‘That was not a debate I ever wanted to win.’ After his bittersweet victory at the Cambridge Union, I sat down with Tom Nichols to discuss why the future of the United States is not bright.

The debate – held one day after Biden’s inauguration – captured the sense of relief and cautious optimism quick to settle over post-Trump America, as exhausted democracy lovers rubbed one another’s backs with the soothing refrain, ‘it can only get better from here’. For Nichols, though, better is not the same thing as bright.

“We drank poison and we did not die... which does not mean we’re healthy...”

‘America will never recover its greatness because now we’ve proven we’re capable of doing what we’ve done for the last four years. It’s always been hypothetical that Americans could lose their minds… that our allies overseas could say “oh those guys, those Free Silver know-nothing clansmen in Missouri”, and we were always able to say “yeah well, they never get control of government, it’s just a subculture in the US...” Now, it’s not hypothetical that those people can gain control of the American government. … We drank poison and we didn’t die. That didn’t mean you were healthy, that meant you were lucky!’

What next then? ‘I have become somewhat controversial here in the States over the view that the way we restore America is to engage in shaming and shunning. Because Americans don’t like to do that.’ For Nichols, there is no point trying to engage enthusiastic Trump supporters, or combat unjustified claims about falsified elections etc, ‘…because they know, in their hearts they know already, but they are stuck cats who can’t climb down from that tree. So I simply say to them “You’re wrong, you know that you’re wrong and you should be ashamed of yourselves.”’

Like children? ‘Yes! We are a nation of children. This book I have coming out, one of the titles I played around with was A Nation of Toddlers. But instead, I settled for Our Own Worst Enemy.’

“Every bored moron in America is a potential threat to the public order.”

Speaking of, what is Nichols’ take on the storming of the capitol? ‘Bored children who didn’t think there would be consequences for an armed insurrection against the government of the United States… In a way, this is almost worse than dealing with a bunch of dedicated revolutionaries. Because it says that every bored moron in America is a potential threat to public order.’

‘[Naming and shunning] has been my argument all along. I remember saying “Okay. You guys in the mid-west – you elected Trump, you want him to stick it to China, you want a trade war? … Let’s do it. You got exactly what you want.” I say force them to live with the consequences of their decisions. We are adults. If you want policies like trade wars then don’t bail out the farmers when they go broke… just keep letting them touch the hot stove until they get it, because there is no more rational discourse about this.’

Waiting for people to ‘get it’ is a risky strategy, though. Nichols said himself it’s been a tough four years, so insisting ‘we’re going to keep letting them get their hands burnt’ is a risky game if you don’t have absolute certainty the election will go your way.

‘But the alternative is like a joke that used to go around Washington about the feckless liberal Republicans, which I was one of in those days…’ Nichols is referring to the old but oh-so-timely joke that if the Democrats voted to burn down the Capitol, the Republican counter proposal would be to phase it in over three years… ‘I think we tried that other road. We tried to gentle it through… and now here we are. 410,000 people are dead [from COVID]. Our alliances are in tatters. The economy is teetering on the edge of disaster. We have had a civil military crisis. Unthinkable in the United States. That’s ten Secretaries of Defense who had to sign a letter – ten SecDefs who had to step in and say keep the army out of politics, like we’re some 1958 Latin junta. So, Phoebe, I think we took the other road… and now here we are.’

“The only real thing that turned people against Trump in the end was the pandemic.”

And now here we are – after what, according to Nichols, was an uncomfortably close call. ‘There is plenty of evidence to indicate the only real thing that turned people against Trump in the end was the pandemic… If Trump had gone into November with 3.5% unemployment, 2.5% interest rates, 0% inflation and peace and prosperity, the statistical model says it’s almost impossible to lose that election.’

How would that hypothetical second term have played out for Trump? ‘It would have been the end of the United States. It would have been the collapse of NATO. We would have an emboldened white supremacist, a racist [as President] … and that whole subculture in the US would have said we have power – we can exercise it.’

The exercise of power was a recurring theme in our conversation. During one awkward moment in the Union debate, Nichols raised a Point of Information against a speaker whose ‘argument’ was to list supposedly inspiring stories about doctors and cops doing great work in the pandemic. That’s all very well, intervened Nichols, but what about the refusal to institute lifesaving restrictions? ‘One out of every nine hundred people in South Dakota is now dead.’ The speaker’s defence? ‘American people love their freedom and liberty and instinctively reject any attempts to limit it.’

Speaking to Nichols about this response, I am surprised by his candour. ‘Well, being an old-school debater, I was hoping she would walk right into the trap I was setting her. Which is that she would say, “it’s about freedom and liberty, the Russians falsified the elections and bla!”’ (Nichols sits back, palms raised, smiling) ‘Thank you, thank you very much. “Hi I have a Point of Information; will you say a bunch of crazy stuff now. Please, go on.”’

“When the time came, Americans behaved like spoilt children, lecturing on why the Constitution authorized them to wear their masks on their chin...”

The insistence on prioritising freedom and liberty above all else – lives included – certainly undermined the speaker’s credibility, something Nichols laments in his excellent article on ‘seriousness’:

The storming of the capitolWIKIPEDIA COMMONS

‘When the time came for genuine seriousness… America was a nation of spoiled children, sullen when corrected, explosive with rage when forced to do anything they found unpleasant, ready to lecture others on why the Constitution gave them the right to wear a surgical mask on their chin.’

One of the things Nichols likes about Joe Biden is that ‘for all his goofiness, he’s a very serious person.’ Biden has surrounded himself with good people who actually know how to run the government… so why isn’t Nichols convinced a bright future awaits the U.S.? ‘Now the adults are back in Washington – Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin – and we’re saying “great, everything’s gonna be okay”... but the Great Forgetting has already begun – people are saying “oh, it was just a time, now it’s over.” No. That was a long four years and it damn-near killed us.’

[Four more years of Trump] ‘and we probably would have created some screwed-up dynastic model… the courts would have been squashed, election law would have been eviscerated. [My colleague] said watch the judicial appointments, they’re trying to gut the federal judiciary in order to make changes to things like election law, campaign finance…’

"For the first time, I had to fight for my constitutional rights."WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

Very Putin-esque, I venture. ‘Oh, are you a Russianist? So was I’, Nichols responds in fluent Russian. ‘In 2008, when Putin stepped down, I said if he comes back for that third term it’s done. I remember writing “Russians are not going to accept this level of violence to their own constitution.” I had to eat those words… and I just wasn’t going to be that wrong about my own country.’

How do you feel to be an American right now?

(Long pause) ‘Battered. But I’ve never been prouder to be an American fighting for American rights. Back in the day, I felt pretty good holding up my blue passport in the Soviet Union and saying “I bet you wish you had one of these, chumps… hey – overthrow your government and you can run around with one of these too.” Now, for the first time in my life, I’ve had to fight for my constitutional rights, and it’s been invigorating.

“People of color and women would say: ‘welcome to the party, pal’.”

‘And of course, people of colour and women would say “well welcome to the party pal, we’ve been feeling like that for fifty years,” but as a middle-class white guy this is the first time I’ve had to say “no, I’m not going to be quiet, no, I don’t care if you fire me, no, I’m going to fight for my rights” … The fact that so many of my fellow citizens joined with me, and locked arms with me, makes me proud to be part of the American story.’