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Author Jon Meacham looks for the way forward by giving our era historical context

Meacham’s goal in his book, “The Soul of America,” was to offer parallels from past presidencies that might help a Trump-obsessed nation think about things in historical context.

Jon Meacham
Photo by Gasper Tringale
Jon Meacham
Maybe everything is not about Trump, except when it is.

The most recent book by Jon Meacham, a leading public scholar of the American presidency, is titled “The Soul of America; The Battle for Our Better Angels.” Meacham came to town Wednesday to give a talk at the University of Minnesota and, in preparation for interviewing him, I rushed through the book to see how Meacham would use presidential history to teach us about Trump, to put him into context.

So I was surprised when, after several references to Trump in the early going, Trump disappeared completely from the book and was never mentioned again. Instead, Meacham has written an overview of the presidency that seems to make the argument that all presidents have lightness and darkness within, as does America in all eras; that even the darkest of times have elements of better days that lie ahead (and vice versa, I suppose).

I copied out the quote just below, which appears in Meacham’s book in the final chapter, long after he has stopped mentioning Trump:

American presidents are not mythic figures. They are human beings with good days and bad days, flashes of genius and the occasional dumb idea, alternately articulate and tongue-tied. If we are sympathetic, rather than blindly condemnatory or celebratory, we will, I believe, help create a more rational political culture.

That chapter was titled “Balance.”

Perhaps that’s his big argument, I thought. Avoid Manichaeism, which divides all things into light and darkness. We all, including the current incumbent, have both light and darkness within us.

The “better angels of our nature,” which Meacham mentioned in the title of his book, is a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, given in the middle of the secession crisis that soon turned into the Civil War. Lincoln encouraged the nation to listen to its “better angels” and find a peaceful way out of the crisis. As you may recall, that didn’t happen, at least not in time to prevent a horrible fratricidal war.

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Was Meacham urging us to find our “better angels” in order to get through the Trump years? Was he hoping Trump would discover some of his own better angels and curb his horrid excesses of lying, dividing, inflaming the country? But when I realized that Trump had disappeared from the book early on, never to return, I came up with a new theory (also wrong).

I theorized that Meacham had been working on the book as an overview of presidential history before Trump’s election, and when the surprise of Trump’s election occurred, had rewritten the early pages so it wouldn’t look like he was unaware of what had happened. So I decided to ask him about my theory that the Trump material was something added late in the process, to deal with what would be on all his readers’ minds?

In an interview shortly before his big lecture at the U, when I asked him, he said, “No, I just like to argue by implication.” He knew his readers would be thinking about Trump when reading about the ups and downs of the presidency through history. His goal was to offer parallels from past presidencies that might help a Trump-obsessed nation think about things in historical context, to avoid the trap of believing that everything that everything until 2016 was “prelapsarian.”

(If you’re wondering, and I looked it up to be sure, prelapsarianism refers to the belief that humans lived in a state of innocent happiness before the fall of humanity into sin. In this context I suppose it would be the belief that U.S. history was all peaches and cream until Trump.)

He said that in the time of Trump, he wanted to look at previous periods of “dispiritedness and division” and discuss how America overcame them.

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Trump, he said, “is the most vivid manifestation of our worst instincts. But those worst instincts are ancient and perennial. So my message is not: ‘We’ve been here before, so relax.’ It’s: ‘We’ve been here before so what happened in formerly seemingly insuperable moments that can help us figure out how to overcome what is unquestionably a time of remarkable division and contention?'” He continued:

Look at the Joe McCarthy period, for example. McCarthy burned incredibly brightly for four long years. And when the fever broke, people had a hard time understanding how they’d fallen victim to the fever to begin with. My bet is that this moment, this era may well fall into that genre.

When people were presented with the visual evidence [this was a reference to the role of television, in its early days, in McCarthy’s downfall] of what [McCarthy] was and what he represented, they realized that “we don’t want to be that.”

So I think a moment is going to come – I don’t know what it will be, and I have thought, like many other people, that surely this or that [display of Trump’s nature] would be an inflection point. Charlottesville was going to be that. Surely, attacking a Gold Star family would be that. Surely whatever latest outrage the president has perpetuated, will be the beginning of the end.

But remember, Watergate took 28 months. McCarthyism took four years. And Jim Crow took 90. So I’m not arrogant enough to say that I know the day and the hour when this fever will break, but I think it will.

Meacham says he would feel differently about the Trump moment, indeed about our country, if a majority supported Trump. But Trump didn’t get a majority of the vote, and his approval ratings have never been above 50 percent.

“He’s never had a majority,” Meacham said, “but an impassioned minority was with him.” Then he went to the Framers:

The Constitution was conceived and written for precisely this kind of a moment. The Constitution assumes that we’re driven by appetite and ambition and that we’re fallen and sinful, that we’ll try to grab as much as we can. So by dividing up sovereignty and introducing checks and balances, the Founders – brilliantly, I think — slowed everything down.

They slowed down progress, but they also slowed down decline. And when the system isn’t moving with the alacrity we would like on some issues, it also makes it difficult if not impossible for a single man in a single era to do permanent damage to institutions that, by and large, have kept us on a path to a more perfect union.

(Meacham’s evening at the U was sponsored by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. So he worked in the local angle, thus):

We’re here at the Humphrey School. Seventy years ago, Hubert Humphrey was celebrated for giving a speech about the most simple act of human decency. [Me: he’s referring to Humphrey’s pro-civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention, which led several Southern delegations to walk out, and fueled a Third Party candidacy for president by segregationist Strom Thurmond.]

It splits the Democratic Party forever, and that’s in the lifetime of a lot of people who are here today. Women have not yet voted for a hundred years. Marriage equality is three years old. Fifty years ago, my native region [he’s a southerner] lived under apartheid. So, progress is possible. The lesson of history is that there are very few great leaps forward without a corresponding leap back.

Meacham also used history to counsel me against overinterpreting Trump’s approval rating, which has stubbornly remained in the 40s:

I think there’s a 34 percent floor. That was Joe McCarthy’s approval rating after he was censured. So you can get 34 percent of America to say anything. We’re really looking at the other 66 percent. And I think that Trump’s numbers would be very different if the economy were worse.

Forty percent of the country never voted for Franklin Roosevelt [in four presidential campaigns].

Our biggest landslides have been 60-40 elections. And they’ve always been followed by a significant reaction. So in 1964, the Johnson-Humphrey ticket wins the largest landslide in American history by some measures. And two years later their party loses 47 seats in the midterm, and Ronald Reagan becomes governor of California.

In 1992, we thought that was the great generational shift. The Greatest Generation was over after Reagan and Bush. And two years later, 60 seats flipped. So what we just saw in the midterms was within that spectrum of action-reaction.

My view is that we will look back on this period as an extreme manifestation of characteristics that are not gonna go away if a Democrat becomes president, or anytime soon. Demography is destiny. People who look like me are in terror of losing their cultural, political, economic primacy. And that’s only going to get more pronounced. But 20 years from now — just demographically speaking — we’re going to look a lot more like Barack Obama’s America than Donald Trump’s.

So the question for the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is: “How do you articulate the unifying agenda, for a country that has the capacity to divide ever more sharply along identity lines, at a time of genuine stress?”

I ask about the Trump lying and whether there was any comparable precedent. Meacham replied:

We’ve had political figures who trafficked in big lies, and Trump is perhaps the greatest example of it. But we’ve not had a president who lied as glibly and profusely as the incumbent, so you have to step back and ask: Why is that?

Part of it is that he’s an entertainer. And I think a lot of people, implicitly or explicitly, understand that. A lot those who support him have suspended their ordinary expectations of a president. It’s also a matter of context. Presidential elections are not referenda; they’re choices. And Trump is president not least because Hillary Clinton ran against him. There were 10 presidential elections between 1980 and 2016 and a Bush or a Clinton was on 80 percent of those tickets. So if your name is Bush or Clinton and you end up in a “change election,” things aren’t going to go very well.

I think part of what’s going on is that 35 to 40 percent of the country believes the sky is not falling. They don’t like being told what to think by people like me and you. They think they have a sense that this guy is, in some elemental way, if not “on their side” at least he’s against the people they want to be against too.

So they’re willing, in a time of prosperity for many, to take a flier on this nontraditional figure.

Then the organizers of Wednesday night’s event made me stop so Meacham could have a few minutes before his lecture, which, by the way, was very little about Trump, if at all.