AFP recently interviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Presidential historian and best-selling author, about the upcoming Presidential election. Kearns Goodwin is one of the panelists who will open the AFP Annual Conference in October in a session titled, “Making Sense of the Global Chaos.”
[Ed. note: This conversation has been edited for clarity.]
AFP: How unique is this Presidential election?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think it is pretty unique. I mean there’s a precedent for the fear and the anxiety that I think has fueled the Donald Trump campaign. In the turn of the 20th century, when you had the Industrial Revolution having really changed the economy and much of the technological revolution and globalization we have today, you had people who are moving from farms to cities. We had lots of immigrants coming in. You had a taste of life having that setup. People really felt anxious and that led to populist demagoguery at the turn of the 20th century.
Luckily, eventually Theodore Roosevelt was able to channel a lot of that into positive laws, breaking up some of the big companies that’s regulating the railroads and driving some help for women and children in factories with food and drug legislations. So I think that is a precedent.
The reason that Trump could only have occurred I think in a system that combines primaries having become important, more important than the party leaders and the media being the father of the media in some ways. And 1912 was the first presidential primary essentially because Teddy Roosevelt decided to run against Taft, and he knew that Taft had the party delegates as precedents so he needed to get the popular support from the primaries. So he had a crusade, let the people rule, and they created about 11 primaries - it’s the first time ever - and he wins most of those and wins with a lot of votes.
So it’s fun because the election was so ruckus while Taft and Teddy went against each other calling each other names. There were people with guns and people hitting each other over the heads. Then finally the New York Times had an editorial saying, if this the first presidential primary for the nomination, we sincerely hope it’s the last. This is not a rational system. People overseas must be looking at us. We must blush. Let’s go back to the old convention system. That was reasonable. This is a mob.
Anyway, so then the primaries fell out of fashion in the Depression and the two World Wars started coming back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then in ‘68 when Humphrey won the nomination without having entered a single primary, this McCarthy and Bobby against each other, that’s when the riots took place on the streets and then they decided we have to open up the system more to the people in the primaries. And then every year, you get more and more primaries and caucuses to the point where this year, even if the party leaders had wanted to do otherwise with Trump, they’ve lost the power that they once had for that.
AFP: Who does Trump compare to in the American political history? The closest I can come up with, and it’s definitely not a perfect comparison, is [millionaire-turned-U.S. Senator} Mark Hanna. Does he compare to anybody at all?
Kearns Goodwin: I don’t really think so. Mark Hanna, you’re right, he was a businessman. He raised tons of money for McKinley was his name, a campaign manager and then eventually became a senator. And potentially, had he not died, he might have run for president in 1904. But he got a long history. It’s not as an elected official. It’s being involved in politics as the campaign manager for McKinley.
The only other person who ran for president, Wendell Willkie, as a businessman who had not really had political experience or military experience, he was actually a very decent man. They were lucky that he was Roosevelt’s opponent in 1940 because he was not an isolationist, so it helped in those months before we got into the Pearl Harbor situation.
But to have somebody win the nomination with no political experience and no military experience and really mainly a media person -- I mean, Reagan had eight years as governor of California. So that’s a huge difference. I mean, when you think about the campaign and the enormous exposure that Trump got - he could call in any show during the primaries when he wanted to. He doesn’t have to go and sit there which everyone else did, they just put his picture up and let him talk. The media gave him an enormous platform, and his own money gave him the platform. I don’t think that has really happened before.
AFP: Are we in political “end times,” or is it just kind of this is just how things work and things will kind of self-correct and in 2020 we will be back to a more sedate/serene kind of campaign?
Kearns Goodwin: I don’t know. I mean I think I would never bet against America, and I think the past is up. It may well be overblown that we’ve just gone down a rabbit hole and we’re never going to get out of it. I think what is true is that that group of people that are supporting Trump, you know, that had been hurt by the global revolution or loss of manufacturing and who care about trade, something has to address their concern about jobs and their concern about careers that had gone away.
Because they will still be out there, the concerns about it, and the relationship that people are feeling. But the political system should be able to deal with real problems. It hasn’t done it very well in this last, you know. We’ve dealt with some problems, but it seems like obviously Congress has been unable to deal with many of these problems. But I don’t know. I just have a feeling that I don’t think this is the beginning of the end. I surely don’t.Read the expanded version of this interview in an upcoming edition of Exchange.