American democracy is a fiction

Interview - USA expert Elisabeth Bronfen: "Trump freed the world from the shackles of facts and kidnapped America into fiction"

USA expert Elisabeth Bronfen: "Trump freed the world from the shackles of facts and kidnapped America into fiction"

Joe Biden didn't really understand America, says literature professor Elisabeth Bronfen. The country has forgotten how to find a common denominator. There is only one way out.

Elisabeth Bronfen is professor at the English Department in Zurich and visiting professor at New York University. The America connoisseur on Trump's legacy, American trenches and Joe Biden's strengths.

Ms. Bronfen, if you look at America today: is there anything that gives you hope?

Elisabeth Bronfen: Yes. More people voted than ever in history. You take it seriously. The 50 percent who voted for Joe Biden actually give me hope - even if nothing has been definitely decided yet.

No matter how the elections end: Donald Trump will be the most powerful person in the world for at least three months. What do we have to be prepared for?

Of course, if Biden wins, Trump could do all sorts of damage, fire people, and keep attacking democratic institutions with absolute lust for revenge. It is clear that Donald Trump will shout a lot. He accuses the other side of cheating. It is he who wants to steal the election and stop the counting of votes immediately.

However, only the courts can stop the process.

If they stop counting the votes now and the Republican Party backs Trump, things will be dangerous. Then the fragility of American democracy becomes very, very clear. But the judges and Trump's party colleagues have so far held back a lot. The safeguards in the American system, the “checks and balances”, are still working.

Almost half of Americans (around 70 million) have re-elected Trump. What is the secret of its popularity?

Trump's secret is his irrepressible energy. What he says doesn't matter at all. People know that none of this is true. What has impressed many Americans, on the other hand, are these mass rallies in which Trump appeared as a strong, great man - despite his corona disease. His message was clear: if you follow me, you will also be strong and great ...

... although Trump has anything but strengthened the country in the current crisis.

Trump did not do well in the corona pandemic. He also failed to solve the country's infrastructure problems. Education has not improved. But that's not what matters. What matters is the fantastic vision it conveys. For millions of Americans, this fantasy is even more important than democracy, even if it has little to do with their actual reality.

Trump freed the world from the shackles of the facts and led America into fiction. How does the country get out of this parallel universe?

Half of Americans are no longer interested in facts. In order to understand that, one has to realize how poor education has become in the country. Millions of Americans also have no passports, hardly travel and only speak one language. They live in their little worlds that they absolutely want to hold onto. Then there is the absolute split that has existed between right and left media. Each side produces its own parallel universe. For me that is the “million dollar question”: How do we manage to create a media landscape that can bring many more people together?

Almost 100 percent of US MPs elected have a college degree. Has America become a dictatorship of academics over the uneducated?

You see, when my father went to college in New York in the 1930s, college was free. Then there were moderate tuition fees for a long time. Then in the 1980s - partly because of the tax cuts that led to a hole in the education coffers - studying became unaffordable for many. Today the resentment of the uneducated towards the educated is huge. The American dream is in jeopardy.

What do you mean?

Work hard and send the children to good schools in the hope that they will have it better: That was the basis of this dream for a long time. Education no longer has that status for many Americans today, so this dream no longer works. The reason for this is the widespread hopelessness. Many Americans no longer believe that they can achieve anything in their lives. You imagine: "I won't be able to do it anyway." This is new in American history, where the dream of advancement has always played a central role. For example, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) stands for this. He had to walk nine miles to school and did his homework by candlelight at night - according to the myth.

You mentioned the Republican Ronald Reagan tax cuts. But in recent years it has been the Democrats who have made empty promises to the poor and disadvantaged.

The Democrats have misunderstood a lot. Many, for example, admired Barack Obama for his charisma and rhetoric. But, in effect, Obama has hardly had any major projects. He did not build any dams, no bridges, no real reform of the debt system - unlike Frank D. Roosevelt during the Depression. And when Bill Clinton admonished his wife and the Democrats in the 2016 election: "Get out to the working class!" You didn't listen to him. That took revenge. They also underestimated the importance of issues like abortion and gay rights. Half of Americans are deeply morally conservative about anything to do with gender issues or marriage. The trenches are deep.

Does America even need these rifts and this contradiction? Are we Swiss just too addicted to harmony if we see it differently?

No, I do not think so. Americans need crises that they can overcome. Dramas in which you can prove your heroism. But no trenches.

How can the land overcome the rifts?

Until the 1980s, America was always able to agree on certain fundamental values. After September 11th, it was still possible to agree on the phrase “United We Stand” (“We stand together”). With very few exceptions, all democratic politicians backed Republican President George W. Bush in 2001. You wanted to demonstrate unity, you can't do that at all today. The common denominator has shrunk enormously.

In the past few years, the USA would not have lacked moments when standing together would have been appropriate.

On the contrary: for example with Covid-19 or the Russian electoral interference. But they didn't because the two sides no longer trust each other at all. An example: Biden appealed to the common sense and humility of the Americans at the Democratic Party conference. Looking at the divided country, he said: "This is not who we are." (“We're not like that.”) You would have to say to him: “Sorry, Mr. Biden, unfortunately!” For half of Americans, humility and common sense are no longer important.

Didn't Joe Biden understand America?

Joe Biden made a mistake when he thought that Americans now want to see a deliberate, cautious president protecting their health. A sane person would think so. But political passions are not reasonable.

Trump and Obama were both heroes in the eyes of their supporters. Joe Biden doesn't seem heroic. Can America even get along without a "Hero" at the top?

Half of the country wants the heroes, the other half the "pater familias", the understanding superfather who listens to them and shows them sympathy. Joe Biden has mastered this role.