The following interview was conducted by Karel van der Linden. It originally appeared in Dutch in Zicht: Tijdschrift voor gereformeerd zich op politiek en maatschappij, a publication of the Guido de Brès-Stichting in the Netherlands.
Zicht: Your new book is Was Europa von Trump lernen kann (What Europe Can Learn from Trump). That would be interesting for Dutch readers. Did you have a particular reason for publishing the first edition in German?
Todd Huizinga: A German publisher, Vergangenheitsverlag, offered me a contract to publish the book in December 2016, shortly after the U.S. presidential election. I then wrote the book in German. It has not yet been translated into any other language. However, a Dutch publisher is interested, and the book might appear in Dutch before the end of this year. Another book of mine, The New Totalitarian Temptation: Global Governance and the Crisis of Democracy in Europe, should be coming out in Dutch this year, published by Uitgeverij De Blauwe Tijger.
The media in Europe are very negative toward Trump. What do you think that tells us about Trump? And what does that tell us about the European media?
The European media has always been much more critical of Republican and conservative American presidents than of Democrats (just think of the European media’s treatment of George W. Bush compared to its treatment of Barack Obama). This reflects, I think, the fact that the political spectrum in Europe is for the most part farther left than in the United States — conservatives in Europe are, generally speaking, rarer and less conservative than conservatives in the United States, especially if one considers the type of conservatism represented in Europe’s established media. In other words, the negative reception of Trump in the European media reflects a bias that is explainable, but a bias nonetheless.
In Trump’s case, the negative reception also reflects the fact that President Trump has had the courage to speak and act according to his convictions, even if the media in Europe disagrees — pushing European NATO members to contribute their fair share, leaving the nuclear accord with Iran, declining to join the Paris climate change agreement, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, etc. All of the actions above — and others — are examples of President Trump’s keeping his campaign promises to the American people.
How would you summarize the main message of your book?
One cannot understand the Trump phenomenon without acknowledging the alienation that exists in the United States between a majority of voters and many of the political, economic, academic and media elites. Among the primary causes of this alienation are: (1) the explosive growth of the bureaucratic-administrative state in the U.S. — the inordinate power that civil servants have gained at the expense of democratically accountable politicians, because of the increase in bureaucratic regulation and rule-making that now covers every area of life; (2) the ever more noticeable bending of the rule of law and of the U.S. Constitution itself (our basic law), to suit the purposes and preferences of progressive judges and governing elites; (3) the globalist orientation of American economic and business leaders that often puts stockholder interests above the interest of American workers; and (4) the division of the American population into rival groups via identity politics, along with the attempt to stifle free speech and free thought through political correctness.
This alienation also reflects the deep divide between traditionalists, who cherish the Judeo-Christian Western tradition and its achievements — democracy, the classical Western freedoms, the free market economy, and the rule of law — and political progressives who promote a very different vision for the West. This divide between traditionalists and progressives exists throughout the West, in both America and Europe. I believe that the root of the progressives’ vision is a post-modern rejection of the Judeo-Christian reverence for authoritative truth.
President Trump understands the alienation of American voters and he has made tremendous strides in combating the causes of that alienation. In his two years in office so far, he has shown he has the courage and the determination — against tremendous opposition — to revive, preserve and strengthen the American system of self-government. His presidency is all about safeguarding American democracy, the classical freedoms, and the rule of law in the face of an ever more anti-Western progressivism.
In various European countries, anti-EU movements have arisen or won more political support. What do you think of this development?
In many, if not most, cases, these developments exemplify the instinctive resurgence of conservatism in response to the EU’s supranationalist overreach — its subordination of national sovereignty to an essentially utopian globalism that believes that the ceding of national powers to the EU institutions that exercise power above the nation-state level is necessary in order to preserve peace and build a better world. Despite the risk of being branded and shunned because they are politically incorrect, everyday Europeans are reasserting a healthy, confident patriotism and demanding democratic accountability, responsive government limited in its powers, and social unity based on rootedness in national cultures, histories, and values.
While there is much in these developments that is chaotic and overly combative, I believe that this is fundamentally healthy. The challenge that conservatives face is to articulate political conservatism’s underlying worldview. As our forebears did, conservatives today adhere to the fundamentals of the classical and Judeo-Christian Western tradition.
Conservatives must learn better to express this amidst the omnipresence of today’s anti-Western progressivism among media, academic, and governing elites, and its power over people’s hearts and minds. Formulating this worldview basis is necessary in order to: (1) exclude all forms of political radicalism from this conservative resurgence; (2) lay bare the destructive nature of anti-Western postmodern progressivism; and (3) make clear to people the goodness, truth and beauty of our Judeo-Christian Western heritage.
To what extent are mainstream politicians learning from the emergence of populist parties?
There are too many differences and varieties among mainstream politicians and among average citizens in Europe for me to be able to answer those questions fairly. I will limit myself to the following observation: The portion of the European political mainstream that insists on strengthening the supranationalist aspects of the European Union at the expense of the sovereignty of its member states is wedded to a system that by its very nature increases the distance between average citizens and the political elite. The question is whether such a politician can be sufficiently responsive to average citizens.
To put it another way: Do average citizens in Europe prefer to be governed by their own fully sovereign national governments that they have elected, or do they prefer to be governed by an exceedingly complex combination of less than fully sovereign national governments and a pan-European EU that exercises many of the sovereign powers normally reserved for elected, national governments? Those are questions that Europeans must answer for themselves.
What are the most important differences between right-wing and left-wing populists?
My impression is that conservative populism is the type that has the most potential to survive, grow, and become a part of the political landscape. That is because, as I discussed earlier, conservative populism represents the resurgence of something that has long been disappearing from the political scene in Europe, namely the political expression of a conservative worldview. The progressive worldview, on the other hand, shows absolutely no sign of disappearing from the European political scene.
As the German theologian and politician Steffen Heitmann has said, the “coexistence of right and left — of a cautious, prudent conservatism conscious of human limitations and an activist progressivism that believes in human advancement through politics — is a necessary part of the basic framework of a healthy democracy.” Europe has come close to losing one half — the ‘right’ half — of that basic framework that a political system needs in order to preserve “the freedom of intellectual debate”.
On the conservative side, people understand innately that the erosion of democracy in the West is occurring because its basis — the West’s Judeo-Christian tradition — is disparaged or ignored in the public square and largely forgotten by those in authority. Nevertheless, much of the conservative resurgence that is often branded as populism is occurring without a good understanding of why it’s happening, what its foremost goals and objectives should be, and how those goals and objectives should best be pursued.
What conservatives must therefore do is empower and give direction to today’s conservative resurgence by articulating — coherently and understandably — its underlying worldview, a worldview that is rooted in the classical and Judeo-Christian Western tradition.
The importance of Judeo-Christian values in American society is a central theme of your book. In Europe we have been witnessing how secularization has steadily grown stronger. Is that process irreversible?
In my view, the principal cause of the crisis of democracy in the West — in North America as well as in Europe — is that we have lost the largely Judeo-Christian commitment to the idea that there is such a thing as an authoritative, objective body of truth to which all human beings are subject, regardless of how they might feel or what they might prefer. The postmodern suspicion that truth is not really truth, but simply a tool to assert power, is the heart of identity politics and multiculturalism. Both reject the idea that there is any truth claim that can command greater allegiance than the feelings or opinions of any individual or group, especially those that are deemed to be oppressed or disadvantaged. Ultimately, the only thing that is objectively true is each person’s subjective assessment of what is true for himself.
And each person’s subjective assessment of what is true for himself must be enforced, because that person’s dignity is violated by anyone who does not accept his decision about what is true for himself. It has reached the point at which anyone who does not accept this postmodern rejection of objective truth is in danger of being branded as xenophobic, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic or whatever. The limits within which people are allowed to think and speak are enforced by the character assassination of those who dare to think and speak outside those limits. And thus freedom withers away and injustice replaces justice, in the name of everyone’s right to choose what’s true for them. Whether this continuing seepage of post-modernist relativism into every area of life and thought can be reversed is a question no one can answer.
Why is the European Union in its current form untenable?
The core of the predicament when trying to answer such questions about the EU is that a more basic question — namely, ‘What is the EU?’ — has to be answered first. No one really knows what the EU is. It’s not merely an international organization of sovereign member states, like the UN or the OAS, but neither is it a federal state. It is not a ‘United States of Europe’.
The institutional make-up of the EU, though ingenious, is also very difficult to understand. The European Commission, for example, is often described as the EU’s ‘executive arm’, but it is unlike any other executive branch known to history — and it performs an important legislative function: with rare exceptions, it is the only institution in the EU that has the power to propose EU legislation. The Council of Ministers is the institution within which the member state governments are directly represented — but when national ministers meet in the Council, they do not function as national ministers in a national government, but as officials of the European Union. And they play this ‘double role’ in a way that is very difficult to define.
Finally, the European Parliament is not a parliament as most people understand the term. It does not do what most national parliaments do: it doesn’t propose legislation — the European Commission does that. It doesn’t levy taxes. Perhaps most importantly, it has no majority representing the governing party or coalition and no minority representing the opposition. Why? Because there is no ‘government’ in the EU, and no opposition. Rather, everyone governs together in a hybrid system of supranational governance, exercising sovereign governmental powers without being a government, and making and implementing policy as an organization that no one has ever been able to define in a way that everyone can agree on.
How do you see the future of the European Union?
More than ever, it is impossible to tell what the future of the European Union is. Under the right circumstances, the EU can certainly be reformed from the inside. There is no reason not to try to ratchet the EU down to what most Britons always thought that it was: a regional organization that provides a forum for close economic and political cooperation among the sovereign states of Europe — without utopian dreams of a post-national European order of ‘heavenly peace’.
But here is an important point: it will never work to reform the EU from a so-called pragmatic perspective, that assumes that everyone’s innate pragmatism will win out — and denies the power of utopian political dreams. The idea that a peaceful world can be achieved by subordinating the full sovereignty of nations to supranational institutions and a global legal order is a powerful and attractive idea. Those who would reform the EU must confront and refute that idea.
What is the biggest problem — the secularization of Europe or the intellectual climate, the one-sidedness of vision?
The secularization of Europe (and North America) and the intellectual climate in the West are two sides of the same coin. Because of the disappearance of the Judeo-Christian worldview from the public square, the premise of a basically unchanging human nature embedded in tradition, religion, community, and family no longer commands the general allegiance of Europeans nor of Americans. Though this view of human nature has grounded individual freedom and self-government in the West for the past several centuries, today’s secularist West now holds a radically opposed view: the idea of the virtually unlimited malleability of human nature according to each person’s choice, essentially independent of traditional institutions and social relations. We see the results all around us: once freedom of choice — the right to choose — has been exalted above all else, there remain no meaningful limits on the social pressure and governmental power to be wielded to impose ‘choice’ on everyone, whether they want it or not.
The European elections are approaching. Is it worthwhile to vote?
Yes, by all means, everyone should vote. The 2019 European elections could well be the most important European elections so far. In the context of Brexit, the ongoing debate about immigration, the conflicts between the EU and Italy, Hungary and Poland, this year’s elections are taking place amidst an unprecedented level of uncertainty about the future of the EU. Above all, voters in 2019 have a choice from among candidates who represent a wide spectrum of views regarding how democracy should function in Europe and the future direction the EU should take — whether it should continue in the direction of ever closer union or whether it should leave more powers to the national governments.