We’re a long way from the point where it will be possible to put President Donald Trump in historic perspective. But no matter what he is able to achieve during his term in office — and his accomplishments on both the domestic and the foreign-policy fronts are already considerable — the narrative that liberal historians will be sticking to is likely already set in stone.
Trump was elected largely on a tide of resentment against the educated classes, and his unorthodox behavior, invective, and tweets designed to poke a stick in the eye of the elite establishment are exactly what his voters like. That has fueled the rage of those educated classes — a group that includes liberals as well as the most die-hard Never Trump conservatives — and created a “resistance” that will clearly never be satisfied with anything short of his impeachment and ouster from office. This group cannot see past Trump’s allergy to the truth, his sketchy personal and business life, and his Twitter account.
To some extent that serves Trump well, since he thrives on exactly these sorts of squabbles with angry foes. But it also makes his opponents blind to what he’s actually doing with the presidency. Thus far, his first term has been characterized by conventional conservatism, albeit tinged with populism and a contempt for experts that has actually been extremely useful with respect to Korea and the Middle East. But the liberal media is interested only in gossip about the special counsel investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia (proof for which is still lacking) and porn star Stormy Daniels’s attempt to further profit from her affair with the president.
That’s why it’s all the more disappointing when a figure such as presidential historian Jon Meacham uses his standing in the field to fuel exactly the sort of unthinking invective that liberals complain is Trump’s stock in trade.
In an essay published in the New York Times, Meacham discusses the uses presidents have made of mass media. But as the author of a forthcoming book that purports to explain a battle for the soul of America, he quickly gets to work making an invidious comparison between his hero Franklin D. Roosevelt and Trump. Meacham believes FDR saved the republic during the Great Depression by appealing, to borrow the words of Lincoln, to the “better angels of our nature” in his radio broadcasts. He thinks Ronald Reagan — who gets the respect of liberal historians only now that he’s safely dead and his memory can be used as a cudgel with which to beat his successors — is another example of a president who was able to inspire Americans with his vision rather than drag them into the muck.
If Meacham were to content himself with comparing Trump’s angry, divisive style with the eloquence of FDR and Reagan, it would be hard to disagree with him. But, as befitting the man who provides a patina of scholarship to the daily fare of Trump bashing as a regular guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Meacham couldn’t stop there.
Instead, he compares Trump to Father Charles Coughlin, a populist Catholic priest whose anti-Semitic rants on the radio fueled Jew-hatred during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Coughlin also provided a populist underpinning to the “America First” isolationists who opposed U.S. support for the Allied effort to resist Hitler in the years before Pearl Harbor.
The superficial connection between that “America First” and Trump’s foreign-policy slogan was created by the president’s historical ignorance and tone-deafness when he embraced the phrase. But the attempt to associate Trump with Coughlin is the crudest sort of political smear.
Trump has been falsely accused of anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League was ready to blame him for inspiring a wave of anti-Semitic violence in his first months in office but had to back down when the series of bomb scares at Jewish community centers turned out to be the work of a deranged Israeli teenager. Trump is in fact a devoted friend of Israel, and he restored trust to the alliance with America’s only democratic ally in the Middle East after an estrangement under President Obama. His strong connections to Jews, in his family and among his closest staff, should also debunk such charges.
But to elites who are afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome, disgust at his manner and his tweets is such that all distinctions between him and genuine villains is lost.
The fact that Trump exploits the resentments of those who see the political class as having failed the country does not put him in the same category as someone who opposed efforts to fight the Nazis and sought to rally working-class America against the Jewish bankers he claimed were responsible for the world’s ills. While not quite as bad as comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler directly, putting the president in the same category as Coughlin tells us more about Meacham’s politics than it does about the president’s admittedly flawed character.
It is possible to be critical of Trump’s style and his unpresidential utterances without falling prey to this sort of thinking. A more sober historian might resist that temptation, but the point of Meacham’s Times essay (and his book) is to draw broad conclusions about the negative impact of social media on the public square as well as about Trump.
Nor, contra Meacham, is it fair to posit Trump’s approach as antithetical to the “pluralistic republicanism” that is at the heart of the American democratic experiment. In fact, the impulse to demonize Trump and to draw hyperbolic conclusions about his statements and tweets while ignoring his largely responsible style of conservative governance reflects an anti-democratic impulse among liberal elites. Their goal is not so much to uphold Reagan’s shining city on a hill as it is to silence and marginalize the “deplorables” who elected Trump.
Meacham’s profoundly inappropriate Coughlin comparison mirrors the negative trends in American politics that he claims to oppose. Treating Trump as an authoritarian or hatemonger is not merely wrongheaded; it is an example of political warfare that serves only to deepen the divides that already threaten to tear the country apart. So long as liberals, even respected historians, speak and write in such a manner, their claim to the moral high ground in the debate about Trump is exposed as a fraud.