“It’s not that there haven’t been deceptive presidents or sneaky campaigns or nefarious duplicity and deception in American history,” historian Jill Lepore told me. “But the sort of systematic, epistemological crisis that we’re in now—there really isn’t anything like it.”
Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard, staff writer at The New Yorker, and author of several books, was explaining how, with the rise of 48 million fake accounts on Twitter and the development of fake news, we live in an unprecedented time in terms of the stability of our democracy. Lepore has been analyzing and interpreting history for decades, and her most recent book—These Truths: A History of the United States—is a comprehensive and insightful political history of America.
Lepore did not mince words, calling Trump’s presidency a “failure”—saying that considered in the context of U.S. presidencies, his has demonstrated a “staggering level of misconduct”—and, more than once, referring to our current political moment as “standing on the edge of a cliff.”
I spoke to Lepore about how she sees our current moment in the context of history, how our country became so polarized, and why she sees Phyllis Schlafly as one of the most “underappreciated” women in the conservative movement, and other current issues.
Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
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Hope Reese: You write about how the U.S. began as a political experiment. Can you explain what you mean by that? What are the ways that we can measure the experiment? And how has it turned out?
Jill Lepore: The men who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution understood the founding of the United States as an experiment in the 18th century, in the “Enlightenment” sense of empiricism. They understood all past states and nations and republics and empires as a sort of experimental record that they ought to learn from. And when they set about drafting of the Constitution, Madison, in particular, famously made this long list of advice from previous republics.
So they write about the founding of the country as a political experiment—and there is a great sense of fragility in that experiment. The outcome is not assured. No one really knows how it’s going to work out.
That language derives almost in a vestigial sense. One of the things that I [write about is that we should] think about the degree to which we actually need to be attentive to the outcome and constantly customize it and tinker with the state of affairs so that the experiment goes well. I guess your question is, “Are the results in yet?”
So—yes and no. The experiment goes on. The results so far are kind of mixed.
In our current political moment, there’s a lot of talk about threats to American democracy—in the form of Russian interference, fake news on social media, etc. When you look at our history, what do you think about our current moment?
The particular way in which it’s in peril at the moment is [that] this is not simply some American phenomenon—[it’s happening in] democracies all over the world. We’re experiencing incredible disequilibrium. This global rise of right-wing populism. Forms of authoritarianism on the rise. It’s neither a uniquely American situation nor a unique historical moment. There has also never been this kind of moment before. I think the strategy to get us past this particular crisis is a little harder to see and to pursue right now. A lot of people want to say, “Oh, this is a lot like the 1850s” because of the rigid partisan divide and constant threat of overt violence between two parties.
I don’t see that at all. To think about the 1850s as a similar time is to set aside enslaved people as political actors. When people think about the Southern states and Northern states, or the Democrats against the Republicans, they’re really failing to understand, in a holistic way, the degree to which enslaved people work in American political history like a political party.
They also kind of critique the existing political arrangements and their constant struggle for emancipation. So, we’re not in that place. But we are in a place that is a bit similar to the 1930s, especially with the falling of democratic regimes around the world.
People think about the long 19th century as witnessing the expansion of the liberal state and the rule of law, open markets, democratic governments around the world—and that goes well into the 20th century. It is only in the last few decades that those democratic states have begun to fall. In the 1930s, the first time that happened, people saw that the liberal states seemed so imperiled.
These alarmist books came out, like When Democracies Die, and How Liberalism has Perished. There are analogous volumes throughout the 1930s. But there are real differences between our day and the 1930s too. So that’s the time that seems most similar to me, although it’s quite different.
So we’re clearly living in a very polarized time. How that has evolved over the decades? You’ve mentioned how that polarization has been “built by political consultants” in the late 20th century. Can you expand on that idea?
If you think about the dislocations of post-1968, there’s a lot of movement within the parties and between the parties because of the deferment of Civil Rights and the Anti-War Movement and the Women’s Movement. There’s just incredible political ferment after ‘68. There’s a kind of competition for constituencies between the two parties and there are specific decisions made. There’s a sort of Nixon-Republican law and order, the Southern strategy—like, we’re going to try and get Southern Conservative Democrats, which is a huge factor in making the Republican Party more conservative. And there’s the Democratic Party’s decision to actually seek the sort of women who began fleeing the Republican Party because of the issues involving women’s rights by the late 1970s. So there is a whole re-sorting that goes on.
But there’s also a lot of election-by-election campaigns that are waged by campaign managers, political consulting firms. They’re trying to get people out to vote—and to vote loyally by party—by calling on parties that are ideologically consistent, which they’re not. But those campaigns are making them ideologically homogeneous, and the thing that political consultants come to see that’s most effective at getting people out to vote are highly emotionally charged issues that become more emotionally charged the more they are used.
And it is chiefly the guns-abortions dyad, right? They both cast reference thinking, the worst-case scenario—where there is shorthand about how we talk about those issues in the 1970s, 1980s, and right up to the 1990s. You know, on the part of the right, guns are freedom and abortion is murder. On the left, abortion is freedom and guns are murder. These seem like cartoonish things to say, but this is actually the rhetoric. Both of those things are constitutionally vulnerable. That is to say: The freedom of women to make these kinds of choices is indeed constitutionally vulnerable and remains so, and the claim that the Second Amendment can be understood the way that the N.R.A. decides to understand it by the 1970s is also constitutionally vulnerable.
So it is the intensity of the way constitutionalism affects our politics too. It just works very well to align, to do that sorting and reshuffling of the parties and also, getting people ready to carry campaign signs in the streets about these things—because they are all life or death issues. Suddenly these matters, where there were political disagreements, have an all-or-nothing feel to them.
There could be no compromise because this is life and death. And even in little states and in municipal elections, this is where everything just ratchets up, people’s experience of the political process and the parties have moved on to different things and have different political settlements around these issues––but before that could happen, those divides were automated because of the personal computer revolution and the internet and most recently, most especially, because of social media. It’s really those divides—which are attached to a whole bunch of other things, like anti-immigration sentiment—that now make it very difficult to break that machine.
You say that in writing history, there’s a lot of bias that can seep in—especially when it comes to including women. Can you talk about some of the most interesting or important people you came across doing your book that we have overlooked in history?
This book is different from the majority of U.S. history sweeping narratives, and from different textbooks, in that there are individual women I pay attention to because they allegorically represent a larger constituency. They explain some change. But, then there’s just a broader sense of how women as a constituency affect the American political style.
In terms of an individual woman, what you normally see is that women are really only allowed to make an appearance in American history textbooks if they are individual women fighting for women’s rights. So we get a cameo of Elizabeth Cady-Stanton and then another one of Gloria Steinem. There might be an appearance by Sojourner Truth. They kind of come on to the stage, they curtsy, and they leave the stage. That’s sort of the space they’re allowed to take up. That is an incredibly deficient account.
So there are women who I tried to add into my storytelling because they really made a difference. Someone like Pauli Murray, the incredibly brilliant 20th century civil rights legal scholar and activist. Someone like Maria Stuart who was a black evolutionist. First woman to speak before a mixed audience of men and women in the United States who was an evangelical and who is a good stand-in for a large number of black women and black men who became Evangelical Christians during the Second Great Awakening. They used their Evangelical Christianity to demand the full promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence.
Taking the political equality of that document and ratcheting up its promise to serve the status of equality of all people, men and women, black and white, that is the equality of Christian doctrine. So I spend a lot of time on someone like Maria Stuart or Pauli Murray. I also spend a lot of time on Phyllis Schlafly, the great conservative, a kind of battlefield general. I really think that Schlafly is completely underappreciated by modern conservatives as essentially the founder of the modern conservative movement. I think that conservatives are very happy to talk about William F. Buckley, or there’s a sort of series of eminent forbearers, but they sort of set Schlafly aside.
She’s really a force of nature and I think really did stop the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and the 1980s. Incredibly effective, an important political organizer—and constantly underestimated. I think one of the larger trends that I’m trying to illustrate is that if you stop and think about women—and women are destroyed before we get to the founding of the United States, but from that moment until 1920—women don’t have the right to vote, yet they want to participate politically. So what women do, for more than a century and a half when they are citizens but not voters, is they perfect a political style called the “moral crusade.”
They enter American politics by pleading; they cannot vote, but they can petition. They can march. They cannot vote, but they can preach. And what they do is they increasingly rely on the 19th century idea that women are morally superior to men and they say you should do what we say, which is: abolish slavery, pass laws to prevent men from beating their wives, pass laws to make it possible for married women to own property, pass laws to give us the vote because these are morally the right things to do and we know that.
I call it the female political style. Women don’t want to engage in moral crusades, but that’s the only way that they can affect political change because they cannot vote. They have to persuade legislators or they have to persuade men to vote a certain way. So that whole model of the moral crusade by the 20th century is just part of the American political toolkit and it really becomes the go-to campaign tactic of conservatives. Schlafly’s STOP ERA movement was a moral crusade. Pro-life is a moral crusade. McCarthyism is a moral crusade. It’s a really interesting and important legacy of women having been excluded from the franchise for so many long years.
You write about developments in technology—specifically, how we now have 48 million fake accounts on Twitter, and the development of fake news. Where does that stand in the context of history? Are our fears valid about these developments posing a threat to our democracy?
I do think those changes really are a threat to self-government anywhere, or really any form of government. Our system of government relies on an informed electorate making reasonable choices that are informed by scrutiny of the world, and we have a very hard time doing that, each of us. It’s not that there haven’t been deceptive presidents or sneaky campaigns or nefarious duplicity and deception in American history. But the sort of systematic, epistemological crisis that we’re in now, there really isn’t anything like it.
The term fake news comes from the 1930s, because the Nazis had all this propaganda artillery. The machinery of short wave and long wave radio broadcasting, was making these fake news reports. The breaking news, “reporting from London, Edward R. Murrow”—that’s a 1930s creation, and it really changed journalism. The people would report on the scene and you’d hear the ambient noise of the street—it’s just all this immediacy and it was coming from your kitchen, your living room, hearing someone reporting from London or from Munich, a bombing or something. It adds this incredible immediacy to it and the Nazi propaganda ministry decided we could just do this, we could just fake one that will be about a worldwide Jewish conspiracy or about how the French have actually given up and decided that they prefer to align with Germany than with England.
They would just produce completely fake news reports that had all the accoutrements of an actual breaking news report and there was a way, though, to defeat that. Newspapers just decided to call that fake news and this is when Orson Wells produced his War of the Worlds broadcast to warn people that you can’t actually just believe what you hear on the radio––you need to think about it with some kind of criticism.
The Day After (1983) was this very dramatic thing. It contributed to the end of the Cold War, in some kind of significant way.
It’s partly because Reagan was such a TV guy, people knew what would happen objectively if these bombs were in fact used, but seeing it on TV brought a lot of people who were not, say, part of the nuclear freeze movement, to pressure the government to come up with arms talk. There are a lot of other reasons the Soviet Union collapsed, but in terms of the proposed end, and the nuclear arms buildup, it was a real interesting thing.
The founders intended to create three equal branches of government, and there have been times in history where one branch will have more power than another, but what does the balance of power look like now?
Well, the federal government has more power than they’ve ever had before. There’s not an up-and-down to the history of the federal government; the federal government does in fact just keep getting bigger. And there’s also, I think, lately a new national political culture because of the loss of local newspaper coverage. Just to say, political culture has become nationalized because it’s such a loss of the local. With regard to the relative power of the three branches of government, the power of the executive has been growing since Woodrow Wilson. The party out of power keeps complaining about the growth of executive power, but then once they gain the White House, they expand executive power.
The thing that’s most out of whack right now is actually the Supreme Court. The degree to which the Supreme Court is answerable to public opinion—which is not part of the original plan. The Supreme Court, given the current amount of scrutiny and the public charade of the enormous amount of money that goes behind supporting or opposing Supreme Court nominees, is a de facto elected office—and that is completely in violation of the original framing of the Constitution.
What about the role of wealth in our democracy? Clearly, money has always granted some people more power than others, but what does it look like today? How has that evolved?
The wealthy do have the most political power; it’s something political scientists have quantified. There’s a great book called Affluence and Influence that chronicles this in a very detailed way. What’s distinctive about our moment, which is sometimes called a Second Gilded Age, is that we, in the first Gilded Age, when plutocrats had a huge influence on American politics, a generation of progressive reformers shrank their influence through legislative reform—through, first, campaign finance legislation; through the institution of direct primaries; through any number of measures that were designed to halt the influence of the wealthy and to diminish the influence of political machines, which were notoriously corrupt.
What replaced the political machine and the “Boss” Tweed in the 19th century was a political consultant. Political consultants began in the 1930s and there has never been a reform movement to halt the influence of political consultants in the huge polling industry. And of all the money that goes from the hands of the wealthy into the hands of candidates, most of it is being siphoned through campaign advisors in this vast army of people who are making money off of upsetting people about elections.
And one of the great failures of this progressive movement of our era is that democrats haven’t delivered any of these reforms. And, you can say they don’t have the legislative power to do so, but the great difference between that golden age and this one is the failure of the modern progressive.
I know you had intended to close your book with the inauguration of Obama, and then realized the 2016 election was really critical. As a historian, it’s difficult for you to make predictions, but how do you think that historians will look back at this election in 50 years?
It’s plainly a realigning election. I mean, we can see from here that the huge story of that election is technological change. As to what it realigns us to, or whether the craziness of an unregulated social media contributed, that really is unknowable. I mean, one of the things that were hard in writing the last section of the book is that I had to add those seven years that I hadn’t planned to chronicle. It’s very hard to get historical distance on anything in the last seven years. I mean, think about just the first two years, or year and a half, of what was Trump’s first term. Just think about how disorienting day-to-day news is. I mean, especially the first few months, right? Where the people were like, “Okay, he just said this. Okay, this has never happened.”
It feels like someone’s holding your hand and bringing you to the edge of the cliff and saying, “Okay, oh my God. We’re on the edge of this cliff. We’re on the edge of this cliff!”
And then, the next day you wake up and you’re not on the edge of the cliff, and they come back and they take you to a different cliff. Look, we’re on the edge of this, and actually, it’s very hard to get your bearings. And so I was trying to write this account. I was trying to make sense of that election that every minute everybody was reinterpreting.
It was pretty hard to do. There’ll be a long time until we have a proper vantage point on the election. I think a lot of attempts to make sense of the election would have been better spent thinking about the next election instead of re-imagining the last one. That’s, of course, always the case.
But if you want to make the better future, it’s hard to do just from standing in the prison.
You wrote a piece in The New Yorker about a group of historians and researchers who wrote up a file on Richard Nixon’s misconduct, and where he stood in context of other presidents. And you wrote that some of these historians, if they were to consider where Trump stands, in terms of misdeeds, would put him in another category altogether. Can you talk about that a bit more?
It was so cool to come across that book. There were 15 people who worked on the project and I think eight of them were still alive. The oldest of them is 96, a couple of guys are in their 80s. These are distinguished American political historians who, in 1974, were hired by the Watergate Commission to a file a report on every instance of presidential misconduct. In every presidency. They wrote this report and it was too late for anybody to use it, because Nixon resigned. I called them up because I wanted to hear the story about how they did this; what it was like working on their project. But I also asked each of them some version of the question: Given how you assess the history of presidential misconduct, how do you rate Trump? Some people were more hesitant or didn’t answer that question squarely, or people took a cautious approach.
But a number of them said: “It takes a lot to make Richard Nixon look good.” But, Trump has managed to do that in their eyes. Nixon was a very smart politician and understood constitutional limits. He had an argument to make about how he thought the executive went above certain of those restraints and he was wrong about that, but he performed well as a president in some realms; people would say in foreign policy. Trump’s presidency is a failure by so many different measures.
[Let’s] set aside the things Trump has been charged with, or things that have been alleged about Trump, just looking at the things that Trump has said and done. Defaming racial groups, defaming religious groups. Just, the things that he has done openly, gleefully, cruelly, without consequence. We’re at a staggering level of misconduct in that way.
Do you have faith in our democratic process? That if things get to a breaking point we’ll be able to bounce back?
There are a lot of specific institutions that I have a lot of faith in. That doesn’t necessarily leave me with a lot of optimism about the moment, partly because of what I said about the automation, the polarization––that’s very difficult to escape. I think we live in an age of tremendous political intolerance. I think we live in an age where people don’t understand the nature of our political institutions.
I don’t think it’s great that we have made Supreme Court Justices all but elected to the office. That’s actually quite terrible for the pursuit of justice. But, you don’t even hear people talk about that. It’s just, “who’s gonna win the battle?”
That really, really concerns me. Because it’s a symptom of the way people want to win by any means necessary. Because we’ve been given this kind of rhetoric of life or death, we’re on the edge of a cliff. It’s very hard for people to operate as a civic community interested in the public good in that kind of a climate.
We all have contributed to the making of this climate, but I hope this is climate that can still change.