When Jon Meacham appears on “Morning Joe” from his elegant, bookish basement, in Nashville, he knows that he will be asked to link the latest outrage of the news cycle to a historical event of consequence. This is his role, and he never fails to deliver. Meacham invariably comes through with a choice quotation from Lincoln or Jesus of Nazareth, with an apt reference to, say, Yalta or the Long Telegram, and he always does it with a wry, slightly weary “It’s too damn early in the A.M., isn’t it?” smile.
When he was young, Meacham seemed older; now that he is in his fifties, he seems like a young man playing an older one, as if the hair were powdered, the half-glasses non-prescription. After stints at the Chattanooga Times and Washington Monthly, Meacham went up the ladder at Newsweek, when newsweeklies were still very much a thing. But, at a certain point, he ditched journalism to become a full-time historian. The lack of a doctoral degree has not hindered him. His books are deeply researched and eloquent; they include “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship,” “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” and “American Lion,” a biography of Andrew Jackson, which won a Pulitzer Prize, in 2009. His most recent book is “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle.” He has also written about Christianity, patriotism, country music, and impeachment.
In recent years, Meacham has added to his portfolio. He has formed a relationship with Joe Biden, who has read Meacham and agrees with him about the consequential nature of his own Presidency and the current peril facing American democracy. Meacham’s cadences, ideas, and points of reference are evident in a number of Biden’s speeches, including the most recent State of the Union. Recently, Meacham was asked to join the Administration—presumably to play the sort of role that the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., played under John F. Kennedy—but he declined. I spoke with Meacham earlier this week for The New Yorker Radio Hour about his bond with Biden and the potential resurgence of, yes, Donald Trump. Our conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Jon, the press spends a huge amount of time obsessing about the odds, the mood, the events of the day. Let’s talk about the stakes. As we witness the renewed and unending tragedy of Donald Trump—his candidacy, his battles with the law from New York to Georgia to D.C.—what is at stake now, in this latest chapter?
What’s at stake is whether America now has forty-seven or forty-eight per cent of the likely electorate to show up in 2024 who are more likely than not to vote for an overtly autocratic figure for President of the United States. Trump has explicitly said that the rule of law should not apply to him, that the results of free and fair elections should not be obeyed if he loses them. There’s no mystery here. Trump has said that the Constitution should be suspended, that he should be reinstated, that every other actor, pretty much, within the constitutional order, is illegitimate, if that actor is not one-hundred-per-cent supportive of his own appetites and ambitions. Having a dictatorial figure is not new—either in human experience or American history. What is new is that so many people are willing to suspend their better judgment to support him.
Did many people not make a mistake thinking, with the results of the last election, and then the spectacle of January 6th, that this somehow—this impulse of authoritarianism—would begin to recede, and maybe even recede fairly rapidly? Was that not a gigantic illusion?
That’s a good way to put it. It was a gigantic illusion, and it’s a persistent one. I am friends with—you are friends with, I suspect, though you may not be able to admit it, in the offices of The New Yorker—principled Republicans who have said to me, for going on eight years now, since 2015, that Trump was going to fade. That it wouldn’t work. That his hour either (a) would not come or (b) would pass. And I now refer to this, overly glibly, as the Republican “Brigadoon” fantasy: that there is this world where Trump just disappears, and that world’s going to come back and reassert itself. The only problem with that fantasy is that it is fact-free. I don’t doubt that Senator McConnell and other establishment Republicans want the world to be Trump-less. The problem is, there is no factual basis to believe at this hour that the people who spend the currency of their franchise to establish Republican officeholders share that view. There’s just not. And I believe that the 2020 election was a victory for the forces of democracy. I believe the 2022 election was a surprising victory for the forces of democracy, by and large. But the story’s not over. As we are sitting here, in the early spring of 2023, there is a vital reckoning with Trump back on a ballot coming up within a year, in the primaries, and then in November, 2024. It’s a trope that every election is more important than any other election. But this is not 1976. This isn’t 1980. This isn’t a difference of degree, which is what Presidential elections tend to be. (Partisans don’t believe that. But I believe that.) It’s a difference of kind.
But, when we’re assessing where Donald Trump came from, I think a lot of people would argue that some of the origins of Trump come from people that you have studied, and have admired, whether it’s the Lee Atwater side of the George H. W. Bush campaign, or Ronald Reagan speaking for states’ rights in Mississippi. Elements of Trumpism have been present in the Republican Party establishment for a very long time. So, when you’re assessing where Trumpism came from, how do you begin to analyze the roots of it?
To me, the roots start with a favorite common topic of ours, in the third chapter of Genesis. It starts before Roger Ailes. This is an elemental struggle. It’s a struggle of power. Trump wants power. He has convinced an extraordinary number of people that, somehow or another, it would be better for him to have the power than someone else. I am more skeptical of the long-term Republican complicity in Trumpism for this reason: I think of the 1933-to-2017 period as a figurative conversation—a figurative debate between Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. And, if you think of that spectrum, you see F.D.R. and Truman and Lyndon Johnson were over on one side of the twenty-yard line. President Reagan, George W. Bush were over on the other twenty. And almost everybody else was in between.
Are there moments, are there habits of heart and mind, in the Republican past that are regrettable? Absolutely. There are moments and habits of heart and mind on the American left that are regrettable. Let me put it this way: Trumpism was not inevitable unless you go back to an elemental argument about human nature, which is that power is all. And I simply don’t believe that the Republican figures that are kind of corralled up in this particular critique would have acted that way. I don’t think Ronald Reagan would’ve done it. Richard Nixon broke the law, but then he followed the law. I actually have an emerging, revisionist view of Nixon, which is: when you think about 1968 and how cataclysmic it was, and then how things tended to settle down, from ’69 until Trump came, you have to try to figure out what happened. Why did the temperature get turned down a bit? I think, to some extent, it had to do with the fact that Nixon largely governed from the center. He created the E.P.A.; he proposed a health-care plan to the left of Obama’s, influenced by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He was trying to build this kind of majority-centrist party. After he broke the law, he followed the law. Richard Nixon, in the end, had a sense of shame and obeyed the Supreme Court. We are not in that place.
One of the things that I believe is that the broad, media-driven conversation about the stakes of the hour has not been commensurate with the challenge we face. There are still people we know, we love, we admire, who have two different gears in their head. One gear is they will be quite clear about the danger that Trump and Trumpism present. But, on the other hand, they will be conventionally critical of the White House in this era, as if somehow or another it matters whether President Biden had a good week or a bad week. But this is not George Mitchell versus Bob Dole on “Capital Gang.” It’s just not. I’m not saying that therefore we answer blind loyalty on the right with blind loyalty on the center and the left. But I do think a sense of proportion is vital here.
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