Former US President Donald Trump has surrendered to face criminal charges in Atlanta. The arrest represents the fourth time he has been indicted since leaving office, but it’s the first time police have taken a mugshot for official records. But will the mugshot and Trump’s surrender at jail harm him politically? We asked Reed Galen, Co-founder of the Lincoln Project, for his assessment.
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A newly declassified American intelligence analysis says Russian spy agencies are using influence laundering techniques to hide the Kremlin’s involvement in cultivating pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine messages.
The Kremlin is hoping to develop a network of young leaders who will support Russia or spread pro-Russia messages in their home countries, according to a U.S. intelligence analysis.Credit…Maxim Shipenkov/EPA, via Shutterstock
Russia is intensifying its efforts to spread pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine messages in the United States and the West, using influence-laundering techniques to hide the efforts of its intelligence agencies to manipulate public opinion, according to a newly declassified American intelligence analysis.
Efforts by Russian intelligence agencies to shape public debate leading up to the 2016 U.S. election focused on methods designed to have short-term effects, like exacerbating tensions inside the United States through social media posts.
But the newly declassified U.S. analysis looks at how Russian intelligence services, in particular the Federal Security Service or F.S.B., have been secretly using allies inside nominally independent organizations to spread propaganda and cultivate ties with rising leaders, efforts that are intended to play out over long periods of time.
The intelligence analysis, which was declassified for public release, was described by U.S. officials who were authorized to disclose the information.
Russian influence operations may have been dealt something of a blow in the aftermath of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin’s mutiny against the Russian military leadership and subsequent apparent assassination. Mr. Prigozhin, in addition to running the Wagner group, a private military force, founded and funded the Internet Research Agency. Although the organization was dissolved last month — after Mr. Prigozhin’s failed rebellion — the I.R.A. had been involved in running one of the most prominent troll farms that supported the candidacy of Donald J. Trump during the 2016 election by criticizing Hillary Clinton.
But the information released by the United States on Friday is designed to show how much deeper Russian influence operations are than those efforts to sow dissent on the internet. Instead, the influence operations are focused on developing a network of young leaders who the Kremlin hopes will support Russia or spread pro-Russia messages in their home countries, efforts not unlike the Soviet Union’s spy agency’s work to develop ideological allies and informants around the world.
A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the newly released material described a group of so-called co-optees, who claim to be acting independently but in fact have been used by Russian intelligence agents to conduct influence operations against the United States. These operations include programs designed to build support for Russia among Americans and Europeans along with blunter efforts like fake grass-roots protests. The newly released material focuses on four Russians who have worked with Russian intelligence, including Natalia Burlinova, who was named in a Justice Department indictment that was unsealed this year.
The indictment said Ms. Burlinova had conspired with the F.S.B. to recruit U.S. citizens from academic institutions to participate in the nongovernmental organization she founded, Creative Diplomacy. The organization bills itself as a public diplomacy program for aspiring leaders to facilitate dialogue with Russia. The organization says 80 people from a wide range of countries have attended its program.
After the indictment in June, the Treasury Department sanctioned two F.S.B. officers, including Yegor Sergeyevich Popov, who the government said was Ms. Burlinova’s handler. The Treasury Department said Mr. Popov oversaw Ms. Burlinova’s work and provided her a list of U.S. citizens to approach.
The declassified intelligence analysis said the F.S.B. had helped fund Creative Diplomacy and that it was a “grooming campaign” that Russian intelligence operatives used to build up a network of “future Western influencers” who the F.S.B. hoped would develop into Kremlin supporters.
The F.S.B. has tracked the activities of Creative Diplomacy’s alumni, some of whom have gone on to publish pro-Russia articles, the American officials said. While Ms. Burlinova has denied any ties to the Russian government, the U.S. intelligence disputed that claim.
One of the participants in Creative Diplomacy, an American who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said if he had known the program’s connections to Russian intelligence, he would not have participated. Still, he said he did not regret attending the program because it gave him a chance to speak to and question Russian officials he would not have met.
The pro-Russia slant of the program was no different than public diplomacy programs in other countries, he said, and some participants left with a worse — not better — opinion of Russia. The participant said he was not surprised to learn Ms. Burlinova was working with the F.S.B. But if the program was a Russian intelligence operation, he said, there was little for the U.S. government to be concerned about, given its ineffectiveness.
The declassified analysis singles out three others: Andrey Stepanenko, who worked for the F.S.B. from 2014 to 2019; Maksim Grigoryev, the director of the Foundation for the Study of Democracy, an organization the U.S. analysis says has spread anti-Ukrainian narratives on behalf of the Kremlin; and Anton Tsvetkov, the head of a group called Officers of Russia. The U.S. officials said Mr. Tsvetkov, at the direction of Russian intelligence, organized protests in Moscow, including one outside the U.S. Embassy.
Mr. Tsvetkov, at the behest of Russian intelligence, also organized protests against Bard College in New York State and its partnership with a St. Petersburg college; those actions eventually led to the New York school being banned in Russia by the Kremlin, which was fearful of Western influence on Russian universities. Since then, the intelligence analysis said, Mr. Tsvetkov has organized anti-Ukraine protests throughout 2022 outside various Western embassies in Russia.
Julian E. Barnes is a national security reporter based in Washington, covering the intelligence agencies. Before joining The Times in 2018, he wrote about security matters for The Wall Street Journal. More about Julian E. Barnes
Russian intelligence is operating a systematic program to launder pro-Kremlin propaganda through private relationships between Russian operatives and unwitting US and western targets, according to newly declassified US intelligence.
US intelligence agencies believe that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is attempting to influence public policy and public opinion in the West by directing Russian civilians to build relationships with influential US and Western individuals and then disseminate narratives that support Kremlin objectives, obscuring the FSB’s role through layers of ostensibly independent actors.
“These influence operations are designed to be deliberately small scale, the overall goal being US [and] Western persons presenting these ideas, seemingly organic,” a US official authorized to discuss the material told CNN. “The co-optee influence operations are built primarily on personal relationships … they build trust with them and then they can leverage that to covertly push the FSB’s agenda.”
The campaigns have sometimes been effective at planting Russian narratives in the Western press, according to the intelligence. Maxim Grigoriev, who heads a Russian NGO, made multiple speeches to the UN presenting a false study that claimed the humanitarian group the White Helmets – which operates in Syria – was running a black market for human organs and had faked chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with whom Russia is allied. Those claims eventually found their way into a television report on the far-right OANN in the United States, according to open-source materials provided by the official.
CNN has reached out to Grigoriev and OANN.
But the official stressed that the Western voices that eventually became mouthpieces for Russian propaganda were almost certainly unaware of the role they were playing.
“At the end of the day, this unwitting target is disseminating Russian influence operation, Russian propaganda to their target public,” the US official said. “Ultimately, a lot of these are unwitting people — they remain unaware who is essentially seeding these narratives.”
The intelligence provides several examples of Russian civilian “co-optees” doing the bidding of the FSB.
One man, Andrey Stepanenko, founded a media project in 2014 that sponsored journalists from the US and the West to visit eastern Ukraine and learn “the alleged truth” about what was happening in the region. In fact, the FSB directed his efforts and “almost certainly financed the project,” according to the declassified intelligence.
CNN was not able to locate Stepanenko to ask for comment.
The US official also cited Natalia Burlinova, the founder of a Russian NGO who routinely coordinated FSB-funded public diplomacy efforts aimed at influencing Western views. In 2018, she visited, had meetings and hosted events at multiple US think tanks and universities in New York, Boston and Washington – work that was funded by the FSB, according to the intelligence. Her conduct was already public: She was indicted earlier this year on charges of conspiring with an FSB officer to act as an illegal agent of Russia inside the United States, although she remains at liberty in Russia.
CNN has reached out to Burlinova.
The official declined to offer specifics to back up the intelligence community’s assertions that the FSB is funding this kind of operation but noted that once officials were able establish FSB backing, it is easy to trace the narratives they are pushing in open-source materials.
“Once you’re aware of who these people are and their association with the FSB, by nature of what they’re doing, they have very, very public personas,” the official said. “And so I would just say it’s not really difficult to kind of follow the strings.”
The US official declined to say whether Russia has used these same tactics to try to influence US elections.
The FSB does use similar tactics to influence political opinion within Russia, according to the intelligence. In one instance, a Russian media figure named Anton Tsvetkov organized protests outside of embassies in Moscow — including the US Embassy — at the FSB’s behest. The protests pushed Russia’s narrative of the war in Ukraine, “promoting the ‘Ukrainian Nazi’ narrative and blaming the U.S. and its allies for the deaths of children in the Donbass,” while hiding the Russian government’s role, according to the declassified intelligence.
“The purpose of those protests really was … designed to sell it to the Russian people,” the US official said.
The NCAA men’s basketball Final Four tips off Saturday, starting with the University of Michigan against No. 11 seed Loyola University Chicago — which earned four consecutive wins en route to becoming this season’s March Madness Cinderella story.
On how long rooting for the underdog has been part of American history
Ed Ayers: “Well, I think ever since 13 scrappy Colonies went up against the largest empire in the modern world. The beauty of America is everybody can think of themselves as an underdog in some way. The only true ones were the indigenous people who had home-court advantage but still ended up really suffering from all that. I think that it does seem to be something that’s hardwired into the American psyche, to somehow cheer for people who seem as if they are up against the odds.”
“I mean, I think that’s what the country is really about — the American dream is everybody has a chance, and if you find that the underdogs don’t have a chance, it kinda pokes holes in that dream.”
Brian Balogh: “I do think it’s human nature to root for underdogs. But I would argue there is something in American history probably pretty connected to not having an aristocracy or a ruling class … that makes us feel that we all come from an even playing field, and the best man or woman should win the race.”
“The American dream is everybody has a chance, and if you find that the underdogs don’t have a chance, it kinda pokes holes in that dream.”
On when President Abraham Lincoln was considered a dark horse
EA: “Well, his whole life, until he was elected president of the United States, in many ways. I was just visiting the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and [it was] very interesting to see how it’s presented: You walk into the museum, and you take a left, and you’re going into the log cabin, and there’s a three-dimensional, life-size model of Abraham Lincoln reading by the fire, while everybody else in his family is asleep. You kind of have to go through that world, of when he works in a store, and you see his pant legs are too short and his shirt sleeves are too short. As much space is spent on representing Abraham Lincoln as an underdog as is spent on portraying him as the most powerful person in the United States.”
On other prominent figures in American history seen as underdogs
BB: “We have people like Harry S. Truman, really came from a pretty impoverished background, was pretty unsuccessful himself in his business endeavors, and absolutely was not expected to win in the election of 1948. In fact, the most iconic photograph of Harry S. Truman is him holding up the newspaper saying that his opponent, Dewey, wins the election — which of course he didn’t, Truman won.
“On the other hand, we have people like Donald Trump, who has styled himself as an underdog. I mean in fact, Donald Trump came from quite a wealthy background, but he’s somebody who feels no matter what kind of advantage he has in politics, the whole system is rigged against him. I don’t think you can understand Donald Trump unless you understand that the vast majority of people who voted for Clinton came from counties where the economy is contributing a disproportionate amount to the GDP, and those who voted for Trump came from counties where, where they live is underrepresented in America’s economy. They are literally underdogs. They feel underrepresented.”
“I think the exception to Americans always rooting for the underdog is that has not been the case when it has come to a majority of Americans rooting for African-Americans.”
On Loyola-Chicago’s Cinderella run in this year’s March Madness
EA: “Being a historian, I wanna talk about Loyola-Chicago in a little more historical depth. I don’t know if people remember, but they’ve been here before, and they were even larger underdogs because they had the audacity, if you can imagine this, to put four African-American players on the floor at the same time, when there was a kind of unspoken agreement that a team would play no more than three at a time. And then in the early 1960s, they win the national championship with four African-American players, and it’s interesting that we now just think of them as being from a small conference or a small school or whatever, or we think about Sister Jean. But you could also see them as sort of a vehicle by which college basketball, American sports, kind of integrated itself.”
BB: “And Ed always ends on an uplifting note. I’m gonna point out a somewhat depressing note: I think the exception to Americans always rooting for the underdog is that has not been the case when it has come to a majority of Americans rooting for African-Americans. I think quite often we found white Americans rooting for white athletes to beat African-American athletes, in whatever sport it was, internally. Now, Ed’s right: When America goes to the Olympics [in 1936] and we’re fighting against the Nazis, or competing against the Nazis, we can get behind Jesse Owens. But whether it’s Jackie Robinson making his way up through the major leagues, or any of the heroic stories of African-Americans against the odds, people were not rooting for the underdog — meaning, the majority of American people.”
This article was originally published on March 28, 2018.
This segment aired on March 28, 2018.
The criminal charges against former President Donald Trump could have been his downfall. Instead, he’s turned them into an opportunity.
He’s been indicted four times, most recently surrendering on Thursday to Georgia authorities on charges that he tried to overturn the 2020 election. Despite that, he continues to enjoy poll numbers that put him in a historically strong position for a nonincumbent to win his party’s nomination, running nearly 40 percentage points, on average, ahead of his closest competitor. Six of his eight Republican opponents on the debate stage Wednesday night indicated that they would support him as the nominee even if he’s convicted in any one of the four cases against him. A big majority of likely Republican primary voters believe the charges are politically motivated; few think he actually tried to overturn the 2020 election.
Rather than hiding from his legal problems, Trump is leaning into them, arguing that he’s “done nothing wrong” and that the charges represent a plot against him. By invoking the charges, and using them to his political advantage, historians say that Trump is echoing a familiar playbook.
Many have already drawn parallels between the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection and Adolf Hitler’s failed coup attempt in 1923, now known as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. The circumstances around the events and the men at their center are very different. But the putsch and Hitler’s trial thereafter, which he used as a platform to advance the ideas behind Nazism and catapult himself into the national limelight, provides a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy in the face of a charismatic autocrat whom the political establishment fails to squash while they have the chance.
“I think it’s particularly on that kind of tactical level or even on the level of demagoguery where there are clear parallels between the two men and between the January 6 insurrection as well as the Hitler putsch,” said Thomas Weber, a professor at the University of Aberdeen who has written extensively about Hitler and Nazi Germany, including in a forthcoming book, Fascism in America.
In November 1923, Hitler — then a still relatively unknown leader in Germany’s nationalist movement — organized an attempt to take over the regional Bavarian government. His aim was to provoke a “March on Berlin” to overthrow the democratic Weimar government on the basis of a big lie: that Germany had not lost World War I on the battlefield, but had instead been “stabbed in the back” by its political leaders and Jews on the home front.
He interrupted a political gathering at a large beer hall in Munich that night, firing his gun into the air and taking a prominent regional politician hostage before announcing his revolutionary intent to the crowd. But he didn’t win the support of local politicians and the police, who violently clashed with Hitler’s Nazi subordinates, several of whom were killed. He fled, but was quickly arrested and tried for treason. His co-conspirators tried to pin the blame on him, and he came to embrace that version of events, making long speeches during the trial in which he took full credit for the putsch, showed no remorse, and committed himself to his cause on behalf of all Germans. He only served a few months in prison before being released on a pardon, more famous, more popular, and more emboldened than ever.
The question is whether Trump can successfully use the charges against him to engineer his next political victory, just as Hitler was able to consolidate support behind him during his trial and lay the groundwork for the Third Reich. I spoke with Weber about what history might suggest in that respect. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you see any parallels in terms of the way that Hitler behaved during the trials — doubling down and taking credit for the putsch — and how Trump is approaching the January 6 cases?
The parallel lies in using the courtroom as a national stage to consolidate support and sideline any competitors. In that sense, the comparison works very well.
Their ultimate aims might have been different. In Hitler’s case, this was about becoming a national figure, while obviously Trump is already very much a national and international figure. It’s interesting that initially, Hitler was thinking about using his trial very differently, namely to take others down with him. He then realized that was difficult for many reasons, and that, in fact, it was actually much better to take credit even for things he hadn’t done and exaggerate his own role in the putsch. For Hitler, it was clever to capitalize on the fact that others might want to diminish their role in order to really present himself as a national leader in the making.
It’s difficult to tell how exactly Trump will act in a courtroom. But he’s using — kind of brilliantly, in a moral-free way — the language of victimization to get support behind him, and also very cleverly always says, “This is not just about me,” but presents himself as the embodiment of the American people, of the underprivileged.
I think Hitler used a slightly different approach where he was not really trying to present himself as a victim, but rather he just proudly endorsed everything that he was doing. I suppose Trump may also endorse everything that he’s been doing, that it was his right [to seek to overturn election results he falsely maintains were fraudulent].
The GOP is reluctant to criticize Trump over his legal issues and the Republican presidential candidates are also fighting for their own place in the party. Did Hitler’s political rivals react similarly after the trial?
Other leaders who weren’t in the courtroom underestimated Hitler in a way that might be different because no one is underestimating Trump.
But the similarity is that both Trump and Hitler really benefit from the infighting within their own political camps. In a way, Hitler’s career should have been over by early 1924, when he was in prison. Yes, he was sent to prison for far too short a period, but at the same time, the expectation would have still been that his 15 minutes of fame were over because while others were in the limelight, he was just in prison and wasn’t allowed to speak publicly.
But what then happened was that the radical right in Germany was really fragmented and didn’t have any able leaders. No single person emerged victoriously from the infighting. As a result of that, which was unexpected and not of Hitler’s making, Hitler could benefit from that because people then started to talk about this legendary, new, right-wing young guy, as he had presented himself in the courtroom.
In the case of the GOP, there’s also a lot of infighting. No one quite dares to really take Trump on. The field is too fragmented. [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis has proved spectacularly ineffectual. So as a result of that kind of infighting and fragmentation, you again see a parallel to Trump. And all of the courtrooms will now provide Trump with a perfect stage to present himself very cleverly as a victim of the deep state and as an embodiment of how supposedly half of America is being victimized.
What lessons can politicians today learn from that history in terms of how to handle Trump as he goes on trial?
The lesson that the Bavarian establishment learned is that they really burned their fingers in accepting someone like Hitler. Hitler could only stage the coup because of the [support of] the traditional Bavarian establishment. The Bavarian establishment learned that you cannot weaponize, you cannot control people like Hitler — or today, Trump. As a result of that, they went back to more mainstream conservative politics and rejected right-wing extreme populism and demagoguery. Interestingly, in 1933, Bavaria was really the last German state to fall to the Nazis.
So I guess the lesson here would be that it is a mistake to think that it actually helps the GOP to rely on a populist like Trump, when ultimately, people like Trump are destroying rather than saving the GOP.
Is it too late for the GOP to learn that lesson?
It’s difficult to tell. We can hope that it’s not too late, that the GOP can be saved. I think we should also not underestimate the resilience of the GOP and that there are a lot of people who keep their heads down at the moment who, if they team up, could potentially save the party. That is our best hope for both the GOP and for American democracy.
More importantly, it’s always easy to just kind of point at particular politicians or at a party. But all of that is a symptom of a much bigger crisis. It’s a crisis of erosion of what one could call pre-political values — and in the collapse of values like trust, decency, that you act with empathy even toward adversaries — and all those values have been eroding across American society and the Western world, not just on one side of the political divide. They have just had more disastrous consequences for the time being on one side of the political divide.
Unless we get that under control — and that is really up to civil society — we won’t be able to save Western democracy in any country. It’s a much bigger challenge.
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For decades, Germany was a beacon of centrist political stability. During her 16-year leadership, Angela Merkel led a succession of grand coalitions which neutralised the political extremes, and piloted her country through an era of steady economic growth.
Today, that political settlement has dissolved. Germany’s reliance on Russian gas has devastated its industrial economy, while the surface tranquillity of the Merkel era is a distant memory. Alternative für Deutschland, a far-Right populist party, has been the beneficiary of this chaos, surging in the polls to become the second-most popular party in Germany.
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To understand this reversal of fortunes and what it means for Europe and the world, Freddie Sayers spoke to Wolfgang Munchau, former co-editor of FT Deutschland, and founder and co-director of Eurointelligence. Below is an edited transcript.
Freddie Sayers: Does the rise of the AfD represent a return to Germany’s far-Right past?
Wolfgang Munchau: If you look at the European far-Right parties, the AfD is quite special. Most of the far-Right parties are led by strong leaders: Le Pen, Meloni, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. They’re shaped in the image of their leaders. That’s not the case with the AfD. So if you wanted to draw some historical parallels with the Nazis in particular, they are very different in that respect. I often forget the names of the leaders — they have joint party chiefs — and they keep changing. There are lots of internal rebellions against them. This is a party that’s been very insurrectionary against its own leaders.
But they are on the far-Right: they have goals that I would consider incompatible with constitutional law. For example, one of the goals they recently pronounced was not only Germany’s exit from the EU (which is legal), but the disbandment of the EU, which is obviously not something that a country can do. Some members of the party have been outwardly antisemitic. I wouldn’t call the party officially antisemitic; it’s not like this is an antisemitic platform. But it has neo-Nazis in it.
FS: Fringe parties always attract fringe figures. Is it fair to judge a whole party — or in the case of the AfD, 20% of the general population who say they might support them — by just those few characters?
WM: No, I don’t think you can. It’s not helpful to characterise any party with a word or adjective. They are on the far-Right, that is clear. They’re not a conservative party. Would I call them fascist? No, and I don’t call Meloni a fascist either. She obviously has roots in the far-Right, in the fascist movement in Italy. But she has moved away and from what we see she governs from the centre-right. The AfD is different in the respect that its policies are very different from someone like Meloni, if you take Meloni as the other far-Right party, the one that actually succeeded to get into government. They want Germany to leave Nato, they want Germany to leave the EU — and the euro, of course.
FS: The original energy for the AfD came out of the immigration issue, particularly in 2015 when Angela Merkel accepted over a million refugees. How has the party’s support developed since then?
WM: 2015 was the moment when its support first grew. But by the 2021 election that had already ebbed away and the party was mostly occupied with internal strife and power struggles among party members. It only ended up at 10% at the 2021 election, which is only two years ago. What happened between 2021 and today is that the party doubled its vote, not much in West Germany, but dramatically in East Germany. To go from 10% to 20% in all of Germany means it had to do extremely well in East Germany, and in some parts of East Germany it is now the largest party. It has won its first mayoral election. It has won its first regional election. Previously, with a system of proportional representation, when you are 20% and nobody wants to form coalitions with you, you can have a lot of MPs and councillors sitting around, but you’re never in power. That is now starting to change — they now have their first people in office.
FS: You’ve previously written that East Germany is the German parallel to flyover country, the industrial heartlands that have been suffering over recent decades in places like the US and in Britain and other countries. That suggests that economics is a big part of the AfD’s appeal.
WM: This is the reason why the AfD is now gaining support. Germany’s economic performance is weak at the moment, for reasons that have to do with Germany’s economic model. The general storyline is that Germany did really well until recently and now it’s doing really badly. But the roots of that date back a long time ago. Germany made itself dependent on Russian gas and, as a result, it also made itself dependent on industry, because that was its strongest sector. It had huge export surpluses — Germany had a current account surplus for many years of 8% of GDP, which for a large industrial country is just mind-bogglingly large.
FS: That was made possible, is it fair to say, by the European Union?
WM: That’s right. We have an internal market, and the currency also helps Germany, because what Germany always does when it is in a monetary union with others is it tries to obtain a competitive advantage by reducing wages, so that costs relative to others are lower, and they can’t adjust because the exchange rate is fixed. For Germany, the fixed exchange rates have always worked like a charm. Another huge factor was that this was the heyday of the fuel-driven car, of the diesel car, the heyday of oil heaters, and all the things that Germany did well. And it was also the time of massive globalisation, when countries like China and other developing countries needed equipment, machinery, and machine tools. And they bought them from Germany. Now that they’re in a much more mature phase of their economic development, they need them less. China has now for the first time flipped the trade balance in its favour.
FS: You mentioned energy. Obviously, Germany has been used to Russian gas and meanwhile, it’s been completely winding down its nuclear power. How much are these energy policies driving the AfD and the political instability?
WM: It is certainly one factor. The Greens insisted on the phasing out of nuclear power, and the other parties accepted that this was not something they wanted to fight because in Germany, you tend to lose these kinds of fights. Both Merkel and the SPD favoured the phasing out of nuclear power and it happened this year. The last power station was switched off in April. And it makes no sense. Because now all the Russian gas has gone and nuclear power is switched off and Germany has increased the share of electricity coming from coal — especially from brown coal, which is an incredibly dirty version — and CO2 emissions are going up again.
FS: So by that account, voters can be legitimately angry — it feels like an own goal?
WM: It got worse earlier this year when the Government introduced the domestic heating bill. You’re going to have the same coming in the UK: the switch over from traditional gas heating and heating systems to heat pumps. And heat pumps work very differently from gas heaters. They’re more like air conditioning systems in terms of technology and the way they’re made. And the Government introduced an initial law that would force every homeowner to install a heat pump starting from January next year. I think there was a deadline for 2030 for existing homes, next year’s deadline was only for new homes. They’ve since watered it down a little bit, but still — how much does it cost to change your house’s heating system? Depending on the house, between £20,000 and £50,000, paid for by the homeowner.
FS: Who has £20,000-£50,000?
WM: Quite — especially East Germans, whose house values may not be much higher than £50,000. The government handled this terribly. And the rise of the AfD came in waves, and this was the last wave — the mishandling. That’s where it came from, from 15% or 16% in support to about 20%.
FS: Do you see this as a rejection of Left-leaning, idealistic but impractical, policies whose real-world effects are starting to be felt?
WM: I would say it is not fundamentally an issue of the Left vs Right. It is an issue of three incompatible parties in coalition trying to compromise — any two of them could have managed it better. For example, had this been Britain or the US they would not have given themselves the same fiscal constraints, which led to chronic underinvestment. This was a country that, when I grew up, was a high-tech country. Today, it’s a low-tech country. It’s struggling with digital technologies, it’s not investing in modern industries. Which is why its dependency on the old industries has become stronger, including its dependency on old diesel cars.
FS: That giant car industry is especially vulnerable now, because they’re not as good at manufacturing electric cars as they were at petrol cars. China has overtaken them.
WM: To put it mildly. The Germans were shocked to see that China came out of nowhere and within three years, China became the largest car exporter in the world. And German companies are struggling to sell their cars in China. That was a big surprise to them. The Chinese actually like their own cars. They are cheaper and they have features that the Germans cannot offer. And the reason for that is that China has the role in the electric car industry that Germany had in the old car industry, where Germany owned the supply chain.
It wasn’t just that the cars were made in Germany — that was almost the minor thing. Germany also owned the factories in the Czech Republic and Spain and many Eastern European countries, and bought them in Asia and then the United States. It was a giant network of suppliers. They championed just-in-time production and they owned the whole thing. Now, China owns the supply chain of the electric car. The batteries, the rare-earth magnets, and all the things that matter for lithium — the new gold. The Germans panicked and got Intel to build a factory for chips. But it’s still essentially geared towards cars. This is a country that had the facility and the ability to be a major player in the digital world and has given up on that.
FS: So where does the blame lie for this? Can we make the case that the whole settlement for those decades was inherently fragile, and Germany above all was naive to think it would last forever?
WM: That’s right — and at the root of it is a system of neo-mercantilism, a reliance on industry for exports and a government that follows the wishes of industry. You remember the diesel scandal where they introduced cheating devices — the reason this came up in the United States and not in the EU was that the EU was looking the other way. The EU testing of cars was defunded, basically, compared to the United States.
So the German government helped companies — indirectly, maybe unwittingly — helped companies commit crimes. And it also adjusted its foreign policies according to corporate needs. The foreign policy of Germany was a business-driven foreign policy. It was not driven by geopolitical or other security interests, it was business-driven, and this has changed with this government. Germany’s model was dependent on globalisation, the type of globalisation which we had from 1990 to about 2020, and it was already fading in the years running up to Covid. Germany was dependent on the Russian gas flowing forever, and on globalisation lasting forever.
FS: These populist backlashes, the rise of parties like the AfD, are in some way understandable, angry reactions to decades of naivety and incompetence.
WS: That’s exactly what it is. It’s the result of a country’s economic model running into the ground. If you work for an industrial company that supplies the car industry, you know that your job isn’t going to be secure. There are a lot of fears about the future. And rightly so — if you’re trained to be a mechanical technician, you are right to be worried because the country may not be able to support enough jobs for this particular, highly specialised segment.
FS: What might happen next? Because the whole world order that we’ve been used to for all these decades is built on countries like Germany fulfilling these roles.
WS: The irony of the situation is, the stronger the AfD gets, the harder it is for governments, because under systems of proportional representation, it is difficult for centrist parties to form classic coalitions of the Left or Right. No one would ever go into a coalition with the AfD. So there’s the hard Right, and there’s also the Left Party, which might disappear. But there’s a prospect of another Left Party coming, which is specifically focused on the Russia-Ukraine war, a party of the Left that’s anti-Nato, anti-weapons deliveries for Ukraine. There is a lot of support for that in Germany. The country is really split on this.
FS: Do you have a sense of what proportion of the population shares those doubts about the policy in Ukraine?
WM: I think it’s about half? There was a recent poll asking about the next stage of weapons, deliveries of cruise missiles, and there was a strong majority against. Now that’s a specific question. The other polls that I’ve seen were in the 50/50 area and weakening. A bit like in the United States, it started with very strong support, and the support is still there, but it’s weakening, though it’s not flipped completely. But the longer this goes on, the harder it will become.
FS: Could you not make a similar argument there that voters are seeing the impacts of that policy — on energy prices, on dividing the world economy, on bringing in a kind of new Cold War situation with Russia and China — and they don’t think it’s worth it?
WM: Oh, absolutely, that’s exactly the reason. They are making the connection between the support of Ukraine and the fact that they know that Germany is dependent on China and Japan and Russia. And they see that this is a policy, or a change in the world environment, that is not in Germany’s favour. Voters are not entirely stupid. When they vote for the AfD or for parties that are opposing this, they may be dependent on that old structure, or they may have known nothing else. There is a sense that this is now interrupted, and it is interrupted due to politics, and the Government is doing something unreasonable by supporting Ukraine.
FS: So it’s rational whether you agree with it or not.
WM: The AfD captures a lot of that. But there may soon be a party on the Left led by Sahra Wagenknecht, a very sort of maverick politician, who has left or who is on the verge of leaving the Left Party, who may be forming a new party of the Left. And that party was also on opinion polls at potentially 20% of the electorate.
FS: What programme might a new party offer that might capture wider support?
WM: I think the least likely programme is the one that I would suggest, which is: we’re going through a transition and it’s going to be hard. We need to remedy the lack of investment in modern technologies and we should accept that the future doesn’t lie in machine tools. So we should deregulate our bureaucracy and let companies be companies, and deregulate their taxes, and while we may not subsidise them, we will certainly leave them to flourish. And the country has enough talent, so they should be able to figure this out. What I’m suggesting is very boring in many ways — I think it would work, but it’s not going to happen.
But if there were a Trump-like character with a “Germany First” approach to industrial policy, something like what Gerhard Schröder was. I always thought of him and Berlusconi as the first European populists. They were centrists and there was nothing extreme about them in terms of their political views. They were just very pro-business. And I think some characters like that could re-emerge, to say: “This has been a mistake, the support for Ukraine, our support for the United States.” I think it would start off with becoming more US-sceptic.
The Germans hated Trump so much that they thought anyone who came after him was good. And they didn’t quite see how dangerous for them Biden would be. First of all, there is the anti-China policy that is really not in Germany’s economic interest. The US Inflation Reduction Act is a massive programme of subsidies for companies to leave places like Europe to resettle in the United States. A programme like this is causing enormous difficulties for German companies. Volkswagen, instead of investing in a massive factory in Germany which they had planned, are now doing this in the United States. There’s an awful lot of stuff like that happening.
What I could see happening is that a character would come in opposition to the United States, and I think that would probably be the focus, in saying: “We’re not a geopolitical nation, we are not good at this stuff. Let’s trade, let’s do what we’ve always done, and let’s be friends with our companies and let the needs of our industry dictate where we stand politically.” A pragmatic view. And if the war ends, it’s not our business who runs Russia or China.
FS: That would have huge ramifications for the world, if a party became popular in Germany that was explicitly saying: “Let’s just be pragmatic. Let’s make friends again with Russia. Let’s make friends again with China. Let’s worry about our economy and our energy prices and our industrial heartlands first, and leave international adventures to one side.”
WM: Exactly. I think they would probably phrase it the way you do, not in the Trump language. It would be basically what Merkel did. It’s not fundamentally different. Merkel sort of dabbled in geopolitics, but ultimately, that was the policy she deployed. Her big shortcoming, for which she’ll be remembered historically more than anything else, is the fact that this economic decline that Germany’s seeing now has its root in policies that she undertook but that didn’t have immediate consequences. During the Eurozone crisis, we always talked about kicking the can down the road, and used metaphors of that sort. But that is exactly what happened. Everything they did resolved none of the problems. There was always a long timetable for everything.
FS: If this current decline trajectory continues, what do you think happens to Germany and to Europe, without a strong Germany at its centre?
WM: People often make the mistake when of thinking Europe will blow up. I always get questions from the Eurosceptic British media like “Does this mean they will leave? Is there going to be another Brexit?” The biggest danger to the EU is not that it blows up. It’s not going to blow up; we’ve seen with the UK how difficult it is to leave. And if you have the euro as your currency, it will be 10 times as difficult to leave. I don’t think any country can do it.
The much bigger danger for the EU is that it becomes toothless and ineffective.
FS: We talk quite often about the West being in decline, but it sounds like Europe in particular is going to face a tough future.
WM: It’s going to be a tough period, that’s for sure. These periods end and countries have gone through periods of decline and then recovered. The UK was an example in the Seventies and Eighties. I can’t exclude that we strike lucky at some point again. But this is going to be a difficult period, and what makes me particularly sceptical is that I don’t see anyone who has an idea, a bright idea, of how to solve the problem, even if that person was only a fringe political figure. Most of the political debate is between people who want to subsidise industry and want to subsidise green technologies, but there’s never somebody who tries arrest the decline to see how one could change and innovate this economic model, or reform this economic model. It’s all the same, again and again.
There is a decline in the Western dominance in the world. And the EU being very dependent on the US for its protection but also dependent for globalisation for its economic success is in an impossible position. And it hasn’t even started to discuss what it needs to do to survive in this new world.
FS: Hearing you talk about the likely trajectory of Europe, it puts the Brexit question into a slightly different colour. Big picture, at least in the UK we are at liberty to make a radical new economic pivot if we want?
WM: Except that you don’t! There would have been one valid and good Brexit argument that I would have accepted: “We will do Brexit because we can improve on the economic model. We can do this differently.” That’s not happening. I think this is the great tragedy of Brexit. The UK’s economic model was shaped by the government of the Eighties, with development zones, and it’s very much geared towards the Single European Market. You probably remember Heseltine, the Thatcher government, trying to position the UK as the prime location for international investors that were entering the European Single Market. The Blair administration continued this process of European business integration. And that was the business model: the City was the Eurozone’s banker in the UK. The UK didn’t want to join the Eurozone, but it wanted to be the bank of another currency zone.
One could have conceivably thought of a new age, a digital model, but the UK still has the same old rules— on data protection laws, for example, and many others. And that’s to do with the fact that British governments did not focus on this, given that the UK has a strong foundation in science and technology, just as Germany does, they could have used these strengths to forge a new business model around these ideas. That didn’t happen, and that’s why we’re reading stories of Brexit being a disaster.
FS: It is too late now?
WM: It’s not too late, it can be done. I said I don’t see anyone in German politics who actually focuses on the economic model, but I don’t see this in UK politics either. A prime minister who thinks he can reduce inflation, or an Opposition which basically wants to do the same thing as the Government is doing — but nothing that pertains to this debate. Whatever the differences are, it is not essentially about the economic model.
FS: If you were a betting man, which of Germany and the UK do you think will be in a relatively stronger position in 10 years’ time?
WM: I would say the UK.
All 10 people on a jet linked to Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the mercenary group, were killed on Wednesday, Russian officials said.
Drone attacks in Russian territory have become more frequent as Ukraine wages a grueling counteroffensive.
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