Intervjuer/Interviews, Publikationer

Interview with Frida Stranne: Why Trump’s victory was not so surprising, the loss of faith in the American Dream and the potential consequences of Trump’s foreign policies

Frida Stranne has a PhD in Peace and Development Studies and works as a senior lecturer at Halmstad University and is also a part of Uppsala University’s Swedish Institute for North American Studies (SINAS). Stranne conducts research on international relations with a focus on American domestic and foreign politics. In more recent years Stranne has become known as one of Sweden’s leading analysts of American politics and she regularly writes articles in Swedish newspapers, participates in expert panels and holds public lectures.

SCISER’s board member Salvador Perez interviewed Frida Stranne on why and how Trump won the election, how the loss of faith in the American Dream affects the American society, and the potential consequences of Trump’s foreign policies. 


Translated from Swedish by Johanna Hedman


 

Salvador Perez

Many were taken aback when Trump won the presidential election. My impression is that most people had counted on a relatively easy victory for Hillary Clinton. You were one of few people who expressed doubts as to whether this would happen. How did you arrive at that analysis and how should we understand the phenomenon that is Donald Trump?

Frida Stranne

I wrote a debate article in Svenska Dagbladet [one of the largest Swedish newspapers – ed. note] in August 2012 where I discussed the consequences of that so many people in the U.S. had started to view the American Dream as a chimera, as something that did not apply to them, while they at the same time expressed a great deal of dissatisfaction with the politicians in Washington. I lived in Washington 2013-2014 and before then I had made several trips outside of the urban areas and most of what I saw and heard was dissatisfaction and a lack of confidence in the future. Many expressed hopelessness and what had earlier characterized the U.S. – that ”everything is possible if I just work hard enough” – was a belief that was beginning to be questioned by more and more people. At the same time I got the impression that few politicians gave these groups of people – who live lives that are incredibly hard – any kind of attention. We don’t really understand this in Sweden but many Americans have two or three jobs and still feel uncertain of how they will manage if they get sick and don’t know if their children will be able to get an education and a good future. In my research I have analyzed the American Dream as a hub in the American identity as well as an important part of the economic driving forces that have characterized the U.S. throughout history so I saw the questioning of the American Dream as a sign of that something subversive was materializing which could get huge political consequences. Political stability is generated if everyone believes that the future is theirs and that the dream can be achieved, but if a critical mass starts to question the very basis of the system, instability and conflict threaten the status quo. Trump was able to respond to these emotions that hide in the lack of faith in the future and in an unknown ideological landscape that suggests that the U.S. is not necessarily exceptional. Trump’s campaign was in many ways an extremely skilled merging of all these different emotions. In addition, the political debate became more harsh during Obama’s presidency, especially in conservative radio channels, and it became possible to say just about anything. Racist speech, which we thought was something of the past, once again became widely accepted. I thought that all this in combination with the deeply rooted distrust in Clinton paved the way for Trump winning the election. However, I did believe that the Republican Party would prevent him from winning the primaries by agreeing upon a smaller number of candidates that could challenge Trump. Instead there were seventeen candidates and all the traditional votes were given to a large number of different candidates while Trump won by attracting all the discontent voters (15 – 20%).

Salvador Perez

President Trump recently made his first official state visits to the Middle East, more specifically to Saudi Arabia and to Israel. During his visits we witnessed some rather gruesome political scenes. You have written about these visits and how Trump by supporting Saudi Arabia and Israel and by taking their side against Iran risks destroying a careful re-organisation of American politics in the Middle East which was initiated by the Obama administration. It was recently confirmed that Trump intends to leave the Paris Climate Deal and we also know that Trump wants to get rid of, or ”replace”, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obama Care. Trump himself and his politics are sometimes interpreted as the very antithesis of Obama and his politics. Do you agree with that analysis? Does Trump aim to erase the effects of Obama’s presidency and if so, why?

Frida Stranne

Yes, there are several reasons why that description is accurate. Trump and parts of the political Washington have viewed Obama as acquiescent and that he by seeking diplomatic solutions with Iran and by signing the Paris agreement has diminished the power of the U.S. in the world. Liberalization of several issues related to fundamental values have upset a lot of Christian conservatives whom Trump managed to win over by promising change. Trump also campaigned that all trade deals which don’t unequivocally put the U.S. first are failures and he was successful in giving the impression of that the U.S. would be able to set the terms for others without giving anything back. However, Obama realized that the opposite is true, that the U.S. can no longer alone dictate the terms in the world and that military strength is not necessarily a sign of strength but also something that contributes to creating enemies and to destabilizing areas which have not established democratic systems (like in Iraq and Afghanistan). This is an approach that requires both courage and patience. And such an approach is not something that characterizes the national security establishment in D.C. which fears even the smallest forms of compromises and considers concessions to the rest of the world to be signs of weakness. Even though Trump campaigned for reducing the American military engagements abroad, the national security establishment now appears to have him on its side.

As for personal qualities, the differences between Obama and Trump couldn’t be greater. Obama was intellectual, thoughtful, empathetic and disarmingly humorous, and he often wanted to weigh different alternatives against each other – so often that he was actually perceived as being indecisive. Trump, on the other hand, is anti-intellectual, impulsive, bombastic and rather devoid of humor. But when it comes to these personal qualities, we should also understand that a lot of Americans struggled with Obama’s intellectual image and thought of him as a kind wiseacre who spoke from above; someone who was not a man of the people. But just like George W. Bush, Trump was perceived by many Americans, especially by those living on the countryside, as a genuine person and as one of them.

Salvador Perez

I would say that in certain forums there’s a consensus that the Democratic Party is in some sort of crisis after having lost the White House and Congress. The party has chosen a new party chairman, former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, but it seems to lack a clear leadership (that is, a good presidential candidate). The party’s political development is also neglected while everyone focuses on accusing President Trump and his administration for having close relations with Russia. Many young people also appear to have turned their back on the Democratic Party because it’s said to have worked against nominating Bernie Sanders. What is the state of the Democratic Party today? How can it attract voters who voted for the Republicans and for Trump but whose interests in reality are better represented by the Democrats?

Frida Stranne

It’s clear that the Democratic Party has neither found a leader figure nor articulated a substantial vision of what the party wants to do in the future nor presented any real alternatives for people who are frustrated and dissatisfied with the development of the U.S. One of the biggest problems with the dominance of two parties in American politics is that they both have several internal divisions which are fundamentally different from each other. Within the Democratic Party there are radical young Sanders supporters who in various ways want to challenge the system and build an entirely different welfare structure, but there are also more moderate Democrats in the middle who emphasize business and enterprises and who don’t want the U.S. to change in any radical way. The fact that Sanders continues to be so prominent and colorful does not benefit new names which is problematic because he cannot, with his 74 years, be the future of the party so he probably needs to assist someone else in entering the political limelight. But of course the most important question is in what direction the party will go, which groups of voters it wants to attract and how.

However, the biggest problem more generally is the contempt people have for politicians, and this issue affects both parties. The low election turnout but above all the fact that only around 10 procent (!) of Americans say that they have ”great trust” or ”trust in that the politicians in Washington are doing what’s best for the country” is incredibly serious. There’s also a huge frustration with the Democrats’ failure in providing an alternative vision and not just be against Trump. They will attract no new voters by only being against Trump. I have heard that Hillary Clinton is willing to assist the process but I think that would be fatal for the party. She was the wrong candidate from the beginning and it’s difficult to see how she can contribute in any meaningful way now.

Salvador Perez

It’s hardly a secret that Donald Trump has been in conflict with the establishment in the Republican Party. A prominent Republican like John McCain, senator in Arizona since 1986 and presidential candidate in 2008, has for example been very critical of Trump. There are also those who sometimes criticize the President and sometimes dedicate themselves to what can only be called damage control. At the same time another more right radical fraction of the party appears to have strengthened its position. Where do the Republicans stand today and what can we expect from them in the future?

Frida Stranne

In many ways the Republican Party struggles with the same problems that I described earlier. There are many conflicting interests that are supposed to be merged together and the difficulty in achieving this is reflected in the fact that during the past six months that the Republicans have had all power (both houses in Congress and the presidential power), they haven’t been able to realize a single one of their most important political reforms. The American political system is definitely in a deep and serious crisis and the lack of cooperativeness and will for compromises in Congress are perhaps the most obvious proofs of a ”Washington-crisis”. The system has in many ways rendered it difficult for smaller parties to cooperate as well. The influence of money but also how the electoral areas are drawn up (gerrymandering) contribute to this difficulty. There are no incentives for individual politicians and senators to work together. I have interviewed several people who have worked in Congress for several decades and everyone expresses great concern over these things even if some of them emphasize that tensions are nothing new. Previously, however, it has been possible to come together in times of crisis.

But it is vey exciting that the Supreme Court has decided to take on a case that concerns gerrymandering and the division of electoral areas in the different states. This can result in a legislative amendment which could alter the negative trend. There has also been talk about undoing the Citizen United Act from 2010 which made it possible for individuals to donate unlimited amounts of money to a candidate through so-called Super Pacs, and it would be a positive thing if it happened. Unfortunately I don’t think it will.

Salvador Perez

I’m under the impression that many people within the opposition in the U.S. are dedicating huge amounts of energy to impeaching Trump and thereby forcing him to leave his Presidential office. There are also those in Sweden, like former Prime Minister Göran Persson, who claim that the Republican Party will grow tired of Trump and turn its back on him. But it’s common that American Presidents are re-elected. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are all Presidents who got two terms in office. Do you think Trump will remain President and how likely do you think it is that he will be re-elected?

Frida Stranne

I try to be careful with making predictions about the future and it has probably never been more important than now to keep your head cold. I would say that the future is far from set in stone and that anything could happen. Perhaps it is as likely that Trump will be President for eight years as it is likely that he will be impeached or in some other way ”forced” away. But we actually know too little about any irregularities that may have been committed to say for sure that there is reason to impeach Trump. It’s also unlikely that it will happen without any serious evidence as long as the Republicans control the House of Representatives because it is that branch of power that could prosecute him. I personally don’t think we should focus as much as we do on this as long as there’s no concrete evidence available. Obviously it’s problematic that there even exist suspicions of illegal actions and Trump’s actions against Comey, the former director of FBI, and the ways in which he attacks the media are incredibly serious. Trump’s way of managing his office should be heavily criticized but at the same time we can’t neglect to describe and discuss all the political decisions that are presently being made in the background and the things that are implemented outside of Congress through other means of power which the President has at his disposal. The risk is that these political developments are overshadowed by the scandals and it would be unfortunate because this political turnaround will affect people for a long time to come.

Salvador Perez

During their first term, the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to focus less on the troubled Middle East as the most important strategic region and more on Asia. In an article in Foreign Policy, Hillary Clinton launched the vision ”America’s Pacific Century.” We can now conclude that this did not happen. What do we know about the Trump administration’s foreign policy and which regions will be prioritized?

Frida Stranne

So far Trump has mainly had his focus on the Middle East where he has – despite campaigning for the opposite – launched a series of attacks. For obvious reasons it’s very difficult for the U.S. to leave the Middle East because they have been so active in that region for several decades and they’ve even wanted to dominate it since the early 1990s (though unsuccessfully). But we can also see how a person like Kim Jong-Un, the leader of North Korea, is choosing to test the limits now that Trump has moved into the White House and it forces Trump to react and focus more on the outside world than he might have originally intended. With Trump’s temperament there’s definitely reason to worry but on the other hand he seems to be off on a good start in his relationship to China which could mitigate hasty decisions. But other than that, Trump’s foreign politics has mostly been about withdrawing from agreements like the Paris Deal, TPPI and NAFTA. It’s very difficult to see how this could prove successful for the U.S. which just like any other country is dependent on cooperation and trade. The risk is that they will fall behind the international community which would worsen things at home and that could in turn lead to instability both within the U.S. but also abroad because the U.S. tends to focus on external difficulties as a way to curb internal problems. But of course these risks might never become reality and the development could take a turn in the opposite direction. It will be very interesting to follow but I fear that the U.S. will become even more divided in the years to come and that troubling times lay ahead.

Salvador Perez

You have in some articles expressed concern over the Trump administration’s policies in the Middle East, especially since American politics seriously affect the delicate power balance between the regional great powers Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran. Your analysis is that Trump has begun to isolate Iran again and that Trump, by supporting Saudi Arabia military and diplomatically, continues to support the atrocities that are currently taking place in Yemen. It’s possible that we could be witnessing a normalization of this kind of American politics in the Middle East. Why do we see this development, is it dangerous and if so why?

Frida Stranne

Obama’s foreign policies were in no way perfect – there’s a lot to criticize – but he was thoughtful and aware of all the potential conflicts that could arise and he tried to reduce the amount of American military troops in the region, increase drone attacks on specific targets and at the same time create opportunities for diplomacy and redistribution of power in the Middle East. He realized above all that wars don’t create the necessary political and economic environments in other countries that are actually most beneficial for American national security.

The U.S. is and has always been dependent on open markets and political regimes that work with, not against, Washington. Obama had (correctly in my opinion) reached the conclusion that the U.S. in its ambition to shape the world to its own (and ”the free world’s”) advantage often has misjudged how political stability is created and maintained. His analysis was founded on that there are very few cases where violent (and forced) regime changes or military interventions have created real peace and lasting democracies. He seemed to be aware of the fact that the U.S. has actually not won a single war since WWII and that most of the attempts to bomb other countries with the aim of democratizing them have resulted in more wars and enormous suffering, and a tough approach to regimes like the one in Iran and the one in Cuba has not produced the desired result.

With this kind of perspective Obama challenged the group in Washington that considers the American displays of strength as essential to the country’s power position in the world. This group is often referred to as ”the Hawks” and they have had an enormous influence on the foreign policy priorities of several presidential administrations.

In Trump’s tough approach to Iran and Cuba we can see how a part of Obama’s foreign policy legacy is dissolved. This is of course favorable for the regimes in both Iran and Cuba which can continue to blame all of their shortcomings on the U.S. Trump had actually signaled that he in some aspects was in support of ideas similar to Obama’s (however in a less eloquent way) but the development we see now is completely different and it’s very disturbing, especially when it comes to Trump’s unconditional support to Saudi Arabia and Israel. His decision to sign a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia – the state which presently is the biggest sponsor of Islamic terrorism – can be perceived as a carte blanche both to the atrocities Saudi Arabia commits in Yemen and to continue to add fuel to the conflict with Iran. The development is particularly worrying in regards to Iran. The same day that Trump arrived in the Saudi capital Iran had a presidential election in which the Iranians chose a moderate candidate and thereby signaled that they are in support of approaching the West. Instead of encouraging such an event Trump continued to accuse Iran of alone being guilty of global terrorism, indirectly threatening to confront Iran military if the country changes its politics and violates the nuclear deal framework from 2015 – despite the fact that all experts are in agreement on that Iran is keeping its part of the agreement and a military confrontation with Iran would be fatal for the entire region and would also breed more terrorism.

But in the circles around Trump, which has gained more influence this Spring, the invasion of Iraq is not considered to be a mistake, instead the Hawks believe that the mistake lies in that the Bush administration was not willing to go far enough after the invasion (to rule the development in the country). Among the Hawks it is also believed that Bush made a mistake when he refrained from invading Iran. To this group, military solutions against Iran are still on the table and their security ideology pushes to strengthen the traditional alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel in order to weaken Iran’s influence in the region.

Regardless of your opinion in different issues (Iran, Cuba, the Climate Agreement and so on) it’s always desirable to have a thoughtful and consistent strategy behind the policies that are being implemented and that other countries know what they can expect and thereby are able to act in accordance with that knowledge. We should not forget that the U.S. still is the world’s only superpower and what the U.S. does affects everything in one way or the other. What is worrying is that Trump appears to consider unpredictability to be an asset which is very dangerous and leads to unnecessary tensions and, in the case of the Middle East, potentially more conflicts.

Salvador Perez

You’ve spent a lot of time in the U.S. and you’ve also been a visting scholar at the prestigious American University in Washington D.C. How important is it for someone who does research on American politics to actually spend time in the country and what have you brought with you from your time in the U.S?

Frida Stranne

To me it has been absolutely crucial. I ask completely different questions now than I would have asked if I had only read documents and research reports. There are different opinions when it comes to the question of how close a researcher should be to his or her field of study. But I have wanted to pin-point what it is in the American society, in its ideological core, in the American identity, self-image and the historical narrative which has driven the nation forward and which explains how it has become the world’s only superpower. What has shaped politicians who have come to Washington, especially those with control over foreign politics. It wouldn’t have been possible to analyze this without talking with and listening to different Americans’ view of the U.S. and without working in networks in Washington where I both formally and informally have been able to have conversations about the political driving forces and ideas with ”regular Americans” as well as with people who have worked for decades in Congress and Pentagon. It was also through this work that I began to understand the American Dream as a fundamental driving force and the risks it would entail if people started to distrust its relevance. But I also want to emphasize that a researcher who chooses to conduct statistical surveys and simulations of different statistical relationships in, for example, electoral behavior contributes with completely different but equally important things. In other words, it’s not necessary to be close to your field of study as a researcher and it also creates some problems because you risk making general conclusions based on a small sample. But it’s also our job to manage that balance.

Salvador Perez

You have in more recent years become a more public figure and it’s hardly an exaggeration to describe you as one of Sweden’s leading experts on American politics. Like Erik Åsard (another Swedish expert on American politics), you are also an active scholar. What are your thoughts on your role as an expert in the media and how well can you and other scholars communicate your research in medial contexts?

Frida Stranne

When I was asked to be a part of Svenska Dagbladet’s expert panel during the presidential election in 2012, accepting was not an easy decision. Scholars are completely untrained in making media appearances and many are bad at communicating what they want to say briefly. It’s not something that many of us want to do either because what we work with is complicated and driven by things that are difficult to explain. To only highlight small pieces of that complexity and to accept that complex knowledge is reduced to a few sentences that in turn can be taken out of their context and used in different channels and social media is, to say the least, stressful. At first it was a chock and I never felt satisfied with my own work. I prepared manically and yet I was unable to get my point across satisfactorily. I’m not really able to do that now either and although I have learned techniques that facilitates making my performance as good as possible, I have also come to accept that I can’t take responsibility for everything and that you can’t always give the best answers when you have to deliver those answers quickly.

However, the main reason to why I accepted Svenska Dagbladet’s offer in 2012 was that surveys showed that only 18 procent of the media space concerning my area of interest (foreign politics) was given to women. If you want to change power structures you have to challenge yourself and seize the opportunities to make a change. This is also what has motivated me to remain in the public sphere. Female scholars must dare to take and demand space. I still don’t like it because I don’t enjoy being the center of attention. Few people really understand the conditions and how it sometimes feels like being thrown into a tumble dryer. My subject is constantly top news and the media can call everyday and add several hours to my real full-time job and you always have to be on top of everything that is happening. In the flood of information that exists today that means that you literally have to work almost all the time. It also takes a long time to learn how to deal with the media and many give up before they get a handle of it due to this nagging sense of inadequacy. I think that’s a big reason to why so many scholars say no to the media. It’s also not considered appropriate as a scholar to be seen and heard too much outside of the academic world. Other things count in our world and frequently being in the media is not one of those things.

But at the same time the need for scholars have never been greater than now. There is so much resistance to accepting facts and many people like and share things on social media, and scholars have to be present in this landscape of information and not allow various pundits or self-proclaimed experts to disseminate half-truths or lies without being questioned. Moreover, journalists themselves now often take the role as ”experts” which I think is incredibly problematic. Journalism is fundamental to a functioning democracy but journalists should focus on primarily describing objectively what’s happening and ask very sharp and insightful questions in relation to current topics.

But the role of the expert is difficult in general. Anyone can of course be very knowledgable within an area and everyone should be given space to speak their mind in the public debate but we now have a situation where people who have traveled a lot in the U.S. or who have been politically active in various campaigns are suddenly given a status equivalent to that of a person who has dedicated his or her entire professional life to reading, mapping out, analyzing and in a systematic way acquiring specific knowledge within a field. It’s deeply unfortunate that everything is mixed into one single mess and it contributes to making it difficult to differentiate between opinions and ”facts.” This new media landscape also creates opportunities for scholars to play a more visible role in the public debate but it also scares many scholars away from it. The media should become more aware of how to use and represent different people with different kinds of knowledge in different ways.

Salvador Perez

There is an important discussion about the current debate climate in Sweden where hate and threats have become ”normal” for many public figures, especially for women. What is your personal experience as a female expert on American foreign and security policies, subject areas which remain dominated by men? Do you experience any difference between the academic world and the media? What obstacles for equality exist and how do you believe they can be overcome?

Frida Stranne

I’m often attacked in emails or on Twitter but I have been spared in comparison to others. But every time I write something that is not to the liking of certain groups, they attack immediately and always in a personal way which is difficult of course. It’s frightening to that so many people harbor such anger and feel such a strong need to attack someone and insult them in any way possible and thereby try to force us to be silent. And sadly it does have some effect. Sometimes when you’re tired and too much is going on around you, you choose to not participate. But it’s mainly older men who have contacted me throughout the years and they tell me things that they believe I know too little about or they want to recommend books for me to read. It has actually never happened that I haven’t already read the book they recommend but it’s pretty strange to have someone on the phone who tries to explain to you how ”it really is” and implicitly or explicitly informs you that you have no idea what you’re talking about. What women can do is to support each other, speak about this and not resort to thinking that it’s ”only me” that’s stupid or has done something wrong. Meanwhile all men should be able to identify the biases and trace the effects of the existing gender order. If you interview someone, don’t always pose the first question to the male participant, don’t interrupt the woman after one minute while giving the man as much time as he wants, present female and male participants with the same kind of ”dignity”. I have experienced the opposite on so many occasions that I sometimes just laugh at it but it really is difficult and it reinforces the feeling of that you’re slightly less accomplished than your male colleagues.

Salvador Perez

We usually ask the people who we conduct interviews with about their driving forces and what advice they have to young people who wish to be politically active and contribute to changing and improving the society. What are your own personal driving forces and what advice do you have to young people?

Frida Stranne

When I began studying at university not only did a whole world of endless knowledge open up, I also realized how complex everything is and how little I knew of the world. That feeling has never really left me and there’s something fascinating about the complexity which motivates me to strive for more and more knowledge. To have knowledge about things is also to have a kind of ”self-power”, it brings you to new places and contexts where you grow as a person and it gives you access to unexplored ”rooms”. If you’re interested in politics, you can become engaged in numerous ways but always remember that hard work is required before you can say something substantial and true about the world. Don’t give up because it’s hard.

My studies resulted in the realization of how power, money and fear control much of world politics and this both frightened me and made me angry. That anger has not yet gone away – it keeps me going. I discovered through what I had learned about history in school and in the media that very limited parts of ”the truth” are told, that so many perspectives and nuances are pushed to the margins and that this way of writing history also greatly hampered peace and stability in the world. It’s always the victor who writes history and we in the West have been the victor for a long time and what we tell ourselves about our history shields us from so much of reality and isolates us from the suffering that our actions sometimes have caused. We are not always ”the good ones” who are out on a misson in the world to establish democracy and protect human rights. Much of what we have done since the time of colonization, especially in the Middle East, has contributed to instability and to the suffering of millions of people and in extension to the hatred that is now directed at us. And this happens without us really having any kind of understanding of chains of events or contexts or even interest in how people in other parts of the world think of us. It produces an inability to discuss the increasing extremism in a comprehensive and intellectual way which is both sad and frustrating. What the West did in Iraq in 2003 makes me very angry but it makes me even more angry that we are unable to discuss these things and that we never seem to be able to learn from history. How could we so easily support the attack on Libya when only a few years earlier we had witnessed the invasion of Iraq and its consequences? Democracy is not built with violence; history teaches us the opposite. The fact that we Europeans overlook what the U.S. is doing and refrain from putting pressure on Washington sometimes makes me hopelessly disillusioned but also focused on continuing to talk about the things that I have discovered through my research. If we want to change the conflict dynamic in our time, we have to begin with getting better at understanding different perspectives on the world.

Photo: by Jnn13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons