CNN’s Defterios: Trump ‘is threatening the core of democracy’

CNN’s Defterios: Trump ‘is threatening the core of democracy’

In an interview with Kathimerini held before a final verdict was given on the US presidential race, CNN journalist John Defterios stressed incumbent Donald Trump’s determination to challenge the result in court, disregarding the perils of such a move.

Defterios explained Trump’s enduring popularity among the American electorate, underscoring the fact that his supporters demonstrate dedication that is cult-like.

In the same interview, he predicted that instability in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean will continue.

Why do you think Trump is still so popular? That’s one question that’s on everybody’s mind today.

It’s a question I get all the time, in terms of people saying, “Where does this support come from?” We have to recognize that the US is extremely polarized. If you look at the map from the center of the country, from the Midwest, and then move down to the right and an arch down to the southeast, this is the Trump base. I think this is a backlash against globalization over the last 25 years and the transition from the GATT treaty to the World Trade Organization. 

The developed economies – with the US included here – didn’t prepare their citizenry for the competition that’s coming from China and the developing world. So the Trump base has been communicated with this idea of “Make America Great Again.” The real translation is, “Let’s protect the American worker again and throw up barriers and raise a lot of heat with China,” which has not benefited the US economy but it makes this base feel better. 

Now this is a complex issue, but the bottom line is this is the group that was widely addicted during the opioid crisis – in the Midwest, in the south of rural America – (they're) very passionate, almost a cult-like following to Donald Trump. So these are the red states. They have this perception that he delivers right across the board on the economy. I think it’s more of a sales pitch than the reality of what we have today. But their loyalty is because he puts this at the top of the agenda, communicating with these people, and the economy, before the Covid-19 shock. How do you explain the fact that while he has mishandled the Covid crisis, this seems to have had no impact on a large part of the population? As an American it’s a tough thing to explain, but it comes down to free liberties. They have couched this debate, about wearing a mask for example, with the removal of a right to freedom, to even the right to bear arms. Nobody wants anybody to mess around with their ammunition and arms control and gun control. They think this is taking something away. 

And again, the president has said, “I don’t want to lock down the economy and I want these people to be able to work again,” so it’s been framed not as a health issue – and America has the highest death rate per population, and also the highest infection rate per population – but more “You’re encroaching on my freedoms, I don’t like big government, I don’t like high taxes, I don’t want anybody to tell me what I should do with my guns.” 

And he’s framed that into the debate when it comes to the health crisis as well. Now, I think we have another crisis in the United States, partially because the elites and leadership over the last generation have not ever communicated with this base. It started with Fox News and seeing that Main Street America was ignored. And they lit a torch going back 20 years ago with the development of Fox – and you have to give credit to Donald Trump for latching on to the movement – if you will, speaking their language, even though he’s a billionaire by trade, was born with a silver spoon. They identify because of the language he’s using about the hardworking lower class of America. 

We also have an education crisis with this working class because they can’t compete in the world arena because they don’t have the right training or education. So they’re suffering due to the transition of globalization, but it’s couched now under the Trump mantra as “making America great again.” “Let’s protect the American uneducated worker by throwing up trade barriers, cutting taxes for companies to grow, and then driving up the employment rate.” He’s not been a fiscal conservative in the real traditional sense with Republicans, but his base doesn’t care. That’s reality.

At this point, it seems that this election is going to be dragged out probably in the courts. How do you view this? Is it really dangerous for the standing of the US worldwide? Some people are even talking about some sort of civil strife within the country. How do you see all that?

We saw the electoral vote count led by Joe Biden, so this is why Donald Trump immediately put out a press statement saying that this is a shame or a fraud against the American people – again communicating with his base. Almost an alarm, to say “You stand ready,” as he did with the Proud Boys. They have armed militias. So I don’t want to overplay it to you, but there is a real threat. 

If it does not go in the direction that Donald Trump is looking for after he does exercise all the might of the court system, even taking it to the Supreme Court, he has a huge advantage today. It could lead to civil unrest. Every vote counts. There is a threat against democracy if, for some reason, the courts decide that the counting after election day does not count. But it doesn’t make any sense at all because we shifted because of Covid-19 – 90 million voters going in for a mainland ballot. The Trump administration through the different governors stopped the vote counting before the election so they couldn’t get those votes counted because they’re heavily Democratic, so it was a very calculating move. And then, after saying that if you count after the polls closed on November 3 they don’t count, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. 

But he’s really threatening the core of democracy and the voting system. He doesn’t like structure, he doesn’t like the international architecture, but… he spends most of his time trying to break the structures. So again, he serves as the rebel supporting white working-class America, and they love the bellicose language that he uses.

I gather from what you’re saying that even if Trump is defeated, Trumpism will be around for a while, right?

I don’t think so. In fact if Trump is defeated here, I think this would be a flash in the pan, and the Republican Party can reset to the center again. There’s a danger here if Trump wins, and I’ll just put out a different proposal here. If Trump wins, that means the Democratic Party would lunge to the left, because the criticism of Joe Biden is that he was playing the centrist card, trying to win the Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio. If indeed Trump stays in office, expect the AOCs and the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warrens to move the party to the left, which I think strategically would be a mistake. We’ve learned the lesson though: The victories are won in the middle. And you hear a lot of Republican veterans say it’s time for a Republican reset. I tell you, the next two weeks is going to be very, very uncertain, which I think is going to wake up the financial markets by the way at the same time – put in doubt the structure and leadership of the United States.

What do you mean by that?

People are suggesting that China and Russia were agitating the system and interfering on social media platforms in support of Joe Biden. I think to the contrary here. I think the two – if you take the Chinese and Russian model – if they can agitate the system, it provides instability for the US model of democracy. So whether it’s Donald Trump or Joe Biden right now, it allows the Chinese and the Russians, for example, to take a step back. And I understand they did intervene but, if that’s the case – and this is the premise that people are using – that allows their models to look strong for the future, that democracy is waning, that liberalism is on the wane right now. If you take a look at the UK system with Brexit, one would say the same: They marched to Brexit. They’re trying to negotiate an exit. The Tory party didn’t have a good response to Covid-19. It looks like democracy in many states around the world – those in the G7 – are afraid right now, and this is a real challenge to the largest economy, what was the global leader in the world – if you look at the model, if it goes through this exercise, a challenging of the vote by a renegade Donald Trump.

How do you think this election is going to impact the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and more specifically Greece and Turkey? As you know, we have a big problem with Turkey around here. Trump seems to have a very close, special relationship with Erdogan. How do you see things developing in that respect?

OK, let’s cover the kind of the wider Middle East – it’s almost monopolar, if you will. Here in the Gulf states where I’m sitting in Abu Dhabi, six Gulf states look at Iran – with the exception of Oman, which tries to remain neutral – and they say that is the number one issue for them and that’s why Donald Trump has supported them very transactionally on defense sales of US equipment to the Gulf states. So that was a transactional move. Joe Biden said that he would come back and re-engage with the Iranians, probably not to the level that President Obama was doing ahead of the dismantling of that agreement by Donald Trump. So that’s the key issue here. Would Joe Biden re-engage with Iran? That would change the mix. The Abraham accords will make it more difficult for Joe Biden or any other US leader to put a wedge between the Gulf states and Israel in the future because they actually see the future against Iran, the same. So I would expect a much more moderate package from Joe Biden. If Trump stays in I would expect more pressure, and potentially a number of sources worry about a surprise attack against Iran. A future of Trump in office I think raises insecurity in the region as well. 

When it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean, I’ve had sources in the intelligence community from Eastern Europe say it is the most dangerous spot in the world right now, which raised eyebrows for me two years ago, and it’s played out exactly as this person was suggesting because there’s gas assets at stake here. I think Donald Trump kind of sees the world in the same way as President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, taking a tough line, kicking up some dust, being the rebel in the region. And this could strain relations with Greece, and within NATO itself. So that’s the real danger. But I think – in favor of Greece when it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean – this is a strong alliance. The way I see it, Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, backing from France, Chancellor [Angela] Merkel backing the Greek position, ready to serve as a mediator if this thing needs to come to a close, it works. I think if Joe Biden came in, I think he’d be actually much more engaged in the Eastern Mediterranean, and he would try to find a solution. I think Donald Trump would never challenge Erdogan, or Vladimir Putin for that matter. I think this could drag into a very dangerous direction.

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