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Book Review: America Has Been Here Before

  • The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

  • YOUNGSTOWN, PA-NOV 02: A home in Youngstown, Pa., featuring a huge cut-out of Donald Trump draws visitors in the days before the 2016 election. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

  • Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America



The Washington Post
Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

By Jon Meacham

Random House; 402 pages; $30

Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America

By James Fallows and Deborah Fallows

Pantheon; 432 pages; $28.95

The horror with which many citizens regard the Trump presidency is premised, in part, on the notion that its challenges are unprecedented and its morality antithetical to long-standing national values. So “normalizing” President Trump has become a mortal sin, and “that’s not who we are” a rallying cry for those who view today’s anti-democratic and nativist compulsions as aberrations along that long arc toward justice.

Except this is normal. And it is who we are.

Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America, though it intends to uplift, nonetheless offers a necessary and sobering corrective. America’s past is “more often tragic” than otherwise, the historian writes, “full of broken hearts and broken promises, disappointed hopes and dreams delayed.” In times of fear, our leaders “can be as often disappointing as they are heroic.” And if the soul of America is found in those attempts to expand the space for more people to live freely and pursue happiness, Meacham also points to a “universal American inconsistency” — even as we uphold life and liberty for some, we hold back others deemed unworthy.

Slavery, the Klan, Jim Crow, the Klan again. Internment of Japanese Americans. Gender discrimination and scientific racism. McCarthyism. George Wallace. All leading to a president whom Meacham considers “an heir to the white populist tradition,” a leader eager to undermine the law, the truth and “the sense of hope essential to American life.”

Trump is normal in that he embodies recurring maladies of American public life; perhaps the main anomaly is that he brings so many of them together. Such historical awareness can comfort, especially if you believe, as Meacham does, that every generation considers itself under siege and that, with the right leadership, Americans usually find a way forward rather than back.

“The good news is that we have come through such darkness before,” he writes. “All has seemed lost before, only to give way, after decades of gloom, to light.”

Of course, if you’re living in the gloom, awareness of historical patterns bestows limited consolation. It might, however, inject small doses of those qualities that latter-day resistance requires: Inspiration. Patience. Even humility.

Counterpoints and parallels to Trump abound throughout history and throughout The Soul of America, too. It’s no surprise that Meacham, a biographer of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and George H.W. Bush, focuses on the White House. “The most consequential of our past presidents have unified and inspired with conscious dignity and conscientious efficiency,” he writes, citing qualities that do not immediately evoke the 45th commander in chief.

Yet even the exemplars are imperfect. Woodrow Wilson, who signed women’s suffrage into law, also resegregated the federal workforce, suppressed free speech and screened The Birth of a Nation in the White House. Franklin Roosevelt, who saved the country from the Great Depression, also sought to pack the Supreme Court and, more damning, detained Americans for no other cause than their Japanese ancestry.

“A tragic element of history is that every advance must contend with forces of reaction,” Meacham writes.

Trump-like figures are most evident among the latter forces. It is difficult to read Meacham’s descriptions of politicians such as President Andrew Johnson, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Gov. George Wallace and not feel the current president looming.

McCarthy, stoking the Red Scare of the early 1950s, emerged as “a master of false charges, of conspiracy-tinged rhetoric, and of calculated disrespect for conventional figures. ... McCarthy could distract the public, play the press, and change the subject — all while keeping himself at center stage.” Wallace, who called for segregation now, tomorrow and forever, “brought something intriguing to the modern politics of fear in America: a visceral connection to his crowds, an appeal that confounded elites but which gave him a durable base.” And don’t forget Georgia Gov. Clifford Walker, who at a 1924 Klan convention urged America to “build a wall of steel, a wall as high as Heaven, against the admission of a single one of those Southern Europeans who never thought the thoughts or spoke the language of a democracy in their lives.” (No word on whether Italy would pay for it.)

For all his emphasis on elected leaders, however, Meacham argues that “what counts is not just the character of the individual at the top, but the character of the country.” Here, the American soul proves expansive and malleable, sometimes dangerously so. When industrial upheaval and urbanization upended rural life, Meacham recalls, the Ku Klux Klan promised “racial solidarity and cultural certitude” — an apt summation of white nationalists’ appeal a century later. In the 1920s, Klansmen held 11 governorships and 16 U.S. Senate seats, while more than 300 delegates at the 1924 Democratic National Convention were Klan members.

The opposition of the press “had the perverse effect of boosting the Klan rather than undercutting it,” Meacham notes. “Hostility from the journalists of the East convinced a number of middle Americans that a cause under such assault must have something to recommend it.” The elite news media as the enemy of real America is hardly just a Trumpian conceit.

Resistance is normal, too. “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive,” Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams in 1787. Meacham dwells on the prophetic power of Martin Luther King Jr., who upon launching the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 declared that black Americans were simply seeking to live out American citizenship “to the fullness of its meaning.” A decade later, King would marvel that it took a white Southerner, Lyndon Johnson, to help fulfill that vision. Progress in America, Meacham explains, “comes when the whispered hopes of those outside the mainstream rise in volume to reach the ears and hearts and minds of the powerful.”

Today, those whispered hopes seem raised in anger and jeers, but in Our Towns, James and Deborah Fallows find and heed different voices. Self-consciously invoking past literary road trips by John Steinbeck and Alexis de Tocqueville, the husband-and-wife writers roam the United States in a single-engine propeller airplane for 100,000 miles, visiting dozens of small towns and cities from 2012 to 2017 to take a “fresh look at the country, its disappointments and its possibilities.”

Sioux Falls, S.D. Holland, Mich. Greenville, S.C. Allentown, Pa. Fresno, Calif. Columbus, Ohio. Dodge City, Kan. Many of the communities they explore went for Trump in 2016, “but when we visited, none of them displayed the seething fury described by the media during that campaign.” Instead, the authors gaze lovingly upon recurring signs of civic and urban revival: riverwalks and bike paths, research universities and innovative high schools, renovated downtowns with relocated corporate headquarters. If your town has an artist-in-residence program and an over-the-top slogan (“Fresno? It’s Fres-yes!!”), chances are Team Fallows landed on a nearby airstrip and hit the local craft brewery.

“We were interested in places that had faced adversity of some sort, from crop failure to job loss to political crisis, and had looked for ways to respond,” James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, explains early on. (Rather than meld into a single voice, the authors alternate their impressions.) Often the local misfortune involved the departure of a dominant industry — textile factories or a truck-manufacturing giant — that compounded long-term economic stresses.

The agents of recovery grow familiar the longer one lingers in Our Towns: young, creative types who move to the area from bigger cities or return to launch start-ups; local officials and business leaders striking public-private partnerships (the authors adore public-private partnerships); and an overarching “local patriotism” and “density of social capital” that they conclude instill pride and spur entrepreneurialism.

But there is a boosterish vibe running through this book that mars its analytic efforts. It may be the confirmation bias that results when you purposely seek out towns with great turnaround stories that can form a broader national narrative, or simply the perils of interviewing so many people who get paid to promote their cities. When an official with the chamber of commerce in Greenville raves about “the momentum, the acceleration ... the potential” of the area, he then adds, “But, of course, I’m from the chamber of commerce, so you’d expect me to say that!” Precisely.

Deborah Fallows, a linguist, has a keen eye and ear for local customs and subcultures across the country, finding them everywhere from community pools to public libraries. (Her discussion of the most common question she hears in different places — “Where do you go to church?” “Where did you go to high school?” — is a delight.)

But more than Democracy in America, the book that comes to mind when reading Our Towns is Richard Florida’s 2002 best-seller, The Rise of the Creative Class, which extolled the power of high-tech workers and artists to transform post-industrial America. Fifteen years later, Florida basically apologized in his book The New Urban Crisis, noting that he failed to anticipate how regional growth hubs could also deepen economic inequality and exclusion.

Regardless of the economic merits of Our Towns, the authors’ political insights are instructive. Again and again, they emphasize how different the conversations occurring throughout the country sound compared with Washington squabbles.

“When we asked people what was on their minds, we’d hear about schools or drugs or downtown-redevelopment projects or new companies that might come to town,” James Fallows recalls. “Virtually never did anyone volunteer the staple themes from national politics — Do we trust the media? Which party do we dislike more? — that came to dominate so much of the national news.”

It’s an encouraging thought, that local unity can bypass national dissension. But the two can coalesce in unexpected and insidious ways.

James Fallows notes that “individuals and communities in smaller-town America can be acutely aware of being condescended to by big-city fashionable America. That awareness ... plays a part in their efforts at turnaround.” But that awareness can also play easily into the hands of a populist, fearmongering politician who encourages local resentment to build national support for a platform of prejudice and scapegoating — especially if the turnaround is long in coming.

Both Our Towns and The Soul of America mean to encourage in discouraging times.

James and Deborah Fallows acknowledge that polarization is real but that it offers only a partial picture. “What is true of the country as a whole at any given time is misleading about many of its people,” they decide.

Meacham tells us we’ve been here before and can find our way out, urging readers to enter the arena, avoid tribalism, respect facts and listen to history. “For all of our darker impulses,” he concludes, “for all of our shortcomings ... the experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight.”

After reading these journeys across time and geography, I would offer but one amendment: The American experiment is not just worth the fight — it is the fight. With passion always strained, the pursuit of prosperity, freedom and belonging is an endless battle, an enterprise in equal measures exhausting and exhilarating.