The more you impeach him, the more they’ll come out and vote. Which is why I think he’ll be re-elected.
Dr. Vittorio Buffacchi is a senior lecturer of political philosophy at UCC, researching the political philosophy of issues such as social justice, inequality, and democracy. However, Dr. Buffacchi is also a prolific writer, writing for RTE, the Irish Examiner, and the Guardian on the topic of modern politics. As an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, I reached out to Dr. Buffacchi to talk to him about the most recent
scandal: the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
A leaked phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, had Trump urging Ukraine to investigate his rival in the upcoming presidential election, Joe Biden; shortly afterwards, Trump withdrew military aid to Ukraine, thought to be a threat to Ukraine to encourage them to comply. A whistleblower report implicated Trump in a widespread abuse of power, backed and corroborated by ‘half a dozen’ US officials. The White House has formally refused to cooporate with the inquiry, leading to the current frenzy, with Trump throwing allegations of ‘witch hunts’ and bias on twitter as his government largely rallies around him. The mounting evidence of Trump’s attempts to coerce Ukraine are undeniable, but supporters argue that his actions were, and have been, entirely justified.
I wanted to ask you about the impeachment, and what you think.
There is a risk with impeachment. I think it’s a necessary tool, but you have to be judicious in how you use it. You’re not just attacking a person, you’re possibly attacking an office. Democracy only works if there is trust in the system. Impeachment is saying, ‘We don’t have trust in the president’. There is a risk that that is interpreted as, “we can’t have trust in the [position] of the president”. Trust is extremely fragile; we need it, and it can be undermined overnight. There is a risk that, by trying to impeach an individual, you’re harming the architecture of trust in a democracy. It should be there, as a last resort. And it really needs to be a last resort. If people think it’s being used to score political points, they’re going to lose faith in politics. So there is a bigger question here, I think, right now, with populism— with people like Trump and Boris Johnson— you want people to trust the system.
There seems to be a lot of evidence against Trump in this case. Do you think this might actually be the
end of him, or will his denial win out again?
There is going to be a presidential election in the US in November 2020, 12 months from now. My theory is that Trump will be re-elected. This is not as surprising as it may appear, after all, no-one thought Trump was going to make it in 2016, but he did. And if he can do it once, as an outsider, he can certainly do it again, from the privileged position of being in the White House. I think the Democratic Party also knows that he will be re-elected, hence the impeachment inquiry. It is a last, desperate attempt to derail the inevitable. I don’t think it will work, in fact ultimately it may even be to Trump’s advantage, as it will fire-up his power base. You could almost say that a lot of people in the US voted for Trump precisely because he is not afraid to do or say the things that other presidents would not dare do or say, so again this impeachment could play in his hands.
We must brace ourselves for four-more years of White House madness. But on the positive side, there is a new generation of politicians in America who are formidable, fearless, and overall fantastic. One above all the others: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I recommend everyone reading this interview to remember her name. And if you want to read more about her, see here:
You say you don’t feel the impeachment will go through.
I don’t know whether it will go through or not. I think it has more to do with presidential elections. Last time there was an impeachment inquiry was with Bill Clinton, who lied to the American people…In fact, Clinton gained from it. His popularity went up, rather than down, as a consequence of the inquiry. So impeachment can backfire. It can fire up people to come and support the power base. With Clinton, we see an interesting example of when an inquiry, led by the republicans, played into the hands of Clinton, who was re-elected. A lot of people think he will be re-elected; I mean, it’s outrageous, but it’s outrageous he got elected in the first place.
It seems to be controversy that got him elected in the first place, so it makes sense that controversy would prop him up further?
With the American electorate, the turnout is low, usually below 50%. Elections are won or lost on the ability to get new people to come out. Obama did that very well. He managed to get the African-American vote, and the young vote, and by doing that, he brought a new slice of the electorate, and that got him over. With Trump, there is a big section of American society that has never voted because they felt they were not represented. That’s kind of the nasty side of America. And those are people that, before, would not have voted, because they would have thought, “There’s no point. There’s no one that speaks our language, our language of anti-immigration and of white supremacy.” And it’s a big electorate. So he’s managed to get them out to vote. The more you impeach him, the more they’ll come out and vote. Which is why I think he’ll be re-elected. The other thing is, and this is Clinton’s famous quote, “It’s the economy, stupid”. If the economy is strong, the president will be re-elected. And the economy is strong. Now, people are saying it’s about to
tank, but it hasn’t. Between now and next November, anything can happen. He’s de-regulated the economy, which is what people want. But, as I say, I have great faith in AOC. I think she’s phenomenal. She’s a voice we haven’t heard in a long time in politics…I mean, we’re talking about the social vote, and how big is that in America? But people like her give me hope. Not just in American politics, but generally. As a new way of doing politics. Trump is where we are, but the fact that someone like her can be elected gives me hope.
It gives you more hope about the voters than the politicians themselves, then?
At the moment, people look at the extremes. It was always an assumption– that has been true, certainly of Irish politics– that the votes are in the middle. It’s a bell-shaped curve. In the middle you have a lot of votes, centre right, centre left, and then not many at extremes. But it’s almost upside-down at the moment. I think Hilary Clinton was the wrong candidate for the election. She was too moderate. If Sanders had a go, he might do better. Oddly, people who wanted to vote for Sanders voted for Trump.
They represented a radical change. You can be radical in either way, and people wanted a radical change. Clinton really represented the status quo, and this idea of political dynasties, which doesn’t go down well with people. She’s very competent, but the wrong person at the wrong time. In a different time, we’ll never know. But because it’s a question of extremes at the moment. AOC has people because she speaks to a certain extreme. I think the reason I think extremes are becoming more relevant now is because we have reached the level of equality that pushes people. The economy has changed fundamentally. Even one generation ago, [anyone] could have a full-time job with a pension. Now, it’s all contract positions. People will have many different jobs and they’re all going to be precarious. That’s a fundamental change. And it’s scary. It’s taking a total gamble.
You write about the age of “post-truth” in modern politics, which ties in very much with the current scandal. Could you explain a little more about that?
Post-Truth is a murky concept. It refers to a dismissive attitude towards objective facts. The ‘post’ in post-truth does not indicate a chronological sequence, a moment after a specified situation or event, as in post-natal or post-surgery, instead ‘post’ here indicates that a certain idea or phenomenon (in our case ‘truth’) has become redundant and therefore can safely be discarded. In politics, Post-truth is a deliberate strategy aimed at creating an environment where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion, and where historical and scientific truth is delegitimized. In this sense post-truth is much more serious than a lie. We know that some politicians lie to us, but whenever someone tells a lie, they know deep-down that there is a truth, although they choose to ignore it. Post-truth is an attempt to delegitimize truth altogether, which makes it much more dangerous than a lie.
You’ve tied Trump to Brexit and to the climate crisis in a culture of misinformation. How did we get this far?
How indeed. Clearly the rise of populism has contributed to the present culture of misinformation, and it is not a coincidence that the political Tsunami of Trump and Brexit on both sides of the Atlantic are prime examples of populist politics. But to explain why post-truth is so prominent today we first need to explain populism. In other words, populism has provided fertile ground for post-truth to grow, but what is the cause of populism in the first place? Following in the footsteps of Marx, I think we should look for an answer in changes in the economic base of our society. Over the last 70 years inequality has increased exponentially, the gap between the ‘have’ and the ‘have-nots’ becoming wider every year. And on top of that, the nature of our labour has changed. Zero-hour contracts are the norm today, people live a much more precarious existence, because they have precarious jobs. Populism is the political manifestation of desperation, and post-truth the off-spring of populism.
Does the truth have any place here— and, indeed, in modern politics any more?
Truth always has a place in politics, and America is not an exception. And while truth has taken a bit of a battering in recent years, this should only alert us to the fact that we must never take anything for granted in politics, and that we have to fight for what we believe in. The enemy of decency in politics is not Trump, or right-wing extremism, but political apathy. On truth and politics I think the philosopher Hannah Arendt is unsurpassed. She says that those who preach post-truth feel threatened by truth, therefore they go out of their way to undermine or emasculate truth. She has a wonderful way of putting it: “truth has a despotic character”. What she means by this is that truth cannot be controlled, cannot be tamed, which is why tyrants and other unscrupulous politicians rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize. Persuasion and violence can destroy truth, but truth cannot be replaced.
You’ve made comparisons between Trump and the writings of Cicero, a research speciality of yours. Could you explain a little about that?
Not many people have heard of the Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43BC), let’s just say he is not a household name. Cicero is not even taught in many philosophy departments around the world, but I believe he is seriously underrated, and that today we need him more than ever. Which is why I teach a 2 nd year undergraduate course on his political thought! Consider this: populism was rampant in Ancient Rome at the time of Cicero, and Cicero rightly considered populism the major threat to the Roman Republic – Rome’s own attempt at a democracy. Cicero defended the rule of law, the separation of powers, and he fought against those populist
adversaries who tried to usurp power and turn Rome into a dictatorship. In some ways history risks repeating itself. Our modern democracy in the West is very young, if we consider the end of the second world war as its starting point. A mere 75 years. The Roman Republic lasted more than 500 years, and yet it came to an end during Cicero’s lifetime, notwithstanding his efforts. We must not make the same mistake, we must not let populism and post-truth win, and Cicero may just be the person to help us
defend our democracy.
You’re a professional academic; what draws you to write for newspapers?
If I write an academic paper, it takes… anything between 18 months and 5 years. And then you publish it in a philosophy journal, and realistically, it’ll be read by…10 people? 20, 30? I can write a piece for the Examiner or the Times that takes me 2 hours and it’s read by thousands of people. So it’s instant gratification! What I do is I summarise, in simple language, the stuff I work on academically, so the piece in the Sunday Business Post (on inequality in ireland) is a summary of an academic paper I’ve been working on for two years, so I just stepped away the footnotes and just summarised. So as far as im concerned im not doing extra work but I’m reaching a wider audience. Now, I also think that there is a duty to do something like that, because I am paid by the taxpayer, that’s where my salary comes from. So the question is what am I doing for the taxpayer, so I am doing my teaching and research, but if I can circulate my research more widely and give back to the taxpayer…. you know.
What would you say to someone who argued that philosophy is not useful, not relevant?
Even though it’s invisible, the way that society is shaped, it has a philosophical connotation. Just this morning I was giving a lecture of neoliberalism. The free market taking over society, that starts with a philosopher in the 1940s who was a big influence on Mrs. Thatcher, just like the Chicago School was an influence on Regan, also influenced by this philosopher. People don’t realise it, but the way that we think about society, that way that we organise society, our expectations for a just society… It was a philosopher that got the ball rolling. I think we fool ourselves if we believe it’s all a technical matter, we’re economists who decide on purely mathematical grounds… There is philosophy in economics, there is a philosophy in mathematics.