David Remnick: Donald Trump's contempt for democracy is a matter of fact, an impulse registered again and again throughout his presidency and its aftermath. As so many, including those in his circle warned, he would never accept legitimacy of Biden's election. Of course, he provoked an insurrection, attempting to stop that election, and he's faced no consequences for it so far.
There was some buzzing after the midterm elections that Trump's influence on the GOP had finally burned out, but the fact is that he's running for president, and he leads the Republican field. In 2018, at the midpoint of the Trump presidency, the journalist and historian Jon Meacham wrote a book called The Soul of America, and it warned of the gravity of Trump's threat to democracy.
Now, this was hardly a unique point of view, but Meacham's particular way of putting things steeped in a kind of critical reverence for American history, hit home with one reader in particular, Joe Biden. In the years since, Meacham became an informal advisor to Biden, helping him with the last state of the union address and other speeches. Jon Meacham's books include biographies of Jefferson, Jackson, George H W Bush, Jon Lewis, and Abraham Lincoln. We spoke last week.
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 DC, what is at stake now in this latest chapter?
Jon: What's at stake is whether America now has 47% or 48% 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. Someone who has explicitly said that the rule of law should not apply to him, the results of free and fair elections should not be obeyed if he loses them.
Trump: The district attorney of New York under the auspices and direction of the department of injustice in Washington, DC was investigating me for something that is not a crime, not a misdemeanor, not an affair.
Jon: 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.
David: Did we make a mistake? Did many people not make a mistake thinking that with the results of the last election and then the spectacle of January 6th, this somehow, this impulse of authoritarianism would begin to recede and maybe even recede fairly rapidly? Was that not a gigantic illusion?
Jon: That's a good way to put it. It was a gigantic illusion, and it's a persistent one. I am friends with 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. 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, and it is a trope that every election is more important than any other election. 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.
David: When we're assessing where Donald Trump came from, I think a lot of people would argue that some of the origins 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, that elements of Trumpism have been present in the Republican Party in the establishment for a very long time. When you're assessing where Trumpism came from, how do you begin to analyze the roots of it?
Jon: I am more skeptical of the long-term Republican complicity in Trumpism for this reason. Trumpism was not inevitable unless you go back to an elemental argument about human nature, which is that power is all. I simply don't believe that the Republican figures that are corralled up in this particular critique, would have acted that way. I don't think Ronald Reagan would have done it. Richard Nixon broke the law, but then he followed the law. Nixon, in the end, had a sense of shame. We're not there.
David: Now, Jon, speaking of stakes, your involvement, your personal involvement in the stakes have shifted. You had a long and storey career as a journalist [unintelligible 00:06:32] [crosstalk]
Jon: Storey, I like that. I'm storied.
David: That's what we say in sports. The storied fullback.
David: You more fully shifted to being a historian. You've written some remarkable and bestselling of biographies, presidential biographies. The most recent is, And There Was Life, about Lincoln, and yet you also are getting more and more involved or had been involved, particularly with Joe Biden as a kind of outside advisor, particularly on speeches. I think it would be good to know what your association with Joe Biden is, how it began, and where it got to, how far it goes, or how far it doesn't go.
Jon: 15 years ago, I wrote a book called American Gospel. Joe Biden was making at that point his second run for president. It lasted, I think, about 30 minutes. He read that book, and after he was done with the campaign, or toward the end of his campaign, he actually took me aside at an event and showed me some laminated cards he had in his pocket that had quotations from the book.
Now, as you know, when writers are shown their own words, we tend to approve of the taste and wisdom of the person who found those words.
David: You were flattered.
Jon: Absolutely, of course. 2017, Vice President Biden, Former Vice President Biden had written the book about the loss of his son, Beau. We did a book event here in Nashville. I interviewed him for a crowd. We became friendly. My view of engagement, I spoke to The Democratic Convention at his request, and I have helped with the drafting of speeches, which I hate talking about because if you're going to serve in that way, you shouldn't talk about it but again [unintelligible 00:08:48] --
David: Did any of this make you feel uncomfortable? Because for journalists, you could be for somebody or against somebody editorially in the obvious way, but to be writing speeches, to be speaking at a political convention, et cetera, that's another matter, no? Did you [unintelligible 00:09:12] [crosstalk]?
Jon: It is a matter. It is another matter. No, but I'm not a journalist anymore. I'm a biographer, I'm a professor, and I believe firmly that to whom much is given, much is expected. I don't want to profit from this. I see this as an act of citizenship. I believe that Trumpism is a fundamental threat to the things that we have long held dear. I want if I can be of help in articulating a vision of the country that puts the declaration, that puts the pursuit of justice, that puts the best of the country front and center, then I want to do that.
David: Many books are written about Abraham Lincoln, many, many, many biographies. In [unintelligible 00:10:12], there are so many books written about Lincoln that I believe every year there's an award given to the best book about Abraham Lincoln. Your book, is it once a biography, but I also think it resonates very, very deliberately, if not overtly, with the present moment. Was that the impetus for the book, and how does it resonate to you?
Jon: In many ways, it was. I thought that our current moment was like 1933 or 1968, where there were proto-fascist forces, there was a sense that democracy had run out its string, and that enough conscientious effort went into keeping democracy alive. I am increasingly concerned, however, having made that argument, that this is the 1850s, that in fact, there are competing visions of reality itself.
Speaker 4: We are going to fight like hell against the tyrannical Democrats and any Republicans who do deals with them.
Speaker 4: It will be your peril if you underestimate this movement again.
Jon: It was not settled by a congressional debate. It was not settled by a Brooking seminar. It was not settled through the ordinary protocols of politics. It was settled by the sword, by the Civil War, by the death of what demographers now believe might have been 750,000 Americans. What I wanted to explore, and Lincoln rests at the center of this question, is why did Abraham Lincoln, why did he do what he did? Because he was a politician.
Abraham Lincoln, for all of his failings, fundamentally believed that slavery was wrong and could not be expanded, and so why? Why did he think that? He thought it and acted on it because his conscience told him so. Lincoln put the moral convictions of anti-slavery at the center of his undertaking, and he didn't have to.
David: I think what you're saying by inference is that in no small measure, that the burden on Joe Biden, and Joe Biden's candidacy presumably for reelection is of that historical weight. If he does not succeed, then we don't know what the consequences could be. People were mocking about the recent book by Barbara Walter, about the possibility of civil war in this country, but you seem to be inviting that potential comparison. That's one thing.
The other thing is, is Joe Biden up to it? Abraham Lincoln's capacities, his eloquence was extraordinary by any measure. Joe Biden is an older guy whose eloquence is not Lincoln-esque, and he also has a lot of other things on his plate, including a land war in Europe, and any number of other issues impinging on him to say nothing about the fate of the planet itself. Is Joe Biden up to defeating Donald Trump again and at the same time riding this country?
Jon: The question I believe is as much are we up to it as President Biden? No American president is Zeus-like, and so I think it's up to 51% of us or more to recognize what path we should take and take it. I wouldn't put the whole onus on any single person, including Lincoln. The Union Army had a lot to do with this, Black Americans had a lot to do with this. I think the person at the top matters enormously, obviously, but this is up to all of us.
David: Do you think Ron DeSantis represents Trumpism or some other kind of Republicanism?
Jon: I'm not an early investor in the Ron DeSantis conventional wisdom. I think the Trump grip on that base of folks is so strong, that it's just going to be-- It's very hard for me to see how he doesn't win the nomination. I know again [crosstalk]
David: What role will legal indictment play in that?
Jon: It could help. That's the world we're in. Is that [unintelligible 00:15:49] [crosstalk]
David: Indictment in Georgia, indictment in Washington, indictment in New York, any of them could help you're saying?
Jon: I think so. We're in uncharted territory, but to have an indicted former president seeking reelection, with a huge chunk of a formally functional opposition political party in the United States, is yes, is unprecedent. What is not unprecedented is the case that has to be made to defeat him, and that is a case for a constitutional order, informed by a journey toward recognizing the promise of human equality that was articulated if not realized at the beginning of the adventure.
The great question for my Republican friends is, do you have the ability, do you have the capacity to vote for the other party in order to preserve the experiment? I don't have a partisan enough brain to even think that's a hard call. I have voted for Republican presidential candidates. I am flummoxed, to some extent, at the durability of partisan feeling. Your colleague Susan Glasser and Peter Baker, have reported that James Addison Baker III voted for Donald Trump twice.
David: Isn't that outrageous to your ear?
Jon: Yes, and I don't understand it. A man who gave a huge chunk of his life to a constitutional experiment, to preserving America's role in the world voted for the nominee of his party no matter who the nominee was, and I just don't understand it.
David: What gives you the notion that somehow this fever will break?
Jon: The fever only breaks if they lose. Let's be very clear here. The only way that Trumpism recedes from its power, and you're never getting rid of it, but it can be contained. My view is it is only contained if they keep losing.
David: That means that American democracy is on the edge at all times and that we didn't recognize it.
Jon: Of course, it's on the edge at all times. It's fundamentally a human enterprise. We can't outsource this. This is important to me, David. I'm not arguing that there is a mythical moment, that there is a moment at Gettysburg on the farm with Eisenhower, where if we could just beam ourselves back there, everything was great and everything will be great again.
It is a perennial struggle. It is a perennial battle I have argued between our worst instincts, and the better angels of our nature, to use Lincoln's phrase. The remarkable thing about the American experiment is that after much blood, much strife, much chaos, those better angels had just managed to eke out a provisional victory. I think that's the struggle we're in now.
David: Jon Meacham, thanks so much.
Jon: Thank you.
David: Jon Meacham is a recovering journalist and a presidential historian. He's also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. His book about Abraham Lincoln from last year is called And There Was Light.
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