I interviewed Louis Richman, an American journalist and historian, who over a career of more than 40 years wrote about economics and politics in the United States and Europe for a major US business magazine. Now retired, he gives his perspectives on the 2020 presidential election.
Since you’re a conservative Republican, why can’t you vote Trump?
The first characterization is inaccurate. While I am a conservative, I am not a Republican and have no party affiliation. And while the Republican party most often represents ideas closer to my thinking, Trump is neither a Republican nor a conservative. I didn’t vote for him in 2016. I watched his incompetent management of the instruments of government for the last four years and in my opinion it’s too dangerous to let another four years go by with him in control.
How do you feel about Amy Coney Barrett becoming the Supreme court nominee? Democrats claim Trump shouldn’t do that even though he’s not violating the Constitution.
He’s not violating the Constitution, there’s nothing to stop him from doing it. He happens to be the president for four years until the end of his term. There’s vacancy on the Supreme Court (Amy Coney Barrett took the seat on October 27). He has the obligation to nominate a replacement, he also has the advantage of the Senate majority. Republicans can decide to vote to confirm her or not to confirm her, so this situation is not equivalent to the one that president Obama faced in 2016, when he nominated Merrick Garland and the Republicans had the Senate majority. It is raw political power. Amy Coney Barrett has demonstrated in the hearings that she’s a highly competent judge who in a different political environment should receive support from both sides of the aisle.
What’s your position on Trump negotiating peace deals in the Middle East with Israel?
While it looks like a surprising development, there are good reasons why the Gulf Arab states chose this time to normalize relations with Israel. I think it reflects something they’ve been building for many years, as the Sunni Arab countries became more reliant on Israeli intelligence and wanted to build defense against Iran. I think Trump deserves credit for having seen that possibility that he did not have to deal with appeasing the Palestinians for the sake of encouraging the other Arab states to come to terms with Israel. I think this is a recognition of reality in the Middle East, that these countries are seeing their better opportunities having an ally in Israel and enjoying the economic benefits and trade with Israel and normalizing the relations.
What are your biggest worries if Biden becomes president?
I have many concerns if Biden becomes president. The first worry is how healthy is he. He’s quite old, he’s demonstrated that he has some memory problems. The second concern is how will he be able to stand up against the leftist tendencies in his party. Biden is an institutionalist who believes in bipartisanship to the extent it can be practiced, but there are very large issues that are on the table, principally the likelihood of a state takeover of the health care system and the end of private insurance, how to pull the economy out of the downturn resulting from the Covid shutdowns, trade and environmental policies, and the big constitutional questions of court packing, the end of the electoral college and the threat to add new states to the union. If he is elected, my hope is that he will recognize he has a short window of time to implement his policy program, with the most important priority of getting control over the coronavirus crisis and helping the economy reopen. The country needs the economic stimulus he has promised but he could easily be derailed from those policies if he gives into pressure of his left-wing supporters to for example add new justices to the Supreme court. If the Republicans confirm Amy Coney Barrett the Democrat left would like to add new justices to the Supreme court and they can do that with a simple majority vote in both houses of Congress. Doing that, I fear, would destroy the institution of the independent judiciary. The Left has also threatened to add Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico as new states in a move to lock in a permanent Democratic majority. Another big question will be who he appoints to his cabinet. If his more radical backers such as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders are appointed Treasury Secretary or other high cabinet offices, they can do tremendous damage to our financial system and they harm economic growth. There’s no question that country is tired of Trump’s chaos and incompetence, and a return to “normalcy” would be welcome, but that would be lost if he loses focus and squanders his opportunity by diverting the country’s attention to divisive issues like court packing and other big constitutional changes that would be much more disruptive than anything Trump has tried.
How do you think the mainstream media like CNN, Fox news, MSNBC and other mainstream media outlets are dealing with the situation?
With the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other new social media outlets, political discourse has become highly polarized. The mainstream media including once-neutral outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post have also been drawn in by the polarization, and the press has in many aspects violated their traditional role of being neutral presenters of the news. They have taken sides as strong supporters of the Democrats, in case of CNN and MSNBC, or uncritical backers of Trump and his Republican followers in the case of Fox. They risk undermining the principals of the first amendment by assuming a partisan role.
What are your biggest worries if Trump will be reelected?
My biggest worry is that he has done a great damage to the capabilities of the US government and I think that has been dramatically revealed in his handling of the coronavirus. Trump is a deeply ignorant man who lacks understanding of our constitutional system. He behaves as if he is unaware of the importance of having expertise and capable, independent government officials in the executive branch. He believes the executive branch should follow his dictates rather than have well trained bureaucrats who follow principals and laws to guide government policy. In agency after agency, and cabinet department after cabinet department he has forced the people in professional bureaucracy to resign. He views them as the ”swamp” that denies his preferences, overlooking the fact that we all benefit from having well-informed bureaucrats implementing legitimate policies and continuity in national security, foreign relations, economics policy and the rule of law. I think that the frequent turnover we’ve seen with four secretaries of state, two Attorneys General and the top officials at the CIA and other major agencies in the intelligence community has badly damaged the nation during Trump’s first term. It shows up now during the Coronavirus crisis in the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration whose expertise and independence are critical for public health and public confidence. In a second Trump term, I think the cumulative effect over eight years will great diminish the capabilities of government. I don’t think the country will be well served if that is allowed to happen.
Let’s move away now from Biden, Trump, etc. and now let’s move to the culture war. How do you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement? Do you think there are reasons for black Americans to protest?
I think it’s been very important over the last five months, since the murder of George Floyd for the country to come to grips with what Black people in this country have lived with for generations. There is a tragic history of deep racism in the United states that goes back to the nation’s colonial days and, despite fighting a Civil War to end slavery and passing the civil rights laws of the mid-20th century to expand opportunities for Black Americans, we still have a long way to go. The way BLM is doing it is one way of bringing the issue to the surface dramatically. I don’t think most of the country wants to go as far as BLM to abolish or defund the police, but I think the majority of citizens do want there to be better civilian oversight of the police, criminal justice reform, and greater economic opportunities. Black Lives Matter is a movement of young people who are angry and I understand their anger. But I also think that they may lack a historical perspective. The U.S. has confronted this enormously challenging issue of racism for more than 400 years, and for all of the problems that remain, the country has made a great progress. The ideals that have governed the nation in the Declaration of Independence, through the 19th century abolitionist movement, and the modern Civil Rights era are still alive.
And when you were talking about the anger of the young people, how do you see some of the activities of BLM such as the tearing down of statues of President Lincoln?
This is the kind of excess that drives people away from BLM. The removal of southern Civil War generals and the renaming of army bases is a very appropriate place to begin in recognizing that we shouldn’t be honoring the racist and segregationist past. One of the big problems I see not just in BLM movement, but in the society generally is the lack of good civil education. Too many Americans are historically illiterate and do not understand history as the cumulation of forces deep in human nature that have created the present. We have been on arch of history that has dealt with lot of these serious problems that go way back centuries and it goes deeper into the issue of violence in human nature. We have struggled to build institutions to control our violence in a democratic way and we have succeeded enormously. From the dawn of human civilization historic and archeological evidence demonstrates that human society is violent. The program of the modern-day republics since the 18th century has been to try to build institutions that control our violence, allow the individual to flourish and have legally established rights and that has been extended wide in our society. The lives of black Americans today is immeasurably better than it was 50 years ago. One of the things we’re dealing with at this particular time is the distribution of benefits of the economic growth, we have increasing inequality in our society and I think that has also fed the fuel of protests and distrust of government because the people at the top of society are advancing into much more prosperous future and the bottom of society are struggling just to keep their head above the water—the divide between “haves” versus the “have nots” has been widening at a worrisome pace. That is going to be a major issue we´re going to have a long debate over well beyond the next four or eight years.
You’re a man who’s seen I would say quite a lot, so what were the biggest positive and the biggest negative events during your lifetime for you in America?
The one that has had the greatest impact on me was 9/11. It was a shock that began the unraveling of the self-confidence of the United states. We were forced to see the world as a dangerous threat where we in the past have seen it as something that we could influence in a positive way through the institutions we had built following World War II. Suddenly, Islamic terrorism, the poisonous politics of the Middle East suddenly came down crushing on our own country. The 9/11 attacks came at a moment of enthusiasm we had for the prospect of a new post historical world after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a very significant economic expansion in the 1990’s. The events that followed reintroduced us to how disruptive the history can be. For Americans of a younger generation, the other big crisis that followed closely on the heels of the response to 9/11—the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that drained enormous resources from the country—was the financial collapse of 2008. It really put into sharp relief how fragile the economic system was in the respect of the banking system almost collapsed. The recovery from the global financial meltdown has been felt unequally across American society. It was a major upheaval for people who lost their jobs and homes and who have not fully recovered more than a decade later. I think that laid another layer of insecurity over people. I think at that crises or 2001 and 2008 were important foundations for today’s political and cultural polarization that continue to cast a shadow over the experiences of Americans today.
And the most positive event in your lifetime for America?
I think the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of Soviet communism, and the liberation of the former Warsaw Pact states was definitely the most positive and hopeful developments in my lifetime.. When we look back on that time, it really was a success. Look at the liberation of eastern and central Europe. We’re living in a world where I can talk to you freely over this incredible technology and nobody is going to stop us. That was unthinkable prior to 1989. We still haven’t seen all the benefits that will result if we can work through our problems. If we are able to keep our eyes focused on the long-term improvements, I think we will see that happen.
You were a Democrat until Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. What made you change your mind so much about politics?
The answer I often give to that question is I studied economics. It was a revelation to understand how the economy works and how much bigger the economy is than politics. The free-market economy is the critical ingredient for the advance of human living standards, our personal freedom depends on it. It goes back to the writings of Adam Smith in the 18th century. Contrary to what many people think, the market economy for Smith was not just a laissez faire. The market is a moral force, because in the process of thinking about one’s own self-interest, one needs to take into account the needs and interests of others. When I make something and sell it to you, you have to like it. Competition brings the price of things down and makes the quality of things better. It makes the jobs that people have to produce things better because it requires them to be more productive, and more productive they are, then more can they earn. My appreciation of the market economy as a moral force grew when I studied economics in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Adam Smith is a hero, Ricardo is a hero on trade, Pareto on how optimization works. In the moral sphere, Fredrick Hayek and the Austrian school of economists and Milton Friedman taught me how economics enhances human freedom. They were my great influencers, and for me the Republican party better represented the encouragement of the free-market economy, independent of the redistributionists trying to take from one to get to another who dominated politics in 1950’s and 1960’s. I think the unleashing of the market economy in 1980’s was one of the advances that led to the fall of Soviet Union and that unleashed the great living standards for millions of people around the world that we’ve seen over the past thirty years.
And now the last question. Why are you proud to be an American?
Oh man, I don’t know where to begin to give you answer to that. Personally, I count myself as incredibly lucky to be an American, because this is the country that is built on the principles of individual freedom. The United States was blessed to have developed a remarkable governing architecture in the Constitution that has worked for more than 240 years now. We have strong institutions that are trusted and even Donald Trump could not destroy them. We must always fight for our freedom and we need to recognize always that our freedom is based on the rule of law, the Bill of Rights and is grounded in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. I’m so proud of those things that created this wonderful country and has enabled it to absorb tens of millions of people from around the world that created a unified country out of many different historical, cultural and ethnic traditions. We have to deal with our historical challenges of racism to build a more perfect union that includes all American. That will be the work of many decades ahead, but we have the institutions to help us to do that and I think as a nation we will ultimately prevail.
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