© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What's It Like To Be A Historian At This Political Time? 'Every Day Is Christmas'


And I'm Steve Inskeep with the history of our time. At this unsettled and for many unsettling moment in history, we've been asking for a road map.


We've asked writers and thinkers how we got here, where we are, where we might be heading. It's been a long-running conversation, and this morning, we pull the threads together.

INSKEEP: Jon Meacham will help us on this Independence Day. He's a wide-ranging thinker and historian, former editor of Newsweek. His books range from an exploration of religion to the life of Thomas Jefferson to a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Andrew Jackson.

What's it been like to be a historian living through this moment in history?

JON MEACHAM: It's as though every day is Christmas. It really is. And I'm not being overly facile about it. If you care about the underlying elements of our national story, the national order, then a moment in which all of those fundamental assumptions are being questioned is a time of intrinsic interest.

INSKEEP: I keep thinking of this moment almost like there's a game of chess, and there's a chess board, and someone has taken the chess board and flipped it in the air. And all the pieces are flying, and we have no idea where any of them are going to land.

MEACHAM: Well, our mutual friend Andrew Jackson was a chess player. Donald Trump is an "Angry Birds" player. You know...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MEACHAM: ...It's just not what we're used to.

INSKEEP: So we spent the last few months asking writers and thinkers to help us understand what this moment in history is that we're all going through. And one of them was Francis Fukuyama, the social historian, who talked once about the end of history - who writes a lot about not just democracy but liberal democracy, the things that make a free society. And here's one of the things that he said about President Trump.


FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: You know, he gets the democracy point. He loves going to these rallies where people adulate him. He doesn't get the liberal part so well, which is that you've got this set of rules that constrain power and force you to play by the rules.

INSKEEP: Is a relatively free society actually in danger the way that some people seem to fear at this moment?

MEACHAM: I believe it's in the most danger it's been in the United States since the 1930s. The president seems to have very little intellectual or even emotional commitment to the liberal ideas that have shaped the West for good - the rule of law, a free press.

You know, Woodrow Wilson once said one of the tensions in the United States would be, is the Constitution going to end up being Darwin or Newton? And it's really well put. Right now, it's feeling more Darwinian. Trump embodies an idea or a reality that strength is what matters. It's a struggle for the survival of the fittest in a bizarre, media-driven environment.

INSKEEP: Another of our thinkers, Richard Reeves, makes a case that something like 80 percent of the country has reason to be angry because they're being permanently shafted by the other 20 percent or so, not just the wealthiest but the upper-middle class, he says, whom he described as dream hoarders.


RICHARD REEVES: They are members of the American upper-middle class who, through various ways, are rigging the market - the housing market, the college market - are essentially hoarding the American dream.

INSKEEP: Are we living through a moment in history where the idea of America as the land of opportunity is ending?

MEACHAM: Yes, we are. That is the fundamental, definitive drama of the day. I believe you can explain the 2016 election and its ensuing events through two numbers. One is 17 percent. That's the number - percentage of Americans who trust the federal government to do the right thing some or most of the time. That's down from 77 percent in 1965.

The second is - and this goes to Reeves' point - $130,000. That's what a family of four needs to lead a classic post-World War II, middle-class life in the United States. Household income for a family of four, as you know, is - hovers around $57,000. So...

INSKEEP: Not even half...


INSKEEP: ...What seems to be required.

MEACHAM: So people are in fact looking forward and not seeing the path that was evident in 1945, that was evident in 1965, that was evident in 1985. And that's why you have these populist eruptions.

Did you ever see a great popcorn movie called "Armageddon," where...


MEACHAM: Well, it's about - a meteor is coming to destroy the world. And they send Bruce Willis up to save us, which is...

INSKEEP: As anybody would, sure.

MEACHAM: And he lands on this meteor in the atmosphere. All these rocks are flying, and it's totally chaotic. That's what's going on right now because who were the two most interesting figures in the last presidential election? Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, two people who, by the way, weren't really members of the parties they were running to control.

INSKEEP: We're talking here about anxiety about the future. We've also discussed in this series concern about the past, which we heard from the historian Jill Lepore, who said this about history.


JILL LEPORE: Politics is really an argument about how we got to be where we are, making that argument in order to convince people that you know how to get them to where we ought to be. So all politics is really an argument about the relationship between the past and the future. And the more polarized our politics has become, the more polarized our past.

INSKEEP: OK, granting that history is an argument over what really happened and what really mattered, is it becoming more of one? Do we no longer have a common history that we can agree on, more or less?

MEACHAM: I don't - I don't know. I think we are as divided as we have been since the 1850s. And we know how well that turned out.

INSKEEP: Leading up to the Civil War, OK.

MEACHAM: And we are tribal. We live in silos. We want to have our biases confirmed. There's much too little mixing, not only between ethnic groups and races but between those of different classes, economic levels. I'm a little more hopeful than Jill seems to be, which is that I think that history has the capacity to bring us together.

My favorite definition of a nation comes from St. Augustine who said, a nation is a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of their love. So what we have to ask ourselves at every critical point is, what do we love in common? Right now, we don't love enough in common. And at our best, we, I think, loved the idea of liberty under law, of an American dream in which that dream became a reality because there was an equality of opportunity, a capacity to move forward and that we were all, more or less, in a large, national undertaking together.

INSKEEP: Jon Meacham, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks.

MEACHAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's a historian now writing a biography of James and Dolley Madison.


Corrected: July 28, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
During this conversation, it's said that the household income for a family of four in the U.S. is around $57,000. That's incorrect. The figure that should have been cited is the median household income, which isn't based on the number of people in a home. In 2015, that figure was $55,775.