Presidential historian Timothy Naftali gave a smart, honest talk about the election Thursday in Minneapolis at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. It might even be a salve to some of the spirits still raw from the events of last week. Naftali’s talk was smart because it was steeped in his background in the history of presidents past, and honest because he didn’t pretend to be able to tell us the future of presidents future, especially the president of the imminent future. (I’m pretty tired of those whose analyses suggest that they can tell us the future. Full disclosure here: I cannot tell you the future.)
Naftali quipped that when he accepted, months ago, the invitation to address the Westminster Town Hall right after the election, “I had no idea that my talk might be part of a wave of therapy sessions, big and small, taking place across this great country of ours in response to a huge political shock.”
Naftali didn’t specify whom he had supported in the election, although sentient listeners will know that it wasn’t Mr. Trump. He didn’t mock Trump, nor dwell on Trump’s incendiary tweets and statements that caused many Americans to see him as a vessel for racist, sexist, Islamophobic, nativist anger in the electorate.
Trump ran against internationalism in foreign/military policy, especially in the areas of trade and immigration, Naftali said. The embrace of free trade, pursued by all recent presidents from both parties, did indeed produce jobs, Naftali said, but more of the new jobs were in service industries and fewer in manufacturing, which had traditionally brought higher wages and better benefits for non-college-educated Americans.
What happened in Wisconsin
He analyzed exit polls and economic and demographic data from one of the key swing states, our neighbor, Wisconsin, a state that Trump carried even though polls had convinced the Clinton team that there was no need to campaign there in the late stages of the campaign. Naftali used Wisconsin as a leading example of the cracks in the so-called “Blue Wall” of states that Democrats have carried in most recent elections, several of which went red this year.
The most recent figure on the Wisconsin unemployment rate is 4.1 percent, based on September 2016 data, Naftali said. That’s down from 6.9 in January of 2013, when Barack Obama took office. That makes it hard to argue that Wisconsin is in rebellion against the status quo because of disappearing jobs. The same is roughly true nationally, by the way.
On the other hand, as is the case nationally, wealth inequality has grown steadily, not just during the Obama years but for decades. Try these numbers:
In 1928, at the height of the U.S. economic boom just before the crash which became the Great Depression, the richest one percent of Wisconsinites received 16.8 percent of all income.
By 1974, after the Depression, the New Deal, World War II and the post-war boom, Wisconsin had prospered greatly and the distribution of that new wealth had reached average workers. The rich were still plenty rich, but the share of income received by the wealthiest one percent had dropped to seven percent in 1974. That means that the great prosperity of the post-World War II era was being shared a lot more equitably with the middle and working classes.
But, over the last three-and-half-decades, the old normal of the rich getting richer has returned. From 1979 to 2011, Naftali said, the bottom 99 percent of Wisconsin households had neither gotten richer nor poorer, if you measure their incomes in inflation-adjusted dollars. But the country and the state prospered and all of the gains went to the top one percent, which saw a 104 percent increase in its share of real (meaning inflation-adjusted) income.
So it’s not that the middle and working classes have gotten poorer but that they have seen decades of income stagnation while all of the benefits of prosperity have flowed upwards.
“Tell me that’s not gonna have an effect on whether people feel comfortable,” Naftali said, “and on average whether people think things are working, and the change is good.”
Sticking with Wisconsin, and focusing on exit polls from last week, Naftali found many paradoxes. Yes, the majority of Wisconsin voters (54 percent of them) said that the biggest issue in the election was the economy. But, by 52-43, those who said that voted for Clinton.
Trump won among the smaller number of those Wisconsinites who said their biggest issue was either terrorism (Trump got 61 percent of those calling that the most important issue) or immigration (Trump 74 percent).
In fact, there have been no recent terrorist attacks in Wisconsin and, compared with many other states, relatively few new immigrants have moved there. But check out this breakdown of those who listed immigration as their top concern:
Of those who listed immigration as their top concern, 70 percent nonetheless favored a pathway to citizenship for those living in the United States illegally while only 26 percent said they should be deported.
Summarized Naftali: “So 74 percent of them voted for the guy who said we should deport the people, but only 26 percent of them want to deport the people. Are you confused? I am too.”
Another puzzle from the Badger State exit polls: About 50 percent of respondents said they were bothered by Trump’s treatment of women, and likewise 50 percent said they were bothered by Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server. But, of those who were bothered by Trump’s misogyny, 18 percent voted for him anyway. But of those bothered by Clinton’s email practices, only eight percent voted for her.
Containing an unstable man
Naftali didn’t say much about what portion of Trump’s agenda will become law. On the one hand, he said, not since 1933 (When FDR was inaugurated) have Republicans controlled the presidency, both houses of Congress and had five Republican-nominated justices on the Supreme Court (as will presumably be the case after Trump fills the Scalia vacancy). But he did note that, “What happens in the next period will be determined partly by how the congressional Republican Party goes along with the things that Donald Trump has espoused, many of which are not part of the Republican canon.”
Naftali avoided cheap shots at Trump’s character or qualifications. But, if you were looking for something that hinted about his view of a dangerous man in the Oval Office, you might have found it in his decision, apropos nothing specific, to talk about the up-close look he got at the inner workings of the Richard Nixon White House. Naftali, not because of any affinity for Nixon but because of his skills as a professional historian, was hired to work on the conversion of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, from a private to a public institution, which included access to all the tapes and other insider documents.
I didn’t particularly like Richard Nixon before I got the job. By the end of my four years in Yorba Linda, I came to really detest Richard Nixon.
The Nixon presidency had at its center an unstable man. An unstable man with very dark instincts. And those around him knew this. And they tried to construct a system to contain the darkness.
The system was set up by (Nixon’s White House chief of Staff) H.R. (Bob) Haldeman. But a system to control darkness is a system of men, I mean of individuals. So the containment depends on the goodness of the ones containing, not just the goodness of the one being contained.
And the people doing the containing in the Nixon period were not good men, for the most part. Bob Haldeman himself was a racist and an anti-Semite. And so, the extent to which he could contain the darkness depended on the extent to which he understood what was darkness. We know what came of that.
The reason the Nixon period wasn’t worse for this country is that there were other people outside the White House, good-government Republicans I would call them, who said ‘no.’
We lost one of them yesterday. Melvin Laird was secretary of defense, and he was a great and good man. In his biography, he tells a story of a late-night phone call from the president that would have had him bomb an airfield in Jordan where there were 184 passengers on airplanes that had been hijacked by the PFLP, a splinter group of the PLO.
Nixon was slurring his words. He didn’t have a drinking problem but he had a sleeping problem and he took pills to deal with his anxiety. So, it would take one or two cognacs or scotches and he wouldn’t be speaking clearly. He ordered the U.S. Air Force to bomb those planes, to show strength to the terrorists.
It would have killed 184 innocent people from around the world. And it was not a decision of the National Security Council. But Nixon was having an episode late at night. And Nixon was addicted to these late-night calls.
You can’t say ‘no’ to your commander-in-chief. What you can do is prevaricate. You can stall and hope that when he wakes up in the morning he will have forgotten the silly order that he gave in the middle of the night. And that’s what happened.
And it didn’t just happen once. There were other people who said no to implementing the ‘Enemies List,’ which Richard Nixon had ordered. Who said we should not politicize the IRS. And there were people who said ‘no’ to wiretapping. So that was a good thing. But it wasn’t enough. And the abuses piled up and ultimately Richard Nixon was the first president, so far, to have to resign.
What I am saying is that our system of government has flaws because of the strength of our executive branch. And what we have to hope for is the goodness of the people around the president as well as the goodness of the president himself.
Sorry I’ve rattled on so long today, but I’ll add one of Naftali’s answers to one of the questions from the audience, a question about how he thinks the Obama presidency will be viewed in historical perspective. Naftali humbly began by apologizing for his hubris in commenting on the unknowable future of anything, including the future of Obama’s reputation. It may say something about the mood of the moment and/or the nature of the audience at Westminster, but his answer was interrupted several times by applause:
I think the presidency of Barack Obama will be viewed 25 or 30 years from now as one of the great presidencies of the modern era. (Huge ovation.) And a lot of people will get mad at me for this, but I don’t think Barack Obama failed us. I think we failed him. (Second ovation). And what I mean by that is that he challenged us to think of a post-racial country. And he challenged us to think about America’s role in the world. And he challenged us to think about the environment. And I know there are people thinking oh, this is just a big liberal speech (third ovation), so let me tell you what I mean. And let me show you that I can be non-partisan.
Syria’s a big, tough problem. And I suspect that, when national security historians get all the data, I hope to be here in 50 years when those documents are declassified, I think you’ll see that when ISIS took Mosul, it was a surprise. But the president was under a lot of pressure to put boots on the ground in Syria, which would have made Syria our problem. Which would have meant we would have had to reconstruct a country that has had a very sad history, with very weak institutions. That is not only a tough thing to do, it’s almost impossible in a short time frame. We’ve seen this problem in Iraq.
He didn’t. He took a lot of criticism for not being strong, for allowing America not to be at the head of it, for understanding that not every foreign policy problem, first of all, can be solved, many of them can only be managed, and that not every foreign policy problem should be solved by the United States alone. (Ovation.)
On climate change: The use of solar devices is up two thousand percent in our country. (Ovation.) As a result, carbon emissions are down. As a result, our economy is growing. Barack Obama inherited an economy that was as close to the Depression as we have come since World War II. He helped save the auto industry, which people in Michigan forgot a couple of Tuesdays ago.
The point being that although the recovery has been slower and has not been as strong as one would hope, the fact that there is a recovery, he deserves some credit for doesn’t he? (Ovation.) More importantly, there hasn’t been a scandal. (Ovation.) Can you imagine the pressure that this man was under, being the first African-American president? Can you imagine, how he knew, that if he messed up, it would not just hurt his legacy but undermine the chance of a future African-American man or woman to become president?
No one has been under that kind of pressure. And he has escaped thus far a second-term scandal, which seems to be endemic to our presidency. That’s a big deal. The fact that there’s no evidence, nor even a hint, even among his enemies and adversaries, that there’s any personal corruption, or indulgence. The self-discipline shown by Barack Obama is important not only to African Americans but as a reminder to us all that self-discipline is linked to success for a president. That will be remembered because that’s so unusual in our history.
So I would say, of the presidency of Barack Obama, that it’s appreciation — the American people’s appreciation — will only grow with time.
You watch, in a year or two, people are going to be saying, “Uch, I so wish Barack Obama was our president.”
And can I just add that the Westminster Town Hall Forum is a gift that just keeps on giving to thoughtful Minnesotans.
If you would like to listen to Naftali’s full hour-long presentation, including the Q and A, MPR has audio of it on this link. MPR and MinnPost were among the sponsors of the presentation.