Interview Conducted by Roland Nelles in Washington
Philip Murphy, the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, will be sworn in as New Jersey governor on Tuesday. In an interview, he attacks Donald Trump and his political style. But he also strikes an optimistic note, saying: “We’ll get through it.”
He has disparaged other countries as “shitholes,” he decries his critics as “liars” and he calls himself a “genius.” United States President Donald Trump has pushed himself even further to the political margins with his tweets and remarks in recent days. Ultimately, the Democratic Party could stand to profit from these missteps when mid-term Congressional elections roll around this November, argues former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and Democratic Party veteran Philip “Phil” Murphy in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. “Our base is motivated,” he says.
In the interview, Murphy — who won the gubernatorial election in New Jersey in November and is close to former President Barack Obama — accuses Trump of fomenting the further division of American society. Murphy says he could very well imagine TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey mounting a challenge in the 2020 election. “I don’t think it’s silly,” he says. “She’s a formidable talent. She’s incredibly smart. She’s very well known.”
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The U.S. feels very divided as a nation. What’s going wrong?
Murphy: It’s true. We are divided. You’ve got some really deep-seated, anti-government, anti-globalization, anti-elite passion that has evolved not just into a political reality but a cultural reality. I suspect a lot of this has been coming for a long time, probably as a result of things like globalization. It was probably accelerated by the Great Recession of 2008. While the economy has recovered, perhaps you could argue that society has not.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will that divide get even worse in the future?
Murphy: I’m an optimist. I believe our institutions are strong. Our constitution is strong, there is still a lot of leadership in this country that’s in it for the right reason and stands for American values and respects our Constitution. And: Far more Americans than not appreciate and embrace global relationships, particularly with allies like Germany. So I’m an optimist. We’ll get through it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The president said one year ago at his inauguration that he wants to bring the country together, but we are now seeing him do even more to divide the country. Do you think he will change his attitude?
Murphy: I’d say over the past year, he has, almost at every step, divided us. He has not done what he claimed he was going to do. If I were in his shoes, I’d certainly find ways to pull this country together, but I don’t have any optimism that he will.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The journalist Michael Wolff has created a furor with his new book “Fire and Fury,” which describes Trump as an uninformed, chaotic and erratic president. There are also experts who claim that Trump is showing signs of dementia. What’s your impression of him?
Murphy: That’s subject to his private affairs, but I think it has been a chaotic presidency. He has hurt the country. Trump has already done tremendous damage domestically. He has weakened us, and I think he’s weakened our global presence and stature. And by the way, he’s not alone. The Republican leadership in Congress tried to destroy the Affordable Care Act. They tried to take health care away from those who need it the most. They have put a tax plan into law that divides us, that will hurt the working poor and the middle class. None of it is irretrievable. Again, I’m an optimist. We can get all of this back. It won’t be easy, and it will take time, but we can get it back.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The president has announced that he wants to work with the Democrats this year on bipartisan projects, including immigration and infrastructure. Do you think that’s even realistic?
Murphy: I hope so. It would be good for America. It would be good for him. The big one that we’re focused on in New Jersey is infrastructure. We have a number of big projects that will require federal money. The biggest one is building the first tunnel under the Hudson River in over 100 years. Trump comes here in the summer many weekends. I’m hoping that he will see that this is an imperative.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: A lot of German companies that do business in the U.S. are worried. They fear that Trump will impose new trade barriers and higher tariffs. Do you think this is really going to jeopardize the German-American business relationship?
Murphy: I actually am reasonably optimistic that we will be able to maintain and grow the trans-Atlantic trade reality. I think there are enough people in both parties on trade who understand that it is a life blood to both Europe and the United States. We are big believers in New Jersey that we are a particularly well-suited state, we have a lot going for us, including our location. We have one of the largest ports in the U.S. right here in Newark and Elizabeth.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, isn’t there a danger that if Trump scares away investors that they might instead shift their focus to other world markets like China, for example?
Murphy: The U.S. remains the largest market in the world. So, people still need to come here and invest in factories or headquarters if they want to sell cars or pharmaceuticals or whatever it might be. The members of the German business community who I speak with know that Donald Trump will be president for several years. I hope four and not eight. But they’re making an investment decision that’s going to last 30 to 50 years — their horizon is much longer. That gives me a lot of optimism.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You ran a very successful campaign in the gubernatorial race in New Jersey. What’s the secret for the Democrats to take back the House, the Senate and even the presidency?
Murphy: I think the key is to speak to the issues. If it’s only personality-based, I think that’s not a winning hand. It’s about issues and values. What are we are going to do if you’re displaced by globalization, if you’ve lost your job? What are we actually going to do for you? Where can we find common value? I think we’ve fallen to too many buzzwords.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What could your party do better?
Murphy: The Democratic Party always has a problem coming up with a bumper sticker. The Republicans say “Make America Great Again.” The Democrats say: “Yeah. We’re good with bumper stickers. The only problem is we need 12 of them.”
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can the Democrats beat the Republicans and Trump?
Murphy: I think we have a real shot at the House in this year’s mid-term elections. Donald Trump is unpopular, and the Republicans are as well. And our base is motivated. Women in particular are motivated. Women are fired up, they are angry about the way Trump governs — we saw it in our race. And communities of color are fired up. So if you’re black, Latino, if you’re South Asian, if you’re an immigrant, if you’re a recent immigrant of any type, you are angry and scared because of Trump. And it could well be that the moderate, reasonable Republican is also fed up with him. New Jersey is a state, by the way, with a lot of those folks, a reasonable Republican state. They could flip, or they may stay home.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many thumbed their noses at the idea when it made headlines, but is the notion of making Oprah Winfrey the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 2020 really that silly?
Murphy: I don’t think it’s silly. She’s a formidable talent. She’s enormously successful. She’s incredibly smart. She’s very well known. I mean, she has almost universal name recognition in America; and, by the way, it’s that one word. It’s the one-name recognition. It’s like Elvis. It’s Oprah. We have a president who came from television. The notion that someone else who has had their career in media and broadcasting and now business more broadly — the notion that someone like that might come up and be a legitimate candidate, that’s no longer a novelty. That has happened.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If Winfrey were to become the candidate in 2020 would that be akin to fighting fire with fire?
Murphy: Maybe, maybe. But it’s too early to tell. That’s the one thing I would say. It’s too early for us to focus on that because we have a lot of work to do right in front of us.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you still think back on your time in Germany as the U.S. ambassador?
Murphy: The German element of my life came up more than I ever would have guessed in the campaign. I think we should learn more than we have from Germany. For example, the union management cohesion and peace. Or gun control. Germany has a high rate of gun ownership, but good gun safety. So, you can do both. And, of course, the universal health care system is very good and can be an example.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you miss most about Germany?
Murphy: Oh, man. We were just there. We celebrated Christmas there. One is that we have a lot of friends there, people we really like being with — from the chancellor and the German president, right on through to our neighbors and the staff from the embassy. And the second thing I miss, of course, is the Bundesliga.
This interview has been edited and condensed for conciseness and clarity.