Foto: Yvonne Compier


Gemma Venhuizen7 December 2016

One of the few Dutch people who were not surprised by the results of the American election was the Operations Director at Jacobs Douwe Egberts. Koen Petersen had predicted that Clinton would win the most votes, but that Trump would collect the most electoral votes, and therefore win the election. It’s clear: the VU Political Science alumnus and America specialist (thanks to another degree at the UvA), knows what he’s talking about. As an ‘America watcher’, he spent election night on the air in the RTL News live broadcast, and he is the author of the books Einddoel Witte Huis and Showtime!

By Gemma Venhuizen

Your position at Jacobs Douwe Egberts seems miles away from your education background and your other work. “Coffee is really socially relevant, ha ha! Just look at how much of it we drink. But seriously: there are a lot of parallels between business and politics. Like how people deal with one another and with power and influence. How to get people to do what you want them to do. How to persevere.”

“After graduation, I wanted to work for the national government, but thanks to affirmative action you don’t have a chance as a white male. Fortunately, I was able to become a trainee at Procter & Gamble. They were hiring people with any academic background, as long as you had done some kind of volunteer work, and I had served as the national chairman of the JOVD. My cohort included a veterinarian and someone who had studied at the conservatory. Now I’m responsible for the operational aspects at Jacobs Douwe Egberts, including installing coffee machines at companies, ministries and universities.”

What has earned you more money: business or writing? “I make 99.5% of my money from my normal job. And I donate the 0.5% of my income generated by my books to the Nationaal Fonds Kinderhulp (Children’s Assistance Fund). The fund helps children from poor families to lead a normal life, for example by buying them a used bicycle, or a second-hand laptop that they can use for school. I think it’s really important for all children to have equal opportunities.”

How were you able to predict the rise of Donald Trump? “It wasn’t thanks to the media: they were all very pro-Clinton. Even the major Dutch papers were horribly one-sided. Our media often lacks an objective view of American politics. I’m especially irritated by the fan-club-like behaviour of the analysts on TV and in the newspapers. For example, I read one quote by a professor who was absolutely certain that Clinton would win. I thought: this isn’t science, it’s fact-free nonsense. I based my information on sources like the results of a major survey in the US asking if people thought that the country was on the right- or wrong track. Lots of Americans appear to feel really ‘down and out’.

‘I’m glad that I didn’t have to vote, because I really don’t know who I would choose’

“In the US, many people believe in the ‘American Dream’: a better future for yourself and the next generation. Obama tried to bring that dream to fruition, but a whole lot of Americans feel like he’s passed them by. Especially in the rural areas: this summer I travelled through the heartland of the US: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. I saw the poverty there, and the decline. Education is poor, people need three jobs and still only barely get by. Even though people aren’t 100% behind him, Trump promises a change of course, and that offers hope. Plus, he empathises with the working class as if he were one of them. Of course, he’s extremely wealthy, and in America that’s proof of success. But at the same time, he goes to baseball games, while Clinton prefers the opera.”

Did you have a preference for one of the candidates? “No, as America watcher, I want to play the part of an impartial observer. But ‘I’m glad that I didn’t have to vote, because I really don’t know who I would choose. Now that Trump has won, I enjoy watching what’s going to happen. I don’t mind predicting what’s not going to happen, though: all hell won’t break loose, and we won’t have a World War III. But as for whether things will get better or worse, we’ll have to wait for another four years to find out, and then there’ll be another election. Compared to that, Brexit is much more definitive. With the American president, you at least have a receipt saying: ‘product may be returned or exchanged in 4 years’.”

‘With the American president, you at least have a receipt saying: ‘product may be returned or exchanged in 4 years’

Why did you decide to study Political Science at the VU? “To me, Political Science was a logical choice. I come from an apolitical background, but I joined the JOVD, the young liberals, because I was interested in it myself. At first, I thought it was ridiculously pompous and silly, but my Calvinist upbringing taught me to finish what I’d started. And eventually, I started to enjoy it. I chose to enrol at the VU because it made a serious impression. At the UvA, everyone looked a bit too scruffy, while the lecture on Political Science at the VU open day was given by someone in neat corduroy trousers and a lambswool vest, with a pipe in his mouth. That seemed important at the time.”

Did the VU live up to its corduroy image? “I had a great time at the university, but I had expected a bit more motivation from my fellow students. I had to let go of my idea of discussing politics until deep in the night. And the curriculum wasn’t that intensive; I would have liked a bit more depth. But in general, I have fond memories of that time. To me, the choice of the right city was more important than choosing a university or a study programme, and that city was without a doubt Amsterdam. I grew up in Haarlem, but my grandparents lived 50 meters from the cafe we’re sitting in now, so I knew Amsterdam pretty well growing up. My grandma and grandpa would hold my hand on the way to the cigar shop, the bakery, the butcher’s…”

Were you always fascinated by the USA? “Actually, that interest was more a matter of necessity. I would go to the VU bookshop to find books about politics, and there was simply a bigger selection of good American books on the topic. They also have a much longer tradition of biographies and memoires. Another factor that played a role was a study trip that we Political Science students took to Washington and New York. That was absolutely fascinating. We got to go to places you don’t get to see as a tourist: the embassy, the UN. That was my first real introduction to the USA.

‘Good to hear how far you’ve come, at least in a geographical sense’

“Coincidentally enough, years later when I was working for Reed Elsevier in New York, my apartment looked out at the hotel we stayed at back then. I sent a mail to my old professor, Hans van den Heuvel, with whom I still had contact. He sent me a reply right away: ‘Good to hear how far you’ve come, at least in a geographical sense’.”

What else would you like to do in the near future? “I would like to write a book that really has an impact on how people see the world. A book that sparks a social debate. But with the American elections and my work at Jacobs Douwe Egberts, I just don’t have the time right now. In order to come up with good ideas, you have to be able to kick back, relax and smoke a cigar.”