Jon Meacham: Being a historian at a time like this means every day is Christmas

Historians in the News
tags: Trump



STEVE 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. ...





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