02.11.2020

Obama’s staffer Ben Rhodes: Donald Trump will say anything about anybody except Vladimir Putin

Ben Rhodes is an American writer and political commentator. He was Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama and is the host of the nine-part limited podcast series “Missing America” which explores the impact of President Trump’s foreign policy.

Zhanna Nemtsova talks with Ben Rhodes ahead of the U.S. presidential election, perceived by many to be a historic one.

Ben Rhodes. The White House.

There are both structural barriers like money, and there is the fact that American politics has been dominated by a small number of people for a long time like the Bush family and Trump in the Republican Party and the Clintons and Obama in the Democratic Party.”

Zhanna Nemtsova: If you look at the two latest U.S. presidential campaigns, you see old politicians contesting against each other. Does the American political system have substantial barriers that prevent young people, without connections and money, from entering American politics?

Ben Rhodes: Yes, I think it does. One of the most significant barriers is money. One of the more important things that has happened in U.S. politics in recent generations that is not fully understood is the Citizens United Supreme Court decision which essentially allowed for unlimited money in politics, and this further created a system where it is so expensive to run for President – it is so expensive even to run for the offices that are usually stepping stones to President – that it really puts the power in a small number of people, either political donors or the leaders of political parties. I think that this becomes a huge barrier to people, because in order to run for President, you need either to have held a different high office or you need to have high name recognition. And it costs a lot of money.

The other thing is that, in both political parties, there have been enormous figures that have taken up a lot of attention in the last several decades. So, in the Democratic Party, in addition to Barack Obama, the Clintons took up all the space from 1992 to 2016. The combination of the Clintons and Obama kept new faces in the Democratic Party from emerging. We kind of skipped generations. And if you looked at the Democratic primary this year, there were either very old candidates like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren where it skipped all the way down to people in their 30s or 40s. There were not a lot of prominent politicians in that age group of Obama and the Clintons because they froze the field in the Democratic Party. And on the Republican side, Trump just took over the party obviously.

There are both structural barriers like money, and there is the fact that American politics has been dominated by a small number of people for a long time like the Bush family and Trump in the Republican Party and the Clintons and Obama in the Democratic Party.

What is your take on political dynasties?

I think it is a bad tendency, and it has had very bad results for Americans. If you look at the Bush dynasty, George W. Bush never would have been elected Governor and President if he wasn’t his father’s son. He was not an accomplished person other than his father’s son. And the Bush presidency demonstrated that he wasn’t qualified to be President. He was in over his head on a lot of issues, and that led to Iraq war, and that led in some ways to financial crisis.

When it comes to the Clinton dynasty, what you saw in 2016 is how much resentment can build up if it feels like people are not leaving the political scene. I don’t agree with the resentments that Republicans felt toward Hillary Clinton, but we have to understand them. I think that they were rooted in a belief that these people have been around for 30 years, they were in power and, then they seemed to profit off of their power when they were out of the government. And then they wanted the power back. And that became a very potent argument for Donald Trump to make against Hillary Clinton. From my perspective, it was not her fault. There was nothing she could do about it, but there was the 30 years of baggage that came from being in a perceived dynasty.

And if you look at Joe Biden, it is harder for Trump to make this argument against Joe Biden. He is Barack Obama’s Vice-President, but these same questions of corruption don’t hang over him. I think that the Bush and the Clinton perceived dynasties … obviously, I like the Clintons, but we have to recognize that they created resentments among the American people that in some ways led to Trump. Because Trump came along and said: “Look at what these dynasties have done. Look at what the Bush and the Clintons have done. I am the outsider. Go with me”. In a way Barack Obama had the same message in 2008 when he was running against Hillary Clinton: “We had the Bushes and Clintons. Look at me”. I think Americans are showing that they do not want dynasties, and people should pay attention to that.

You have spoken about reforming the electoral systems but you have just mentioned a lot of structural problems with the American political system. Do you think it is possible to fix?

I think so. What has happened in America, we see the same playbook in Hungary. It is based on the playbook in Russia. A party wins an election democratically and then they start to change the structure of the democracy. You start to focus on changing the courts and making the courts an extension of essentially right-wing political interests. You start making it harder for some people to vote and easier for other people to vote. You open up the floodgates to money in politics and so you get these corrupt cronies who are political interests. And the political interests look after the business interests of the corrupt cronies. You have media enterprises that are propaganda networks owned by those cronies. You have social media disinformation used as a tool promoting one party’s interests. Then you wrap it all up in nationalism. And this is a common playbook and I think the Republic Party has been pursuing it in the United States to great effect. 

So I think if the Democrats win the Senate in addition to the White House they can through Congress make it much easier for Americans to vote. They can if they are winning elections at the state level redraw Congressional districts so they aren’t designed to favor the Republic party and are more in favor of majority party rule. They can say that DC should be a state with representation in the US Senate. They can say we should expand the Supreme Court because the Republicans have stacked the Court to their political advantage. And hopefully they can pass laws to limit the role of money in politics or bring a lot more transparency to it.

You say that American politics is a thing for elites. Could it become more open to young people who don’t have money and who don’t have the support of big corporations and who haven’t gone to Ivy League schools?

I think that, in the Democratic Party, you are already beginning to see this happening. There are younger candidates running who are younger and who don’t take corporate money and make that the centerpiece of their political identity. If you look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the younger Democrats who have been elected in Congress in recent years that reflects the backlash to a sense that the system is rigged and that this is all corrupt. In the Democratic Party, you are seeing it as more common that young people from the outside that don’t take corporate money.

In order to make that more the norm, there is going to have to be an effort to limit the role of money in politics – because you have individual Americans donating over a hundred million dollars to political campaigns. The more you can limit the role of money in politics, the more you can level the playing field for people to come in.

There are other questions about terms limits. It’s not the Senate – and it’s an elite institution – but the Supreme Court is absurd. People just stay on it until they die. And that alienates people. I think Americans do need to think hard about what kind of terms limits they might place on elected officials and on judges. That’s a bit of a different issue.

I think Trump really mobilizes young people. I know a lot of people in their 20s and 30s who chose to run for office, who would have never chosen to run for office if Trump was not elected. It has remade the Democratic Party – to some extent – as they are almost all Democrats. Whether that continues if Trump is voted out, I don’t know. I hope it does. If it does, you will see things change. If it doesn’t, then things won’t change as much is they should.

You have recently tweeted that the electoral college should be abolished. Why?

It is totally undemocratic institution. The last two Republican presidents were elected without the popular vote. This was a system that was set up at a time when the United States was just forming, and there were many more concerns about whether these autonomous states could coexist together. Frankly, some of the most concerns were with slave states wanting to make sure that they had a capacity to preserve their power. This is an outdated system.

The reality of America is that more and more people are concentrated in states like California and New York, that are economic hubs, and less and less people are concentrated in those Republican states. Even though the country is getting more progressive, the politics is getting more conservative.  And I think that it is very destabilising over time. It does need to change because it is creating the strains in our society. And, frankly, because it allowed Donald Trump to be elected President even though he got millions less votes. The Electoral College is supposed to be a guardrail against the populist person getting through. Well, clearly it is the opposite. The Electoral College has now facilitated that. I think there are different ways of doing that – it’s not just amending the constitution. I think that if a certain number of states decide to do away with it, they can.

The strains have become more pronounced, and you see it at the U.S. Senate. I live in the state California with two senators representing nearly 40 million people. And there are states that have less than 1 million people, and they also have two senators. One of the reasons why the Electoral College needs to be changed is because there are just too many ways in which American politics is weighted to these small states that don’t have a lot of population and, frankly, are not significant drivers of the American economy and the American taxpayers.

Ben Rhodes and Barack Obama. Pete Souza/White House/Flickr

If Trump is re-elected I believe that we will not really be a democracy”

If Trump wins re-election, what will be the implications for the Democratic Party and for the United States?

If Trump is re-elected, I believe that we will not really be a democracy after four more years of Trump. The turnover of the courts, the use of the justice system to service the political ends, purges taking place in the government agencies of anybody who is not ideologically a Trumpist and this kind of favoring of Republican states over Democratic ones – we increasingly resemble an autocracy. If Russia moved through this cycle in the early 2000s and Hungary moved through this cycle in the 2010s, we are already moving down this cycle. America won’t feel like a democracy in a second Trump term.

Internationally, America has already lost a tremendous amount of standing in the eyes of the world. It is really no longer at the center of any international order. If Trump is re-elected, that process is completed and American alliances might be prominently altered. And I think that an international order will merge that is just China – Russia – the U.S., some big countries essentially arguing about things. Kind of a pre-World War I order. Those are the consequences for the country.

The Democratic Party will move left and young. Joe Biden is kind of the last manifestation of the old Democratic establishment. If the idea is that everybody backed him instead of Bernie Sanders and then he loses, I think that the left wing of the Democratic party will say: “That’s it. The majority of our party supports these policies and wants to be more progressive”. And the Democratic Party in the U.S. will be something like the Green Parties in some European countries where the left side – the center left – takes over.

Will the two-party system come to an end as a result of the divisions in the Democratic Party?

I don’t think so. I think you will see more parties. But I think the way our elections are set up – there is one winner and one loser. It’s not proportional. It overwhelmingly favors there being two strong parties. You might see some bigger third parties like the Libertarian Party and some parties might grow on the left. But I think you will continue to see the Democratic and Republican parties as dominant.

Russia was in the American political debate in the aftermath the 2016 election. Is Russia now in the debate?

It is in the same ways as in 2016. But, what is interesting that everybody assumes now that Russia is helping Trump. It is almost alarmingly normal. It should not be, but nobody is surprised that Rudy Giuliani, the President’s lawyer, who spent a bunch of time with Russian intelligence agencies and is just now seeking the spread of that information. Everybody assumes Russia has massive social media campaigns in support of Trump. It is not as hotly debated an issue because people just understand the nature of Russia’s intentions. I think that is negative in a sense that we should continue to be alarmed that Russia is playing this role. But it is healthy in a sense that it is not sensational. Russia benefited last time from the fact that the people couldn’t resist reporting on hacked emails. Now that is just part of the landscape. Beyond this issue of Russian interference and Trump’s kind of affinity for Putin, you don’t see a lot of specific policy issues being debated. It’s not like there is a debate about Ukraine policy or policy towards Belarus or the extension of the New Start Treaty or any number of other issues. It is just about a question about how much Putin is deep into American psyche. It is a question about whether or not we care that Russia is intervening in our politics.

There is something very odd about the degree to which Donald Trump will never say anything bad about Vladimir Putin”

As far as I know, Russia isn’t playing any significant role in this election favoring Donald Trump. Recently, Putin has dismissed the accusations against Biden’s son.

Well, I assume that Russia is playing a role. It’s the normal social media campaign. They never stopped playing. I think there is a consistent effort from Russian disinformation to create divisions in American society to add momentum to Trump’s basis of support to denigrate people like Joe Biden. That’s what I mean that this is just part of the landscape. There are bigger concerns whether Russia would hack into election infrastructure. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen. I do think they are playing a role. It’s funny when people talk about the 2016 interference. It’s not like Russia’s interference started one day and ended one day. Russia has disinformation campaigns, not just in the United States, in lots of places. That is part of the backdrop to this election, and frankly, I think Americans just assume it.

Why hasn’t Trump made a strong statement on Navalny’s poisoning? He has just said “we will talk about it at a later date.” Trump was very reluctant to react.

Zhanna, I think it’s absolutely shocking because he was given multiple chances, he was asked about it multiple times. And every time he would say “not now”, or he would suddenly start to talk about China. I could only have two theories. I am not an alarmist or a conspiracy theorist, but there is something very odd about the degree to which Donald Trump will never say something bad about Vladimir Putin. It is very noticeable given that Donald Trump is a man who will say anything about anybody except this one man – Vladimir Putin. I don’t know whether it is because Vladimir Putin has “kompromat” or because Vladimir Putin is incredibly rich and there is some financial interest or incentive. But one possibility is that Donald Trump is fundamentally compromised in some way by Vladimir Putin. We don’t know.

The second possibility is that Trump is so sensitive and believes that any criticism of Putin is somehow a criticism of himself, because Putin is seen to have helped him in 2016. There is a possibility that he just doesn’t like to criticize Russia because then he is echoing the same criticism that people like me make of Putin. The people like John Brennan or Hillary Clinton or these other Trump adversaries, who are outspoken about things like Navalny’s poisoning. Maybe Trump is so stubborn, so he doesn’t want to say anything.

Those are the only two explanations I can think of because there is just no reason whatsoever to not even be able to offer the most basic comment. At least, say that you condemn what happened and think that there should be answers. Most of us know the answers, and I assume the Russian government culpability. Trump doesn’t even have to say that. All he has to do is just wish Alexei Navalny and his family well and say that this is a horrifying thing that shouldn’t have happened and should be investigated. The fact that he can’t even utter these words in repeated questions is to me deeply alarming.

If Joe Biden gets re-elected, what will be the U.S. policy towards Putin’s Russia? Will it change?

I think, it will become much more confrontational in tone. But, the way in which the policy will change will be less about the U.S – Russian bilateral relations and more about the United States becoming much more active in working mainly with European countries to combat Russian disinformation, to try to strengthen democracy, to maybe expose Russian corruption. Maybe you expose the nature of corruption both within Russia and in the West generally. It is an effort to reconsolidate the democratic nations of the West to better resist Russian disruption and disinformation. And we will probably be much more vocal and supportive of Ukraine and the democratic movement in Belarus. And that will inevitably create tensions with Russia. So, I don’t think it will lead to some enormous bilateral confrontation. But I think that the U.S. will once again be pushing back against Russian policies in multiple areas in a way that Trump hasn’t really done.

What can the U.S. do to support anti-Lukashenko movement? What can the role be for the international community at large?

There are a few things. One, to be more clear and outspoken at the highest levels of the U.S. government and hopefully in coordination with Europeans that we do not see Lukashenko as a legitimate elected leader of the country and that the election result was sufficiently ridiculous and fraudulent. Two, you can work in a more coordinated fashion with Europe to impose sanctions on Lukashenko and his circle and those who have been involved with repression in Belarus, particularly as there have been human rights violations and the crackdown on protests. Third, there is a possibility of making public what we might know about Lukashenko’s corruption. This is something that has been debated in the American policies that we should be more forthcoming about what we know and what we can find out about the corruption of certain autocrats like this. And then just to find ways to be more supportive of the movement that we’ve seen among the Belarusian people. It is their movement. The U.S should not suggest otherwise by getting too involved. But expressions of solidarity for the US and Europe coupled with more forceful policy with respect to Lukashenko could make a difference.