JULY 7, 2018
JON MEACHAM IS a Pulitzer Prize–winning presidential historian who, through his sporadic television appearances, has taken on the role of the sober optimist. He is a man who has studied history in depth and who is able to recognize its echoes in the present day. Whenever a television host tries to make a claim about the “unprecedented” nature of our current politics, Meacham is quick to point out a similar occasion in American history.
Because of this reminding tendency, it should come as no surprise that, for his seventh book, he has attempted to offer a message of hope for the future of the United States. He does this not by presenting an idealistic vision for what that future will look like, but by examining the trends of the past and outlining his idea of a national soul, pulling from a variety of thinkers ranging from Socrates to Thomas Jefferson. Ultimately, the national soul can be understood as the national essence: whatever it is that makes America American. This incorporates positive aspects of the national creed such as equality of opportunity and fair play, but it also includes the dark chapters of our history, such as slavery and the internment of Japanese Americans. Meacham writes:
The message of Martin Luther King Jr. — that we should be judged on the content of our character, not by the color of our skin — dwells in the American soul; so does the menace of the Ku Klux Klan. History hangs precariously in the balance between such extremes. Our fate is contingent upon which element — that of hope or that of fear — emerges triumphant.
In the battle for the American soul, fear and hope represent the two warring factions. This book is an attempt to trace the history of this conflict and to prove the assertion that, despite numerous setbacks and moral lapses, America has erred on the side of progress.
So does the book accomplish what it sets out to do? Yes, but not without a couple of major caveats. First of all, it is important to note that this is a history that focuses on American domestic issues. Foreign wars are almost entirely ignored in favor of civil rights and the moral decisions of individual politicians. Secondly, this book is too ambitious for its own good. Because Meacham tries to weave together an overarching narrative that demonstrates the conflict between fear and hope, he is forced to skip around American history to the points where that conflict is most obvious. The result is a book that contains large chunks of fascinating analysis that are strung together by dizzyingly quick summarizations of the periods in between.
Despite this choppiness, the book is a captivating read. It is incredibly well researched, and the prose is always vivid and clear. The book also displays an impressive use of primary sources. Rarely does Meacham present a historical figure without quoting them directly. He pulls from an extraordinary array of speeches, memoirs, and private letters to construct a unique narrative of American history that balances the voices of its major players.
When Meacham trains his focus on a specific issue or event (e.g., Reconstruction, the rise of McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement) he is at his best. He has a knack for presenting issues in all their complexity and giving the reader an idea of the political landscape of the time, without romanticizing. His account of the Civil War depicts a Northern government in disarray and a president caught between opposing factions of his own base. Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass viewed the president as frustratingly calculated and often accused him of dragging his feet on issues related to emancipation. At the same time, there were those within the GOP who feared that the abolition of slavery would present a permanent obstacle to the reunification of the country. Among Northern whites who did support abolition there were different views as to what should become of the newly freed slaves. Some believed that they should be given the same rights as white citizens, while others found this notion to be abhorrent. There were even those who floated the idea of shipping the newly freed slaves to Africa — a continent most of them had never visited.
Meacham portrays Lincoln as a man who was able to straddle the thin line between what was morally right and what was pragmatically possible. He had noble ideals often muddled by the reality of his political situation. In this manner, he was able to overcome the tactics of fear used by his detractors and to win the war while simultaneously emancipating the slaves. But this victory was only temporary. In the years after the war, groups of bitter Southerners continued to stoke white anxiety about racial integration by perpetuating myths of black inferiority and aggression, thereby providing justification for many of the white supremacist movements that have since sprung up throughout the country. These reactionary forces grew so rapidly in the years following Lincoln’s death that they were able to create a new narrative of the Civil War — one in which the noble Confederacy fought bravely against an overwhelming force of Northern aggressors who were determined to rip apart the Southern way of life.
Much emphasis, in fact, is placed on those who have been practitioners of fear-based politics. In this respect, one has to admire the way in which Meacham has dealt with the elephant in the Oval Office. Throughout the book, Donald Trump is mentioned only once, and it is in relation to Roy Cohn, Senator Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel who later became a lawyer for Trump in the ’70s. Otherwise, the politics of today are mostly eschewed in favor of an examination of history. With that being said, it’s hard not to draw parallels between past and present fearmongering. In the section that details the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century, Meacham elaborates on how the Klan “gave its adherents a social and political program that spoke to both the practical fears of the moment and to a mythology of identity.” One Klansman (who also happened to be the governor of Georgia) gave a speech saying, “I would build a wall of steel […] a wall as high as Heaven, against the admission of a single one of those Southern Europeans who never thought the thoughts or spoke the language of democracy in their lives.” All one has to do is replace “Southern Europeans” with “Mexicans” and suddenly this 1920s Klan speech is perfectly suitable for a 2016 Trump rally.
The unflattering historical echoes don’t end there. Senator Joe McCarthy was, it turns out, a pioneer of the Fake News strategy. He once confided: “[I]f you show a newspaper as unfriendly and having a reason for being antagonistic, you can take the sting out of what it says about you. I think I can convince a lot of people that they can’t believe what they read in the Journal.” In forgoing an obvious comparison to the current president, Meacham has left his audience to make the connection themselves. This is perhaps the most damning rebuke of the Trump administration that he could possibly offer.
The closest that Meacham comes to discussing the modern climate in the United States is in the book’s conclusion, where he lays out the lessons that can be learned from the longstanding battle between fear and hope. They are as follows: Enter the Arena (be politically engaged), Resist Tribalism, Respect Facts and Deploy Reason, Find a Critical Balance (use a healthy skepticism), and Keep History in Mind. Meacham provides historical precedent to support each of these points, but even then they appear self-evident.
Readers may feel that Meacham has copped out by not directly addressing the fearmongering of President Trump, but I would argue that he has instead written a book that will be relevant long after this president’s term is up. He has shown that fear-driven politics are not new and that they have been overcome before. By outlining the sequence of progress followed by increased reactionary sentiment, this book demonstrates a cycle that will be useful for taking a long view of the Trumpist trouble. “In the main,” he writes, “the America of the twenty-first century is, for all its shortcomings, freer and more accepting than it has ever been. If that weren’t the case, right-wing populist attacks on immigrants and the widening mainstream wouldn’t be so ferocious.” And this is true. The United States of today is certainly a better place for racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ than it was a hundred years ago. It is also true that the reactionary bigotry we see today closely mirrors that of the Dixiecrats and the Klan in years past. But Meacham is careful to show that advances have been achieved through tireless effort and many hard-fought battles against injustice.
If we are to subscribe to his theory of American progress — that for every three steps forward, America then takes two steps back — it would seem that we are in the midst of a rapid backpedaling. The United States’s soul is on the line, and the forces of fear appear to be on the verge of overwhelming those of hope. So what do we do now? If Meacham is correct, then the solution would be to use the lessons that we’ve learned from history to ensure that our next few steps forward do not result in more backsliding.