Trump’s Literacy

Jon Meacham

Winter 2017

This past summer, I invited historian Jon Meacham to write a piece about the approaching presidential election. After bandying several ideas, he delivered an essay on the kind of president Hillary Clinton might be based on her professed admiration for Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. That was September 1. Like many Americans—including me—he assumed Clinton would win the election. In the early hours of November 9, he agreed to write a reflection on Trump’s victory. We decided to run both articles.

A. R.

 

It was at once a diverting and disconcerting conversation. Last May, on assignment for Time magazine, I traveled to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan to ask the then-presumptive Republican nominee about presidential literacy—what does a president need to know in order to govern effectively? How fluent need he be in the details of policy? How familiar with the ebb and flow of history? In our hour or so together, Donald Trump was gracious but evinced little interest in the substance of the questions, often turning, in his freewheeling, free-associating way, to his own popularity.

Had I seen Bobby Knight’s appearances for Trump in Indiana? he asked me. They were amazing, Trump reported—gold-plated. Nobody better out there than Knight. And what about Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback who’d said nice things about Trump, a golfing pal, up in Massachusetts? Hadn’t seen it? Trump called out to his assistants: can they get him a copy of the Brady quote?

As we parted, Trump mused about the approaching general-election campaign: “People keep saying, ‘Donald, you’ve already made history, no matter what happens,’ but I’ll tell you this: I want to win. None of it means anything if I don’t win.” Of course, he did, and now the rest of us are left to wonder about what his victory will mean.

In our closely divided age, reactions to the news of Trump’s improbable victory ranged from the joyful to the apocalyptic. In the wake of the campaign, conventional wisdom—the phrase was John Kenneth Galbraith’s—explained the election as a great roar of populist fury at political, economic, cultural, and media elites who seemed out of touch with working-class voters whose lives have been circumscribed by the inequalities of globalization. There were other, harsher opinions, including the argument that Trump’s rise is at heart fascistic, and his election the first step toward racialist totalitarianism.

No one—including, I suspect, Trump himself—knows how this undeniably disorienting chapter of American life will turn out. He is a creature of the moment, a hopeless narcissist, an Information Age P. T. Barnum. He says what comes to mind, sometimes to seduce, often to shock. To put the matter charitably, it is an open question whether Trump possesses a core beyond a consuming Nietzschean belief in his own centrality.

So what are we to do? History is not a form of intellectual or civic Zoloft, but the past does offer some possibly useful context. To paraphrase Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, we have been here before; we know all about it—or at least something about it. The constitutional order has survived intact for more than two centuries, withstanding foreign invasion in the War of 1812, a cataclysmic Civil War, the terrors of the 1930s, the convulsions of the Cold War, and the crimes of Watergate. Surely we may hope a system that has come through so much can ultimately endure, and perhaps prevail over, the star of Celebrity Apprentice.

A bit of history. Fears of American decline are older than the Republic. The imminence of chaos, of a nation torn asunder, of a country irretrievably lost has been a standard political trope from the beginning. “I conceive the republic to be in extreme danger,” Patrick Henry announced—in 1788. Two decades later, John Adams wrote, “Commerce, luxury, and avarice have destroyed every republican government. We mortals cannot work miracles; we struggle in vain against the . . . course of nature.” Such political language and sentiment is ancient and familiar, prevalent in the eighteenth century and nearly ubiquitous in the twenty-first.

From the 1800 race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to the 1828 contest pitting John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson to the 1860 campaign that resulted in Abraham Lincoln’s narrow victory, presidential politics have long been framed in dire terms. There is often an evident sense of alarm and anxiety—a heightened, often hyperbolic atmosphere. Politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens speak warmly about the stakes of the hour.

Why the pervasive and perennial hyperbole? As the scholar Robert A. Ferguson has argued, many Americans of the Revolutionary generation saw the cause for self-government as one allied with the forces of the Enlightenment—American victories were triumphs of right reason against discredited notions of the hereditary authority of princes. A commonly cited example of the Enlightenment-era nature of the American experience comes from Thomas Jefferson: “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” America was seen as the living embodiment of Enlightenment ideals. “Education, exploration, and invention should unite in the general advance of humanity, but that possibility depends upon prompt action in the more immediate and unpredictable realm of politics,” wrote Ferguson. “Progress, in other words, is not a predetermined evolution through fixed stages of history. The moment can yield permanent darkness as easily as additional light. These alternatives, in their starkness, define the fullest meaning of crisis in the eighteenth century American mind. In the fresh dispensation of the new world, events are freighted with an extraordinary double capacity for either good or ill. The stakes are permanently high. Whatever revolutionary Americans do or do not do, they believe that their actions will change the direction of history—possibly forever.”

Little wonder, then, that the Revolutionary era seemed an existential one—or that succeeding generations, engaged in an intrinsically inconclusive struggle to use political means to secure the best possible social order, would follow suit in seeing the choices of the hour in an extreme light. Such was the way of democracy in Athens and of republicanism in Rome; so it has also been in America.

Yet there was a genius about the American Founding and the emergence of American democratic politics, particularly the conception and birth—however difficult it was—of the Constitution. That genius lay in no small part in the recognition that the Republic was as susceptible to human passions as human beings themselves. The Founders expected seasons of anger and frustration; they anticipated hours of unhappiness and unrest. “Why has government been instituted at all?” Alexander Hamilton asked in The Federalist Papers. His answer is telling: “Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.” The country was thus constructed with an awareness of sin and a determination to protect the larger republican enterprise from the furies of the moment.

And fury is a constant force. In an essay on anger, Seneca, one of the great Roman Stoics, noted that wise men had long said that anger “is a brief madness” and likened it to “a collapsing building that’s reduced to rubble even as it crushes what it falls upon.” Anger is not something one can easily hide: “As madmen exhibit specific symptoms—a bold and threatening expression, a knitted brow, a fierce set of features, a quickened step, restless hands, a changed complexion, frequent, very forceful sighing—so do angry people show the same symptoms: their eyes blaze and flicker, their faces flush deeply as the blood surges up from the depths of the heart, their lips quiver and their teeth grind, their hair bristles and stands on end, their breathing is forced and ragged.” The bottom line: “Anger turns everything from what is best and most righteous to the opposite,” Seneca wrote. At her best, America has recognized this predilection and found ways to manage popular rage in the public square.

In a November 1963 lecture that formed the basis of a Harper’s cover story and later a book, historian Richard Hofstadter defined what he called “the paranoid style in American politics,” a persistent pattern of extreme conspiratorial theories about fundamental threats to the country. “The paranoid spokesman . . . traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values,” Hofstadter wrote. “He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever running out.”

It was, and is, a brilliant piece. Ranging from fears of the Bavarian Illuminati in the 1790s to the dark anxieties of the anticommunist John Birch Society of the 1960s, Hofstadter identified the recurrent American tendency to see powerful forces at work to undermine American life or politics or, often, both. Hofstadter’s definition of the paranoid style focused on the most fevered of examples, and he explicitly drew a distinction between Americans with a healthy distrust of concentrated power that tried to work its will with a degree of secrecy and those practitioners of the paranoid style who saw conspiracy as “the motive force” of history.

There are surely elements of the paranoid style at work in Trump’s America. We have overcome such moments in the past through common sense, something that admittedly seems in short supply in our own time. But we have no choice: to surrender to the fringe would be a capitulation of historical proportions, a failure of democratic will from which we might not recover.

All may yet be well. As Jefferson noted, divisions of opinion have defined free societies since Greece and Rome. The art of politics lies in the manufacturing of a workable consensus for a given time—not unanimity, for unanimity is the most elusive of things.

Thucydides said he wrote his histories for “those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will at some point or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future.” It is tempting to think that an example from history can be examined carefully to find a way forward. There is, however, a difference—a critical one—between seeking illumination from the past and seeking precise directions. Ideally, one should think historically but act rationally—and reason requires a habit of mind that takes account of history’s lessons but does not reflexively follow a playbook written long ago. In other words, every act of foreign aggression is not a Munich. Ideally, the democratic Western powers would have responded to Nazi Germany earlier and with more strength in the late 1930s, possibly averting some of the horrors brought on by World War II. That does not mean, though, that every foreign threat requires a full-scale mobilization or projection of power. Accurately judging the scale and scope of a threat is the main task of a national leader. Defining one’s national interest, assessing the pros and cons, and arriving at a decision about the relation between costs and benefits is the essence of leadership. This is an art, not a science. There is no algorithm in politics or statecraft that can tell a president or a people what to do. Like life, history is contingent and conditional.

In a follow-up telephone call with Trump in May, I asked him about books he was reading. He named Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling Killing volumes, a study of the rise of ISIS, and an anti-Clinton tract by Edward Klein. As we said goodbye, he reminded me what this was, for him, all about: He was going to win, Trump said. “It’s gonna be great, that I can tell you.” We shall see.

Jon Meacham, a biographer, teaches at Vanderbilt and at The University of the South. He lives in Nashville.

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