Meacham Answers Questions - Brevard, NC
Last updated 10/4/2017 at 8:44pm
After receiving a standing ovation for his presentation at Brevard College last Thursday evening, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Jon Meacham answered questions from the audience for half an hour. The following is a summary of the questions and Meacham's answers.
Q: Nicole Wallace said the Republican Party died when Donald Trump was nominated as the party's presidential candidate.
Where is the Republican Party of Jacob Javits and others like him?
A: "They're in some heavenly mansion with the Whigs," said Meacham.
Meacham said it could have been when Barry Goldwater defeated Nelson Rockefeller for the 1964 nomination or when Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1966 and immediately ran for president in 1968 that the liberal/moderate branch of the Republican Party became insignificant.
He said he believes the conservative shift began with Goldwater's nomination in 1964 but that the conservative wing took control in 1980.
He said that as recently in 1976 the Republican Party platform included support of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1980 it did not include support for the ERA.
He said to talk about President Trump as the fullest expression of some Republican journey is "not quite right."
"He's not really a Republican," said Meacham of Trump.
He said one of the most interesting things about the 2016 election is that "the two most compelling figures in both primary fields – one was not a Republican, Donald Trump, and Sen. Sanders is not a Democrat."
"The establishment of both parties is under a fundamental siege," said Meacham.
Q: John McCain, after returning from his recent surgery, scolded the Senate for its partisan bickering. How can the country move forward?
A: Meacham said that St. Augustine wrote that a nation is "a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of their love."
"I think the sad truth is we don't love enough in common right now," said Meacham.
"Is our political system a cause or an effect of that?" he asked. "I think the rising tribal nature of politics is the scariest thing."
He said there is very little mixing among the races and among income groups.
"In the absence of a shared military experience, in the absence of a broadly shared public education experience, in the absence of economically diverse people encountering each other in a socially profitable way where they form bonds one to another, then it's very easy for tribes to form and for those tribes to watch out for their interests at the expense and interests of someone else," he said.
Meacham said "The Founders saw this coming" and that they were more worried about the majority making hasty decisions than trying to find the common interest.
He said the answer is a "sustained attempt to emphasize what we have in common."
Meacham said that if he were running for office today, he would constantly emphasize three things and "make the case that what's good for you is also good for me."
Q: What is Meacham's perspective of speakers being harassed or not given any opportunity to speak on college campuses?
A: He said people can disagree but they need to listen to each other.
"It's not good for me to only hear things with which I agree," he said. "It doesn't sharpen my arguments. It doesn't make me test my assumptions. It doesn't enable me to reach out politically, and when you reach out politically, you might get an ally out of that and may end up getting more of what you want.
"If we treat dissenting views as toxic, then we're really not living into the spirit of what the Constitution was supposed to do."
He said he understands why people may not want to hear from "provocative people who are totally speaking from horrible traditions of discrimination and darkness. I do think there is a line to be drawn there. Not all dissenting views are equally valid."
He said there are some provocative speakers who people should listen to, but
"There are some people who are beyond the pale, and I think we should be intellectually honest enough to say that."
Q: During his presentation, Meacham recalled a family from the Midwest who had come to visit Trump Tower.
Would that family have let their young child watch the Republican debates when Trump started talking about his privates?
What does that say about us as an electorate?
A: Meacham said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan had a "famous phrase" that we are "forevermore defining deviancy down."
"There is a coarseness to the common culture," he said.
As a parent of children who are 9, 13 and 15, Meacham said, "I just skip over it."
"There is a backlash, a very real one, against what I think is incorrectly called 'political correctness,'" said Meacham. "I think there is something about the base of the president's supporters that wants to hear someone say provocative things, even though they wouldn't say them themselves or they wouldn't want to have to explain them to their kids."
He said part of what happened in 2016 is that Hilary Clinton "seemed overly-scripted" and Trump "was not scripted at all."
He also said the electorate was more interested in being entertained than being educated.
Q: Given the temperament of Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, what did Meacham think about the current situation?
A: Meacham recalled a comment from a former Clinton administrator who said the White House Press Corps is like an 8-year-old soccer team because they chase the ball all at once.
He explained that the first three questions last Tuesday at the White House press briefing were about NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. And the fourth was "by the way, what about Armageddon?"
He said the big question is if the North Koreans are "rational actors? That is, do they believe in the survival of their power more than a demonstration of it that would lead to ultimate destruction. That's the calculus here."
He said foreign policy experts would say that the last thing to do with someone who might not be a rational actor is to attack his pride.
Meacham said that from a historical perspective it is amazing that "the nuclear club is as small as it is."
He said another question that should be answered is "What does North Korea want?"
He said there does not seem to be much of a strategy except to "talk it to death," but he quoted Churchill who said, "it is better to jaw jaw than to war war."
He said China also plays an important role and the Chinese have to figure out if they want 500,000 North Korean refugees coming across their border.
'I don't think they do," he said.
Q: Has Meacham considered writing about a great American woman?
A: He said he is writing about Dolly Madison right now and that she was the most important woman in political life for 25 years.
He called her the architect of our political culture. She was the leading woman in Washington from 1801-1817.
"Without her drawing rooms, lawmakers would not have talked to lawmakers," said Meacham.
Q: One of the most disturbing aspects of the 2016 election was the percentage of people who did not vote. Why did they not vote and what needs to change to 2018 or 2020?
A: "I think that people feel it's all rigged," he said.
But he added that if people are so disenchanted that even having the most unconventional candidate could not bring them to the polls, "I don't know what's going to get you out there."
"I think it's about education, broad civic education," Meacham said. "I understand why people think it's all a rigged system. I get that. So, you have to make the counter case."
He said if people want to shape the way they receive health care, or how and why companies decided to move to different states, they have to participate.
Q: In North Carolina, the raw vote is close to 50-50, but Republicans have nine representatives and four Democrats in Congress. It does not seem as if each vote is then equal. Does the system need to be tweaked?
A: "Absolutely. The problem with political reform is it requires incumbents to make reforms of a system that had the wisdom to create them," said Meacham.
"I do think we have to look at these issues of equity," he said. "But I think that sometimes progressives spend a little more effort on process than on trying to win the game as the rules are."
"The Right has been more effective in winning elections, particularly in the last eight to 12 years, than Democrats have," he said.
Meacham said that Trump is certainly the dominant figure today and will continue to be.
"But it's also important that we shouldn't over read what happened last year," said Meacham. "He didn't win the popular vote. A few precincts, a few shifts here and there in some critical states and we're talking about Hillary Clinton's trip to North Korea or whatever it is."
He said history is a diagnostic guide, that every case is specific but if certain symptoms recur, then people can have an idea of where events are headed.
"It also should give us a sense of perspective on these things," he said. "Fort Sumter was pretty bad. The rise of the Klan during Reconstruction was pretty bad.
"We have gotten through these moments before, and we have done it, by and large, with people of good will showing up, trying to do the right thing, more often than people who do the wrong thing show up to do theirs."
Meacham concluded, "We're never going to get to 70 percent great, 30 percent bad. I think if we can get to 55-45 we're way ahead of the game.
"It's just the nature of history is the nature of a fallen world. So the better angels are out there. We have to listen for them. We have to let them take their stand and work as hard as possible, day by day, person by person, precinct by precinct. That's the way change really, really happens."