly that some candidates are staying in to try and deny Trump enough votes so that the convention is contested. And in a contested convention, different things can happen.
(AH) To follow up on that, do you think the Republican party will not be able to stitch their party back together, because they imagined that it coalesced around small-government, orthodox conservatism, and now there are separate halves, with sets of beliefs held by people following Trump and the traditional Republicans respectively?
Trump’s not a traditional “anything”, which is the point really. I mean, he ran in a Republican race. He could have run as a Democrat in some ways. I think if he loses it’ll be a lot like the Goldwater experience; as “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice” sort of thing was the famous Goldwater line. And people saw him as very hard-right and very conservative, and he lost and the party recouped and moved on. So I think if Trump loses, the party will gather again. If he wins, he will change the party – there’s no question because of the power of the Presidency. And obviously the people running for the Senate and Congress this time really are going to have to gauge how their own fate fits with a Trump candidacy for President. It’s a lot like the Labour party here and Jeremy Corbyn. I mean, how do the MPs respond, is their best bet to go with Corbyn or to fight Corbyn or to keep their distance from Corbyn? It’s the same problem.
(TO) And if Trump wins, how do you think he will change the GOP and will he change it to the extent that it is no longer recognizable?
Well, I don’t think he’s going to win but I may be wrong! If he does win, he will definitely change it because the party has to rule, and he’ll have a lot of impact in terms of who he chooses for his cabinet and the kind of legislation that he picks. The Republican party has changed a lot anyway; in the history of America its already changed a lot. I don’t think parties stop changing, but my expectation is that if he does get the nomination, he will run a fairly close race and lose, and the Republicans will go, “Oh thank God” and move on to somebody else.
(AH) So maybe we should move on to the Democrats. Sanders has been completely dominant with the 18-35yrs demographic. He’s been winning anywhere between 75-85% of the vote. Has there ever been a candidate in the recent past who’s been so crushingly dominant with the youth?
Clinton was pretty popular, I think. It is fascinating, I mean one of the things that strikes me is how old everybody is!
(AH) And the oldest guy is winning the youngest votes!
Well exactly! And what is he really appealing to is the question. He says the system stinks, its unfair, its unequal, its too corporate, there’s not enough social justice; we need to change it. Now these are things that kids, young people, like anyway, and its always been a very strong wing of the Democratic party. It has rarely been a majority wing of the Democratic party and I don’t think it’s a majority wing now.
(AH) Although, it arguably propelled Obama to his victories..
It helps, but also helps Blacks and Hispanics. It changes, but I think what’s driving people now is the sense that “my future doesn’t look very good”, and its because of the system which is stacked against me. And there are also at the same time a lot of older, white guys who feel that the system is stacked against them too in terms of unions and factories closing and too much stuff being made in Asia. You have this conjunction which has made Sanders very popular while Hillary seems truly establishment. The odd thing about Hillary is how high her negatives are. People don’t trust her, and to me one of the most interesting things has been the way young women have broken for Sanders rather than the only female candidate in the race. And if that means that young women feel that their path is clearer to a good future in America regardless of gender, that’s great. But you know, I’m not sure what it means. I think partly it just means they’re attracted to the Sanders ideas and see Hillary as part of the establishment and too corrupted by power and Goldman Sachs.
(AH) And why has Bernie Sanders called himself a Socialist as opposed to a Social Democrat?
Well, he really is a Democratic Socialist. He’s more of a Scandinavian type. He actually grew up quite left-wing. I mean, this kibbutz that he was on in Israel was very close to the Soviet Union. It was years and years and years ago; the ideology of the kibbutz started in the ‘20s and ‘30s. But he’s always been very attracted to social justice, to collectivism, to societies that are built on that degree of fairness and socialism, that’s true. But in his own career, you’d call him on the left wing of the Democratic party. Gore Vidal used to joke saying that we have only one party in America called the property party, and it has a left wing and a right wing. I don’t think that’s true of Bernie Sanders. But I think Gore Vidal who’s dead would be shocked by the popularity of Bernie Sanders and be very pleased by it.
(TO) Leading on from that, there was an article in the Huffington Post, wherein the writer claimed that, “Hillary has used up most of her ammo and doesn’t even know what kind of trouble she’s in.” What do you think of this; do you think she’s going to start feeling the Bern or do you think she’s in the clear?
She’s very hard to read. I think she’s going to get the nomination and part of what she has to decide is if Trump is running against her, what kind of campaign to run. Does she get down and dirty with Tump or does she try to say, you know, it’s a dignified office and I’m going to be dignified? I think the numbers tend to favour the Democrats anyway, but her vulnerabilities are real and Sanders is playing out some of them and Trump is going to be quite vicious to try and get under her skin. And its not hard to get under her skin - she gets very defensive. You know, she’s been in public life for so long that there are lots of ways to attack her. And she has changed her position on lots of things. I think if I had to bet now, I’d still bet on a President Clinton, but its early days yet.
(AH) And how do you think she’ll pull in the Sanders supporters who are pledging that its Sanders or bust, and that they will not vote for Hillary Clinton?
Well, what you may have, are people who are fervent on both sides who stay home. Turnout may be low and some of these people may not vote for Clinton but they’re certainly not going to vote for Trump. Its hard to imagine a Sanders voter voting for Trump. Its possible I suppose, and there are a lot of mainstream Republicans who won’t vote for Clinton but won’t vote for Trump either, and will stay home. Both of them are old and who they pick as their Vice Presidential candidates will be really interesting. Professor Trubowitz feels very strongly that Hillary will pick a white man because of the trouble she had with Pennsylvania and white men. I don’t know; I mean, it gets very cynical at this stage, where people look at where they really need votes and frankly, if she feels Sanders supporters won’t vote for Trump, she might spend a little less time worrying about them.
(TO) In the eventuality we do have a Trump vs Clinton showdown, which strategy do you think will be more successful for Clinton – playing dirty or taking the “moral high ground”?
Moral high ground and Clinton don’t always go together! I think she’s best off trying to be dignified. I think there are other people who will attack Trump but I think there will be very good research into this difficulties, the problems of his business, his contradictions to a lot of fact-testing. Its going to be one-on-one, its going to be very, very, very tough. I mean, she’s just not as good in the trenches as he is. This is a guy who loves picking out what he thinks are people’s vulnerabilities and going after them like a school-room bully. And she can be tough, but when she gets angry she tends to be strident and that doesn’t go over very well with people either. So I would expect her to try to stay a little bit above the dirt - she can’t stay above the fray - and let other people sling the mud for her.
(TO) And lastly, if Trump were to come runner-up to Clinton in his bid for the Presidency, do you think he’s going to be happy going back to being a business magnate, or do you think he will try and stay in politics in some shape or form?
I don’t know – you’d have to read into his mind. My guess is that he’ll consider this a great adventure and he’ll go back to managing his business, because he doesn’t have the patience to work at it for another four years waiting for another chance. That’s not the kind of guy he is! To me, almost every politician is a flawed personality, and Trump seems to me – I have to be careful what I say – a very interesting psychological study. My guess is that he’s having a lot of fun, my guess is that in real life he’s a little bit more sensible and balanced, understands what trading is about. But there’s no question he’s an extraordinary narcissist and a bit of a bully. We’ll see if the American people want that personality as their President.