Pulitzer Center Update

Author Jon Meacham Discusses 'The Soul Of America'

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Marvin Kalb (left) asks Jon Meacham about his motivations behind writing The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Image by Kate Karstens. United States, 2018. 

Marvin Kalb (left) asks Jon Meacham about his motivations behind writing The Soul of AmericaThe Battle for Our Better Angels. Image by Kate Karstens. United States, 2018. 

“I read your book. I have some questions.”

This was the message author and historian Jon Meacham received from Pulitzer Center Senior Adviser Marvin Kalb a month following the release of Meacham’s book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. On Wednesday, June 20, an audience composed of staff from the Pulitzer Center and the Institute for Current World Affairs engaged Meacham about how the Trump presidency aligns within America’s historical framework.

The Soul of America invites readers to inspect turbulent eras in America—spanning from the Civil War well into the 21st century—in order to evaluate current events with perspective.

“We’ve been through difficult moments in the past. We should figure out how we got through them and apply those lessons now,” Meacham said. “I’m also fundamentally optimistic. I’m kind of a Whig, in terms of the American story.”

Kalb led the discussion, expressing his difficulty in agreeing with the book’s hopeful conclusion. In Kalb’s view, President Donald Trump is altering the composition of democracy, “moving stones along the way that could change the soul of America,” to which Meacham replied: “The nature of the American experiment is that it is an experiment. Maybe fascism is at hand, but I don’t think so. I would have a different view if he had won the popular vote. He is president because of a Madisonian, 18th century quirk.”

The audience asked Meacham to look at other institutions seemingly shaken by Trump’s era, spanning from the composition of the Supreme Court, to the journalistic struggle to appear unbiased, to the education and apathy of America’s citizenry.

“My whole argument is that the moments we want to emulate and tend to commemorate are the moments where the powerless have ultimately attracted the attention of the powerful,” Meacham said. “I just think it’s a historical fact that we’ve become stronger the more widely we’ve opened up our arms.”

In his work, Meacham laid out a number of moments in the past two centuries when the future of America appeared to hang in the balance of current events but was actually following a historical precedence of action and reaction.

Although not included in the book, Meacham discussed the similarities between Richard Nixon and Trump. Nixon’s resignation took 26 months, and only took place after Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater urged him to step down. Meacham gives advice to senators who question when to oppose Trump, pointing to Goldwater’s last-second appeal as a standard for politicians to follow. Intern Alyssa Sperrazza questioned the procrastination evident in the Nixon case, asking Meacham if this precedent is the best one to follow.

“I don’t know. It seems to me that one of the virtues of historical sensibility is it tempers your expectations,” Meacham said. “My view of political life, based on journalism and history, is that politicians are far more often mirrors of who we are than they are molders. If the anti-Trump forces truly organize, truly emphasize their views, then I think they will prevail.”

Looking broadly at the foundations of democracy, Meacham spoke about a Constitution written for times of turbulence and institutions built to be resilient. Throughout his book and the discussion, Meacham maintained the importance of conscientious concern as a foundation for conversation.

“I’m not suggesting the kingdom of heaven will come after Donald Trump by any means,” Meacham said. “The Trump election is a last grasp at white male supremacy. My argument is … whether it’s emancipation, or economic opportunity, or suffrage, or fighting Jim Crow, the story of the country can be seen as the hard-fought story of these victories.”