Spiegel is adamant that there has been no overwhelming surge in support for populism in the US, noting that the Republicans have since 2019 lost almost every special election and have simply underperformed in the interceding years, because of Trump. The experienced journalist thinks another Republicans defeat is more likely than a Trump presidency in 2024.

Peter Spiegel is US managing editor of
Financial Times

Peter, are you worried that Donald Trump will be president of the United States again, come November?

Look, I think if you look at the current polls, particularly the polling in a lot of the swing states, it is going to be close. And Trump is ahead in a lot of the states where Biden won—you know, Georgia, Arizona, and he’s even pulling either close or ahead in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania. But there is an old saying that a week is a long time in politics, right? And we’re still months away. And so I think what people tend to have what we call path dependency, right? If it’s going in this direction, it has to continue in this direction forever. And it just doesn’t work that way in politics. I would remind everyone that, at almost exactly this time four years ago, Biden finished, I think, fourth in the New Hampshire primary, and everyone said, “Ah, he’s dead. His campaign’s over.” And then, you know, eight months later, he’s president of the United States. So I guess my point is that trying to predict what’s going to happen in November based on polling numbers in February is misguided, because we’ve had this before, right? Biden always starts slowly. And the closer you get to Election Day, the more people say, “Oh, gosh, you know what? He’s not as bad as I thought he was. He’s a decent guy. We like him and Trump equally.” The more people get closer to Trump, the more people think, “Okay, he’s crazy and I don’t want to be pulled into this psychodrama again.”

So I think that right now, if you were to take a snapshot, I’d say that yes, it looks like there’s a very good chance of Trump becoming president again. But I don’t think this is the lens you need to look through. I think you’ve got to look at where the trends are likely to head, and you have to look at how Trump lost in 2020. The Republicans underperformed in 2022. In fact, they have lost almost every single special election we’ve had. In the interceding years they’ve just underperformed, and that’s because of Trump. And I think this is more likely to be repeated than a Trump presidency in 2024. That would be my caution.

But there is a real problem in society, and not only in American society. We see the same thing in Europe, too. Many people are unhappy with their lives. They feel left behind. And liberal democracies and liberal democratic leaders don’t seem to have answers for these people.

And that is why an election that shouldn’t be close will be close. But, again, I would say two things. One, I would simply repeat that he’s already lost twice. That appeal to the “left behind” didn’t work in 2020. He lost in 2022. The Republicans were supposed to have had this big red wave. Biden was terrible, and they were supposed to take the Senate and romp into the House. Well, they didn’t win the Senate and they barely won the House. So we’ve already seen this dynamic play out in the US, and there has been no overwhelming surge in support for populism in the US. It’s there’s and it’s a lot. You know that, but it’s not 51%. It’s probably somewhere in the 40% range. The other point I would make is that, unlike Europe right now, the economy in the US is doing very well. Look at the economic data that have come out. The job numbers. We are in a full-on boom economy. GDP growth has gone through the roof. Jobs growth is through the roof. The stock market is up. And what we’re beginning to see in the economic sentiment numbers is people are getting less grumpy about the place and the pace of life, and that Biden is starting to get some of the credit for that now. It’s going to take a while for those numbers to filter through, I think, but you’re starting to see the trend lines go in the right direction.

We do our own polling at the University of Michigan business school, and we’re starting to see that. We always ask the questions: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”, “How do you think Biden’s doing?”, “The economy? What do you think of the economy overall?”, “What do you think about Biden’s policies?” And on all those metrics, Biden’s numbers have been rising over the last three months. So I guess my argument would be that that, yes, the populist, anti-establishment, anti-centrist movement you are talking about is still very much alive in the US, but it’s not 51%. It’s a smaller percentage, somewhere in the region of 35, 40, 45 percent. So that’s not a majority by any stretch of the imagination. In addition, the trends are moving toward the mainstream. Because, in many ways, many of the concerns that Americans are talking about, with inflation and slow economic growth, are being solved.

The one area where this shift towards the mainstream could run into a problem is immigration. Again, the same issue as in Europe in many ways. An overwhelming number of people are showing up at the southern border right now in unprecedented numbers. It isn’t really having that much of an economic impact, but it does add to this sense you spoke about of being left behind: that these Others are coming to our country, getting the good jobs and changing the nature of our country. It’s a different debate here in the US, though, and it’s slightly odd. Immigration here is largely from Latin America, so largely Catholic and conservative. And what we have seen with the Hispanic population in the United States is that they’re integrated immediately. Within a generation or two, they’re in leadership and corporates positions.

The difference in Europe is that the migration is obviously more North African and Muslim. And Europe has really struggled to integrate that community into its own societies. And so I have always been a little less concerned about where the debate in the US might go on immigration than the debate in Europe, because I always say that the issue of Hispanic immigration in the US will have gone away within a generation, with everyone speaking English and integrated into society. It’s been harder work in Europe, because of the religious and cultural differences. The difficulties emerge when a lot of North African and Muslim immigrants come into Belgium or into France. And I worry more about Europe on this one. But, you’re right, you have absolutely identified a dynamic that cuts across both Europe—Western Europe in particular—and the US.

But I think that if we look at our societies, many of them are tired of the craziness, right? And that comes out in the polling too—even in the Republican primaries. So while Trump is dominating the primaries, he only got 51% in Iowa. These are Republicans, and he can only win over half the Republican Party. It was the same thing in New Hampshire. Everyone keeps saying, “Oh, it’s done, it’s over. He got 54%.” But he didn’t win some huge majority. He’s losing Republican voters. And the reason Republican voters are saying we don’t like Trump is this: they’re tired of the chaos. They’re tired of the craziness. And if he can’t get, you know, 75% of the Republican votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, there’s something fundamentally soft with his candidacy, which can, I think, be exploited in the general election.

Do you believe there’s a lack of leadership in the world right now? Why aren’t we seeing a new generation of talented politicians emerging?

I worry that it’s because politics in the US and Europe have become so poisonous. If you’re a smart, successful person, why would you enter politics? Right? If I’m smart, I’m going to go into business. I’m going to become a journalist. I’m going to become, you know, I’m going to move into the private sector, because I can make a bit of money. I can have a life that’s less in the spotlight. I won’t put my family through all the horribleness. And so I worry that the talented people are no longer going into public service. And that’s a shame. And I think the fact that we can’t even find a Gen X person to run for president. I mean, I guess Nikki Haley is technically my age. But we basically have people in their 30s and people in their 80s. There’s nothing in between. And the people who are running in their 30s are billionaires, right? “I’ve already made my fortune, so I’m going to run for president,” like Vivek Ramaswamy. So my concern is that there’s a talent gap, because running for office means crazy people threatening your family and showing up at your doorstep and doxing you on social media. Why would I want to put my family through that? Unless there’s something screwed in my head about it? And I think that has really turned a lot of young people, and people with families and kids, off running for office. And I suspect that is helps explain why we’re running short of really qualified candidates.

Now, the only thing I will say about that is, look, Biden was an incumbent president who decided to run for re-election. We can debate the merits of that, and whether that was a smart move, but look in the wings and you’ll see young, dynamic, interesting candidates who could have run this time and probably won. There’s Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan; Andy Beshear, the Governor of Kentucky; Roy Cooper the Governor of North Carolina and Gavin Newsom, the Governor of California, who are all in their 50s. And so I guess I’d say I’m not quite as worried about the Democrats, that there are people on their bench who could run for president and be successful. The Republican side is a completely different case.

And one of the things that I’ve asked my reporters to look at, and I still can’t quite figure out what happened, is what happened to the old Reaganite, pro-business,—for lack of a better word, sane—wing of the Republican Party. Which has just disappeared. What we know is that after January 6th, in particular, and the storming of the Capitol, those people woke up and said, “We have to stop Trump. There’s something wrong with our country here.” And you have people like Liz Cheney, and you had people like Glenn Youngkin, the Governor of Virginia. You had people like Chris Sununu in New Hampshire. You know, uh, you had, um, well, Chris Christie ran for governor, ran for president, and there was a movement afoot among Wall Street types in particular, saying, “We’re going to fund this.” We had outlets like the Lincoln Project and other places like that. There seemed to be a meeting of the minds that sane Republicans would come back and oust Trump. And for reasons that still slightly escape me, they weren’t able to organize themselves to do that, or to build on what happened to the sentiment in the country after January 6th. And that, I think, is down to a failure by mainstream Republicans. We’ve seen this happen before. I mean, frankly, the Reagan revolution was, in many ways, the work of a group of Republicans within the Republican mainstream. I mean the Heritage Foundation, and all those different organizations who got together and systemically built a movement that took over the White House. And you know, modern Republicans could have done that, they just didn’t. And I think that constitutes a failure of leadership on their part. Another question is why the Republican Party has developed a cult of personality, when they never did so in the past.

In short, the Republican Party still befuddles me, but I think it’s something that both academics and journalists need to look at more, because I’m not sure any of this was a foregone conclusion. I’m just not convinced that the anger in the countryside and the rise of populism meant Trump was destined to win the nomination this time. I think we can blame that on the other candidates’ terrible campaigns. But also on the more mainstream Republicans—and there are a lot of them out there—, and their failure to organize, fund and deploy an anti-Trump movement in the US. It could have been done.

Do you think that social media and the mainstream media are also to blame? Maybe journalism isn’t what it used to be? Maybe people don’t trust the newspapers like they once did?

Essentially, what’s happened is people have retreated into their camps. So liberals will watch MSNBC over here, and the conservative conservatives all watch Fox. So there’s a bit of social media, but there’s also cable TV in the US, which is just incredibly partisan. And that’s what drives eyeballs, and so they play to their audiences. There is obviously space in the US for more credible mainstream publications like the Financial Times and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but they are not mass media in any way. You know we’re a niche publication, right? Our audience is rich people. The same thing goes for the Wall Street Journal. We go out to rich business people. And even the New York Times, which is bigger than both the FT or the Wall Street Journal here, tends to go out to educated elites. It’s not going to the masses.

Television used to be the real mass media, but television has become splintered—a partisan place to watch the news. And, as you said, fringe news organizations can gain almost instant credibility just by posting stuff that people tend to believe, on social media or on the internet. Now, I’m slightly contrarian on this question, because what I think we’ve witnessed over the years is people getting better. I wouldn’t say there’s always going to be a core group of slightly—how do I put this politely?—gullible people, with true believer fringes on both the left and right. Probably 20% of each. But I think that what we saw in the middle, where people were receiving misinformation on social media or being radicalized by misinformation, I think those consumers have become better educated about what they’re seeing in front of them. This is why I think that, despite all this fear about deep fakes over the last 3 or 4 years, it really hasn’t happened. You look at a video and see Joe Biden saying “Vote for Donald Trump.” How are you going to think that’s real?! I think we underestimate the sophistication of the average American when it comes to some of this disinformation. I do worry about it, and I think you’re right to say that social media and right-wing media more broadly has had a huge, huge impact, particularly in motivating the populists and the Trumpistas. The one thing I’ll say about that, though, is look at history. One of the most dangerous manifestations of the far right was Nazi Germany, right? You know the Brownshirts were in many ways a militant organization that had to organize itself for pamphleteering, for rallies. And so they had to do things that were physical, which gave Hitler a base of people who could turn out. Well, we don’t have any of that on social media. There’s no army of Trumpist brownshirts who can show up anytime, because you don’t need people to pamphlet, you don’t need people to organize. You can do it all through social media. And so social media is actually less frightening to me than was old school pamphlets. Because, if I was walking down the street in Brooklyn and suddenly saw 3000 people handing out Donald Trump pamphlets, I’d be a bit frightened. You don’t see that in the streets. It’s all in weird Twitter places. You’re 100% right that both social media and mainstream media have driven people into these corners. But I still think that, in terms of who’s influenced, it is still mostly on the fringes, and the center is still there to be fought for. And that’s where the election is going to be fought. I’ll give you an example I always share with my reporters. Women, particularly wealthy women in the suburbs of cities like Philadelphia or Phoenix or Atlanta, tend to vote Republican, for economic reasons. But because Trump is a rapist, because of Dobbs and the overturning of Roe versus Wade, we’ve seen suburban women turning against Trump in election after election. That’s the center we’re talking about. The reasonable center I think this election will be fought over. And that’s why I think Biden has got a pretty good shot. That’s what happened in 2020. That’s what happened in 2022: women in the suburbs said, “I can’t vote for this guy anymore, even though I’m a Republican,” and they ended up voting for Biden and for Democratic congressional candidates, too.

So social media has enormous influence, but I’m not sure it has influence over all of America. I do think they end up talking to the 20 to 25% of the country that just wants to hear its own views repeated back to them.

My last question, Peter, is about the freedom of the press. Particularly in Europe, with the widespread use of SLAPPS and the surveillance of journalists, do you feel that the freedom of the press is in danger? Is free reporting under threat?

The Freedom of the Press is completely protected in the US, even if a populist like Trump is president. We’ve seen attacks on journalists and the Press, but there are elements here. On the one hand, there’s what I’d call more official governmental suppression. And then there’s a sort of anti-media sentiment in the public sphere. Let’s take them separately. I think we saw this a little bit when Trump was president: he clearly wanted to use the power of the presidency to censor and to round up. I mean he’s said it publicly: he wants to launch investigations to criminally prosecute people who talked to journalists about the fake news and stuff like that. So I think there is a threat there. I would just say on this front that Barack Obama was pretty fucking bad on this front, too. I mean, he launched investigations, criminal investigations, into journalists’ sources. Obama was the worst president for press freedoms in terms of using the Justice Department to go after sources and leaks and of subpoenaing journalists’ records. In many ways, Trump simply built on what Obama did first. But that said, the First Amendment is the First Amendment. I’m still pretty confident the courts will protect journalism. What I worry about more is sending my reporters to a Trump rally and him saying “Look at those guys back there. That’s the fake news, go beat them up.” It’s kind of frightening to attend a Trump rally. I mean, it’s less frightening for someone from the Financial Times, because we’re sitting at the back of the room with a pen and paper. But if you’re a TV camera crew or a CNN anchor, you know, the MAGA crowd can be frightened. And the media bring security. I mean, they bring real hardcore security to a lot of these rallies, which isn’t something people ever did before. And we’ve seen the level of political violence they’re threatened with. I mean, they attacked journalists on January 6th.

I’m less worried about the official government threat, you know the Pegasus stuff you had in Greece and suchlike, because of the legal protections and precedents. What I am more concerned about is street-level violence stirred up by Trump’s rhetoric targeting journalists. And it’s not just at rallies, it’s people posting journalists’ names and addresses online and saying “Target that person,” and they get harassed. So I worry more about the private sector and the public more than the governmental sphere.

Thank you very much Peter.

Thank you Odin