“Trump is just the beginning”

The Israeli author Nadav Eyal explains in his book Revolt why people nowadays so readily believe in lies and why the worldwide destruction of power structures is both a danger and an opportunity.

Tel Aviv-Nadav Eyal has been travelling the world as a journalist for many years, and what he observes he finds more than worrying: Our world order is collapsing, what he labels "the age of responsibility" is over. People feel lied to, fear social decline. Populist hate is spreading. 

US-President Donald Trump. 
US-President Donald Trump. AP/Alex Brandon

"Trump is only the beginning," writes Eyal in his book Revolt, which was published in Germany in January 2020. 

Why did you call your book 'Revolt'?

We try to find words for what is happening in the world. Often there is talk about the age of populism or the incompatibility of technology and human understanding. I find that too narrow. I think we are witnessing a worldwide uprising against power structures, not only in democracies but also in totalitarian regimes. Revolt means that it is more about destroying than about creating new power structures. It is a leaderless movement.

Leaderless? What about Donald Trump?

I think Trump represents some constituencies of revolt, the rebels. They don't have to be the majority in society, but they sometimes determine the outcome of elections.

What is the difference to a revolution?

After Trump's election, there was repeated mention of October 1917, but it rather reminds me of February 1917. The Czar was overthrown, there was a transitional government, the door was open for radical forces, but they were not yet in power. the people who held power were just trying to ride the wave and destroy structures without having a coherent alternative. That's what Trump is doing.

He is destroying a world in which he has had great success.

Yes, it reminds me of Shakespeare: a man who flies around the world in private jets but eats burgers at McDonald's, who built his skyscrapers with Chinese steel and won't let that steel into the country anymore, who uses global social networks like Twitter and wants to abolish globalisation.

You describe the course of the revolt in three acts. Which one was the first?

The period after the second world war, the age of responsibility.

This is exactly the phrase the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, used in his Yad Vashem speech.

Yes, he took it over from me. His office called me and said, 'We quote your book with this phrase, age of responsibility.' When Rivlin travelled to Germany, he took my book with him to give to your president, Steinmeier.

Infobox image
Reuven Rivlin gave Revolt to President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The author Nadav Eyal wrote this dedication: "Progress only seems so muscular but in truth it is so very fragile, always dependent on communities' determination to fight for it and the resolve of leaders to reject folly".

How did you come up with this phrase?

I tried to understand those years and asked myself, what characterised the state leaders at that time? Whether Adenauer or Mitterrand. Whether Thatcher or Ben-Gurion. They had different visions and ideologies, but they were all people who had experienced two wars and acted with relative responsibility.

Would you describe the Vietnam War or the nuclear arms race as responsible politics?

It is true, you could say: we were on the threshold of a third world war at that time. But I say: there was no third world war, and when Kennedy was presented with the plan to attack Moscow with nuclear weapons, he said to his Foreign Secretary: 'And we call ourselves humanity?' He was disgusted by the idea. He had this in common with many other leaders. They knew what war was, and the shared memory of it forced them to take responsibility. And by that I mean not only the west, but also the east. Just think of the Montreal Convention against the use of CFCs. A few years after scientists had identified the dangers of CFCs to the ozone layer, the world agreed to stop using CFCs. It was a matter of rational argument. Science was important. And today Trump says: 'If I spray my hair in my penthouse, will I destroy the atmosphere? No one can tell me that!'

But many people believe him rather than scientists, journalists or politicians. How did this loss of trust happen?

I label this in the book the 'implosion of truth.' Because people who long assumed to be telling the truth - politicians, journalists, authorities - who were considered credible, have lied for many years. And suddenly we have a very simple tool to expose those lies: the internet.

In what way do journalists lie?

Not intentionally, in most cases. An example: an event lasts two hours, a politician gives a speech. Journalists work according to a certain method, they pay attention to what is new and interesting, so they turn it into a text and a headline that emphasises what is new or critical. But other people have a completely different perception. They think that the politician may have said something bad at the end, but at the beginning he said something good as well. Journalists, however, only pick out one thing and rip it out of context.

Leaving things out is lying?

Yes, for many people. Check out YouTube. You can listen to two hours of lectures, but news channels will turn them into 15-second clips. But people say: 'I want to watch the whole two hours and not the short version.' On the Internet, there's no limit, and you don't even have to pay for it.

Not only journalists have lost public trust. In your book you tell how shocked your grandmother was when she found out that the washing machine dealer she trusted did not make her the cheapest offer.

Yes, she had sent me to him, and I found the same model on Google, for €200 less. For my grandmother, a world was falling apart. She felt she was being betrayed. Similar to what politicians say. People used to have to read the newspaper very well and study encyclopaedias to check facts. Today, you don't even need the keyboard. You ask Siri, and then you know that the minister of finance lied.

But that still doesn't explain why people nowadays are so willing to believe in lies.

Hannah Ahrendt said about totalitarian regimes: "Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow".

How dangerous is this development?

The determination with which people reject a rational discourse and the hate that develops from it is very dangerous. If we believe racist or fundamentalist views rather than science, if we reject progress, it means that we are heading towards darkness. Nazi Germany is an example of a society that used progress only as a cover. If you believe in technology but do not respect humanistic values, there is no real progress. The result is barbarism.

What can we do?

Understand that the revolt is justified and embrace it. Allow the meaning of the crisis to come to us, ask ourselves how it happened. But you can only convince people by answering questions and not by being patronising and pessimism. I have no doubt that climate change is happening, but its deniers must be countered with clear, scientific arguments. If you want people to be reasonable, you have to talk to them reasonably and not try to agitate them all the time.

That means more facts than opinions?

Yes, but above all more answers to questions that are inevitable. And if you can't come up with a reasonable answer to a question, you should admit that and say: I don't know the answer to that at the moment.

One of the most surprising sentences in your book is: 'Trump is only the beginning.' What do you mean by that?

I'm not saying this to scare people. It's just the sound of the claviature. We don't listen well enough. We don't understand what's really going on. Because all we ever discuss is what's happening. The world is falling apart from its edges to the inside. But we only see the edges. We need a different approach for climate change and the disappearance of species, different solutions for the crisis in the world of work, the decline in births in industrialised countries and the simultaneously high birth rate in Africa.

What could these solutions be?

This is like Rome at the end of its days. In our world there is no shortage of philosophers or people proposing solutions to save the world. Like Rome, the problem is enlisting warriors to fight for it, and in democracy these are the voters. The problem is that we're not managing to convince the general public of the need to save the world as a community. We need voters who support responsible liberal ideas and who are willing to pay the price. We need new narratives.

Nadav Eyal.
Nadav Eyal.Felix Rettberg

You write in your book that we should always remember that the greatest threat to humanity is war. Are we facing a war?

I don't know. But in a world that has the capacity to destroy the world, we must always be prepared for war and remember the horrible things that wars have led to. The EU was founded on this awareness. Despite all the criticism, this cannot be appreciated enough.

You describe Germany as 'currently the most important and stable bulwark of democracy.' so much depends on Germany, you write. Are you sure?

I don't mean that as a compliment. I'm not saying that Germany is doing everything right. I'm just saying that if Germany, with its terrible history and its research into the causes, is not able to stop racism and antisemitism, then there's no stopping it elsewhere. If Germany does not manage to integrate one million refugees, who else in Europe would dare to do so? If Germany cannot stop the decline of the middle class, what industrial power will succeed? We live in times of radical positions. My problem with radical positions is that they destabilise and cost a lot of blood in revolutions. They are not as effective.

Have you ever thought about switching to politics?

No. It's more important to describe the world as it is. Realistic. Help in creating a new consciousness. And yes, there is hope. If China says no, we won't take your plastic waste. And Vietnam also says, no, we won't, it has to do with a new consciousness. It was enabled by globalisation and the liberal values associated with it. You see, globalisation is both enabling exploitation and at the same time it has saved a billion people from poverty.

How old are your children?

Two, six and nine.

Are you concerned about their future?

Not about their personal future, but about the future of our world. I force myself to be positive. We must look our children in the eye and promise them that we will take good care of them.