American historians have long been troubled by Donald Trump, first when he was a longshot presidential candidate, then as the Republican nominee for president and especially now as the occupant of the White House. In addition to Trump’s volatile temperament and disregard for traditional norms of governing, the president’s limited interest in and understanding of the nation’s history and his scant regard for cherished American ideals have triggered strong reactions by many scholars.
During the summer of 2016, as the presidential campaign was intensifying, more than 600 historians formed an ad hoc group called Historians Against Trump and outlined their concerns in an open letter.
“Today we are faced with a moral test,” they wrote. “As historians, we recognize both the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenge it poses to civil society. Historians of different specialties, eras and regions understand the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating,” they declared. “Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”
While it is too early for fair-minded historians to fully assess Trump’s presidency, several of the nation’s most celebrated historians are delving into America’s past to place the challenges posed by Trump into historical context. While three books under review differ in aspiration, format and emphasis, they are clear responses to the rise of Trump. They argue, either directly or by implication, that American history contains both hopeful and disappointing chapters, that the rise of Trump does not reflect America’s best values and that wise future leaders and resilient citizens will be needed to get the nation back on track and in line with its best traditions.
‘The American Spirit’
“The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For” by David McCullough is a compilation of 15 speeches that McCullough delivered between 1989 and 2016. McCullough is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who has written impressive books on John Adams, Harry S. Truman, the Wright Brothers, the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge.
McCullough begins his book with an homage to history, saying the study of the past represents a “larger way of looking at life. It is a source of strength, of inspiration. It is about who we are and what we stand for and is essential for our understanding of what our own role should be in our time.”
His references to the current political circumstances are brief and indirect. “Yes, we have much to be seriously concerned about, much that needs to be corrected, improved, or dispensed with. But the vitality and creative energy, the fundamental decency, the tolerance and insistence on truth, and the good-heartedness of the American people are there still plainly,” he writes in his introduction.
One of McCullough’s featured speeches was delivered in 1994 at Union College in Schenectady, New York. Even at this time, McCullough depicted an unsettled nation trying to find its way in the post-Cold War era. He also underscored the urgency of truth-telling by our leaders.
“In its approach to world problems, in its foreign policy, America seems oddly at sea. Without an enemy, some are saying we have lost our sense of direction. The old certainties don’t serve any longer,” he said. “In our foreign policy, as in our own national life, we need less fanfare, less stagecraft and circumventing. We need to talk sense, to speak the truth, to work harder and stay faithful to our fundamental truths.”
In remarks he gave several years later at Dartmouth College, McCullough argued that many of the important aspects of presidential leadership are impossible to quantify. There is, he said, no “ready measurements” for the integrity of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln’s depth of soul, the courage of Harry S. Truman or the charm of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Each leader had his own magic and possessed qualities that inspired trust from the American people.
McCullough, for example, was struck by Kennedy’s refusal to make policy or political debates personal. “He almost never talked about himself. The first person singular almost never entered into anything he said, in contrast to so many others since. It was a big part of his appeal,” McCullough argued.
McCullough delivered a speech at Ohio University in 2004 that showed his optimism and his belief in the intrinsic goodness of the American people. “When bad news is riding high and despair in fashion, when loud mouths and corruption seem to own center stage, when some keep crying that the country is going to the dogs, remember it’s always been going to the dogs in the eyes of some, and 90 percent, or more, of the people are good, generous-hearted, law-abiding citizens who get to work on time, do a good job, love their country, pay their taxes, care about their neighbors, care about their children’s education and believe, rightly, as you do, in the ideals upon which our way of life is founded.”
‘The Soul of America’
“The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels” by Jon Meacham is the most explicit rebuke of Donald Trump of the three books. Meacham has written highly regarded books on Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. A professor at Vanderbilt University, he is a former editor of Newsweek and has won a Pulitzer Prize for biography.
Meacham addresses the Trump era directly. He says that the “Soul of America” began as a magazine article after the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 and grew into a book-length exploration of the highs and lows of American history.
“Extremism, racism, nativism, and isolationism, driven by the fear of the unknown, tend to spike in periods of economic and social stress — a period like our own,” he writes. “The fires of fear in America have long found oxygen when broad, seemingly threatening change is afoot. Now, in the second decade of the new century, in the presidency of Donald Trump, the alienated are being mobilized afresh by changing demography, by broadening conceptions of identity, and by an economy that prizes Information Age brains over manufacturing brawn.”
He is concerned that David Duke, a white supremacist and a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has offered effusive praise for Trump. “For many, the fact that we have arrived at a place in the life of the nation where the grand wizard of the KKK can claim, all too plausibly, that he is at one with the will of the president of the United States seems an unprecedented moment. History, however, shows us that we are frequently vulnerable to fear, bitterness, and strife. The good news is that we have come through such darkness before.”
“The Soul of America” ranges across American history, dealing with the post-Civil War era; the backlash against immigrants in the First World War; American isolationism prior to World War II; the decades-long fight for women’s suffrage; the history of the Ku Klux Klan; the civil rights struggles for African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s; McCarthyism; and the leadership of presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Meacham’s description of the KKK in particular is both sobering and instructive. The KKK first arose shortly after the Civil War when a handful of former Confederate officers in Tennessee started a group that claimed to honor the South’s history and traditions. However, the movement that emerged often terrorized freed African Americans, many of whom were voting and holding offices in the South.
The KKK was halted, or at least driven underground, around 1890 but then reemerged in 1915. It grew into a movement of about 2 million people, including 11 state governors, 16 U.S. senators, up to 75 members of the U.S House of Representatives and a Supreme Court justice, Hugo Black. But the KKK was eventually defeated by the courts, the press, several Republican presidents and courageous citizens who took stands against the politics of fear.
“The work of combatting broadly held views like those of the Klansmen of the 1920s is almost never easy or quick. It requires years of persistent witness and of standing firm in protest when it would be more convenient to give in and move on,” Meacham writes.
“This book is a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent — a reminder that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance they are survivable,” he writes. “In the best of moments, witness, protest and resistance can intersect with the leadership of an American president to lift us to higher ground. In darker times, if a particular president fails to advance the national story — or, worse, moves us backward — then those who witness, protest and resist must stand fast, in hope, working toward a better day. Progress in American life, as we will see, has been slow, painful, bloody and tragic. Across too many generations, women, African Americans, immigrants and others have been denied the full promise of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Yet the journey has gone on, and proceeds even now.”
Meacham warns about the tendency to look to the past in a nostalgic way, forgetting the struggles and setbacks. “There’s a natural tendency in American political life to think that things were always better in the past. The passions of previous years fade, to be inevitably replaced by the passion of the present. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and in the maelstrom of the moment many of us seek comfort in imagining that once there was a Camelot — without quite remembering that the Arthurian legend itself was a court riven by ambition and infidelity. One point of this book is to remind us that imperfection is the rule, not the exception.”
Meacham urges Americans to keep calm and resolute during hard times. “With countries as with individuals, a sense of proportion is essential. All has seemed lost before, only to give way, after decades of gloom, to light. And that is in large measure because, in the battle between the impulses of good and evil in the American soul, what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’ have prevailed just often enough to keep the national enterprise alive.”
Meacham believes the United States has done its best when led by presidents with an instinct to speak to the nation’s hopes rather than its fears. “I am writing now not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does. A president sets the tone for the nation and helps tailor habits of heart and of mind…. We are more likely to choose the right path when we are encouraged to do so from the very top. The country has come to look to the White House for a steadying hard, in word and deed, in uneasy times.”
Meacham observes that Americans have made many mistakes over the years, but have often corrected them. “We have managed, however, to survive the crises and vicissitudes of history. Our brightest hours are almost never as bright as we like to think; our glummest moments are rarely as irredeemable as they feel at the time. How, then, in an hour of anxiety about the future of the country, at a time when a president of the United States appears determined to undermine the rule of law, a free press and the sense of hope essential to American life, can those with deep concerns about the nation’s future enlist on the side of the angels?”
He urges citizens to participate in the political process by making their views known and acting on them. He also counsels Americans to resist tribalism, respect facts and reason, be resolute but also humble — and study history. “A grasp of the past can be orienting,” he writes.
“Leadership in Turbulent Times” by Doris Kearns Goodwin focuses on leadership by examining Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Goodwin, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, has written books about each of these men and draws from these books to consider broader issues related to leadership.
She ponders timeless questions: Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times? How can a leader inject a sense of purpose and meaning into people’s lives? Is leadership possible without a purpose larger than personal ambition?
“It is my hope that these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and reassuring. These men set a standard and a bar for all of us. Just as they learned from one another, so we can learn from them. And from them gain a better perspective on the discord of our times. For leadership does not exist in a void. Leadership is a two-way street,” she writes.
In her profiles, Goodwin examines these men when they first entered public life, as they faced dramatic reversals that shattered their public and private lives, and as American presidents. While each man’s career was different, they all suffered adversity and Goodwin believes this profoundly shaped them.
“Scholars who have studied the development of leaders have situated resilience, the ability to sustain ambition in the face of frustration, at the heart of potential leadership growth. More important than what happened to them was how they responded to these reversals, how they managed in various ways to put themselves back together, how these watershed moments at first impeded then deepened, and finally and decisively molded their leadership,” she writes.
While Goodwin offers wide-ranging assessments of all four men, she seems most impressed by Roosevelt and Lincoln.
FDR was a man of wealth and privilege whose charmed life was shattered when he contracted polio at the age of 39. His arduous and often agonizing seven-year rehabilitation restored most of his health, but left him unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair. However, his ordeal turned him into a more compassionate and empathetic man. He had an optimist spirit, a shrewd, problem-solving intelligence and a powerful ability to speak to Americans.
FDR possessed, Goodwin writes, a “unique transverse intelligence that cut naturally across categories” and that allowed him to devise creative and often bold solutions to seemingly intractable problems. He led the United States during the Depression and World War II, projecting confidence, competence and resolve. He was able to explain the nation’s challenges to Americans clearly and vividly. He was also a visionary who, even during the chaos of war, looked to the future as he conceived a sweeping program to provide housing and education assistance for returning American veterans and a plan to create the United Nations to rebuild the shattered international system.
Goodwin is most taken by Lincoln, a man who emerged from poverty and seemingly endless failures to become a world-class statesman. “One would be hard put to invent a leader who could have better guided us through the darkest days of the Civil War, a leader both merciful and merciless, confident and humble, patient and persistent — able to mediate among factions, sustain our spirits, and translate the meaning of the struggle into words of matchless force, clarity and beauty,” she writes.
She is intrigued by Lincoln’s disciplined self-education, penetrating intelligence, steadfast humor and unequaled ability to express lofty ideas in simple prose. “While his mind was neither quick nor facile, young Lincoln possessed singular powers of reasoning and comprehension, unflagging curiosity and a fierce, almost irresistible, compulsion to understand the meaning of what he heard, read or was taught,” she writes.
Lincoln matured into a historically impressive leader through serious introspection and grinding work. He also had an abundance of kindness, empathy, humor, passion and ambition. Goodwin said he “continued to grow as a leader who became so powerfully fused with the problems tearing the country apart that his desire to lead and his need to serve coalesced into a single indomitable force. That force has not only enriched subsequent leaders but has provided our people with a moral compass to guide us. Such leadership offers us humanity, purpose and wisdom, not in turbulent times alone, but also in our everyday lives.”
Reading these three books is mostly uplifting, but it also reminds us of how far America has strayed from its best traditions.
The books offer nuanced accounts of American history in which remarkable advances have sometimes been followed by stunning reversals and even regression. These books make it clear that it’s not credible to argue that the trajectory of American history is a steady, upwardly tilting arc. To put it bluntly, how can a country that once produced Lincoln, the Roosevelts or Eisenhower now be led by Donald Trump?
Still, the United States has worked through difficult times before, in large part through inspired leadership in the White House. But American history also shows that relentless and courageous efforts by common citizens have been needed in the past and will be essential in the future. Can this be achieved again? All three of these books seem to be saying yes. But the current generation of Americans must rise to the task. Will this happen? We of course hope so, but it may take years of struggle.
Meacham frames America’s current challenge starkly, but also hopefully.
“To know what has come before is to be armed against despair. If the men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward that most enchanting and elusive of destinations: a more perfect Union,” he writes.
“For all of our darker impulses, for all of our shortcomings, and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight,” Meacham concludes. “There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle.”
About the Author
John T. Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. He is the author of four books, including “The Ambassador: Inside the Life of a Working Diplomat” and “Rising Star, Setting Sun,” and he is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.