Democracy & Government

Historian Julian Zelizer on the Unprecedented Trump-Clinton Campaign

A writer about American culture reflects on Donald Trump and what his rise says about the state of American politics.

Historian Julian Zelizer on the [...]

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump greet the audience at the end of the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on Sept. 26. (Photo by Joe Raedle /AFP/Getty Images)

Julian Zelizer studies America’s past, but he plays a big role in its present. A professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, Zelizer is a frequent commentator and guest on the media and writes a weekly column for CNN.com. He is the author of numerous books about American politicians and the American political system, including studies of the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and, most recently, Lyndon Johnson. Recently, he stopped by the offices of BillMoyers.com for a conversation about this year’s presidential campaign. The transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

 


 

Kathy Kiely: So, has there ever been a campaign like this in American history?

Julian Zelizer: No. Usually when I’m asked that as a historian, I can think of something that was pretty much like the campaign that’s taking place, or closely resembles it. In general, this is pretty distinct — obviously as a result of Donald Trump. I think there’s elements of it that we’ve seen in different ways in the past. In 1968, the third-party candidate was somebody named George Wallace, who was the governor of Alabama, and he appealed to white Democrats to join him, through similar appeals based on race — rather than issues of immigration, for example — that we’ve seen emerge again with Donald Trump in this conservative, populist rhetoric that has been very central to his campaign.

In 1964, you saw Republican Barry Goldwater, who wasn’t considered to really be integral to the party at that point, who was far off-center, and was someone who was going to inevitably lose, in the mind of many Republicans — and so there’s an element of that going on today. But it’s very peculiar mix, given his own background professionally, given the media environment in which he’s really thrived, and given his own style, his own political style, which is really quite different than, I think, anything we’ve seen in mainstream, in the two big parties.

Julian Zelizer

Professor Julian Zelizer (Photo: Princeton University)

Kathy Kiely: Let’s unpack what you’ve said, because you’ve said a lot. One, let’s start with what we’d call the “dog whistle” appeals on issues of race, immigration — class, too. We’ve seen that before, as you’ve said, in American politics — and even, we could go back to the Know-Nothing Party. Why does that keep happening in US — why can we not slay that demon?

Julian Zelizer: Well, there are many social divisions that are deeply embedded in American political culture. Race is one of them. Ongoing nativist sentiment is another. And these are issues that, even with a lot of progress that we have made, remain pretty popular with parts of the electorate.

Part of it is just historical — it’s actually part of American culture at this point, even though we don’t want to admit it. And part of it is a political creation, meaning it’s often employed by politicians as a way to appeal to constituencies, often targeting people who are angry or frustrated about something else, and this becomes an easy way to try and win them over. But it’s very old, and again, people watch Donald Trump and then hear him talk about the wall, for example, to keep Mexicans out — and the way he describes Mexicans, or the way he talks about racial issues that have been taking place around policing, and his calls for law and order — and that’s something you can find in many campaigns, either explicitly, like a George Wallace, or more implicitly, like Richard Nixon in 1968.

So it’s really a key part of our fabric, and that’s why, you know, many people were cynical in 2008, even though we had this historic moment on race and an African-American president, there were many who doubted whether the country had really changed. And I think many feel, eight years later, that it didn’t change quite as much as some were hoping for.

 
The roots of voter anger

Kathy Kiely: Do you, from your perspective as a historian, notice any trends or trigger points that cause this type of politics to be more successful or to bubble up at particular times, and if so, why do you think now it’s become so salient in this campaign?

Julian Zelizer: Well, the one that is a constant is when there’s economic discontent, there’s a lot of room for these kind of appeals. And so whether you’re talking about the Great Depression in the 1930s, or whether you’re talking about situation like today, where you have structural problems in the economy — middle-class insecurity, for example — even if the economy is doing much better than what happened in the 1930s, that’s a time where there’s a lot of room for politicians to find an explanation for it in something other than the most direct causes, that are going on with the economy.

Part of it, today we’ve had a huge influx, since 1965, of new peoples into this country. It’s not unlike the turn of the 20th century, when you had immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe coming in in huge numbers — and that makes people who are already here anxious. Not everyone, but some, and that’s why you can appeal to it.

Kathy Kiely: And people think about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but in many ways the immigration bill that [President Lyndon] Johnson signed was perhaps even a bigger change in the United States, no?

Julian Zelizer: It was a very important piece of legislation. It wasn’t really focused on in 1965; it was often legitimated the same way civil rights had been. The supporters, like Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, or Emanuel Celler of New York, both saw this as an extension of the same kind of liberalism that was leading to desegregation through the Civil Rights Act.

This polarization has been taking place really since the ’70s.

But at the time, most people thought it was abandoning restrictions that were put into place in the 1920s for Europeans — and what they didn’t see was the way it would open the door to new groups, and as those new groups came and as the country became — and in many ways, as the liberalism of the country toward immigrants allowed popular culture to change, allowed neighborhoods and cities and suburbs to change — there were pockets who resisted. So sometimes the resistance comes because immigration has such a big effect all over the country.

Kathy Kiely: The election of Barack Obama and the nomination of Hillary Clinton — both trailblazers: one, the first African-American president, one potentially the first woman president — certainly the candidate who has come closest to breaking that barrier. Has that intensified the nativist, reactionary sentiments, do you think? Those back-to-back trailblazing decisions by the Democratic Party?

Julian Zelizer: I think it has. The only cautionary note I would say is that social scientists who study polarization in the electorate have looked at how this polarization has been taking place, really since the ’70s, and so the animosity that you see on one side toward the other — and particularly with Republicans toward Democrats — didn’t all start with Barack Obama. And so, a quick history of the Bill Clinton years finds similar kinds of rhetoric. It’s not racially tinged, but conspiratorial arguments about him — such as when Vince Foster committed suicide — and obviously his impeachment in 1998.

So the kind of heat that we feel today exists before these two candidates. So part of it is a result of the polarization in the electorate, and part of it is about particular changes in the Republican Party that’s led many voters to be more ideological, to move farther and father away from the center, to listen to conservative news outlets in ways that Democrats don’t tend to do, according to the recent studies. But then you have that infrastructure, that foundation, and then comes an African-American Democrat, followed eight years later by a female Democratic nominee. So they are not the cause of this, but certainly it took that very volatile feeling in parts of the GOP, parts of the electorate, and seemed to confirm some of the warnings that conservatives had been talking about.

Some of it is explicitly racial, some of it is explicitly sexist. Some of it isn’t. It’s simply that those changes are part of a mix, I think, that voters see about the country becoming very liberal or “politically correct” is the terms that’s often used. So there’s different factors, I would say, for different voters. We don’t want to put them all under one category.

Kathy Kiely: The animus that you identified is really interesting. I was at an event a week ago or so, at the National Press Club It was a fundraiser for a journalism organization, and it was a spelling bee — kind of a tradition that the politicians face off against the press. And there were a lot of members of Congress there to spell, but there were no Republicans, and I thought that was really striking. Why do you think that has happened? And is there any historical precedent for that kind of political polarization, where members of Congress aren’t associating with each other, in past history?

Julian Zelizer: It’s certainly gotten worse. The divisions between the parties or between different factions of the parties, is always part of American politics. So, in the 1950s and ‘60s, it wasn’t Republicans versus Democrats, but the animosity between Southern Democrats and Northern Democrats could be very intense, over big issues like race relations. And in the 19th century, we had pretty intense partisanship.

The acrimony between members of Congress…has certainly been getting worse.

That partisan or intra-partisan division has now, on top of it are the kind of personal relations that you’re talking about — the acrimony between members of Congress — and that has certainly been getting worse since the ‘70s and ‘80s, so it makes those divisions worse. There are structural changes that probably fuel it. Again, certainly the media has been very important in why some of the relations between the parties have severed.

Some of the demands that legislators now face for fundraising is another factor people talk about, where there’s literally less time for legislating — even if they’d like to meet each other, they really can’t, and so they’ll naturally spend the limited time they have with members of their own party. The parties on Capitol Hill got a lot stronger in the past few decades. They created political action committees, for example, the leaders, so that they could make sure that everyone voted the same way, and when you have that, it’s going to have an effect on the culture of Congress.

So there’s a lot of changes that have been going on. And the second thing is that, since 2010, the Republican Party has moved rightward on Capitol Hill, with the tea party — which is now called the Freedom Caucus — it is not, people say it is not the same in both parties. What you’ve seen is, the shift has been more dramatic in the GOP since 2010, and that also is fueling this kind of discord on Capitol Hill.

 
The role of Congress

Kathy Kiely: Do you think that the next president will be able to work with Congress?

Julian Zelizer: Doubt it. Certainly, if you have divided government, it’s going to be, in either scenario, very hard. It’s inconceivable, almost, to imagine a Republican Congress working with Hillary Clinton on most issues, once she was in. It’s not as if Barack Obama governed as a leftward Democrat in his first years, and even on the stimulus in 2009, he could barely get any Republican votes.

So many years later, as the polarization has become worse, there’s not going to be a lot of Republicans who want to cut deals with her. They will be frustrated, they would be angry about how this election unfolded, and my guess is what you see with Supreme Court nominations, what you see with the budget in the last few years — where things are not done on purpose, for political reasons — that will continue.

You know, the question some people have is, what would Donald Trump do as president, if he won with a Democratic Congress, or even with a Republican Congress and a larger Democratic minority? Some say he would be willing to cut any deal, and he’s not loyal to his party at all, and he’s not loyal to conservatism on most issues. So the only possible scenario some outline is that, that for his own preservation, for his own success, he’s willing to cut some deals. But it’s still very unlikely. I mean, I think the odds are for gridlock, as we’ve seen.

We have not had someone this brazen in the White house, this polemical, this openly angry, in some ways, and willing to be vicious in their rhetoric.

Kathy Kiely: Can you think of any past president who’s had a personality like Donald Trump’s?

Julian Zelizer: No. I can’t.

I mean, the one comparison people make — although the personality is very different — is Reagan, in that he was very conscious of the public role of the president — not as an entertainer, but as a celebrity of sorts. He was very conscious of how things looked and how it would play to the media, that interested him. He was less interested in the party than appealing to the people that brought him to the White House — and I think there’s some of that in Donald Trump.

But we have not had someone this brazen in the White House, this polemical, this openly angry, in some ways, and willing to be vicious in their rhetoric, that I can think of, certainly in modern times.

Kathy Kiely: And do you think the structure is there in Washington, were Donald Trump to be elected, to contain him? That’s what some of his backers seem to say, is, “Oh well, you don’t have to worry about impulsivity, because a president is surrounded by checks and balances, constitutional and otherwise.” Do you think that’s true?

Julian Zelizer: Well, it is true that presidents don’t have a free hand, and it’s true that when everyone enters the White House, whether you’re Donald Trump — possibly — or whether you’re any of the presidents we’ve had recently, you quickly find all the checks that exist. Even in an era when we talk about “imperial presidents.”

It’s true that Congress still has a lot of power to impeach, to oversee, to generate scandals through hearings and to withhold budgetary money. It’s true that the courts can still be very powerful. Look, Barack Obama has learned this every step of the way, how limited his power is, even after being re-elected and being very popular. But presidents can still do bad things.

Executive power is pretty significant in this day and age, and in matters of war and diplomacy, Donald Trump would still have a lot of leeway to at least start things, even if there’s pushback. And even on domestic policy, on issues like immigration, the president has power to increase deportation — as Barack Obama has done, he could do it even more dramatically. So there are checks, there are constraints, there are limits to presidential power, but there’s still power there, and so I think it’s a mistake to say he can’t really do anything once he’s in office.

I don’t think there was enough attention being paid to what was brewing on Capitol Hill.

Kathy Kiely: Given what you’ve said about the limits on presidential power, do you think we pay enough attention to congressional elections?

Julian Zelizer: We don’t. We never do. The only time we pay more attention to it, certainly, in the media, is usually the first midterm a president faces, because it’s often a rejection of what the president has done, so there’s a kind of drama to the story that’s difficult with congressional elections. They’re messy, there’s lots of them, a lot of them are about local issues, they’re all over the place.

So it’s easier to talk about the president — two people, head-to-head, one outcome. But it’s all decentralized and fractured, so generally congressional elections don’t get as much attention. They have had a little more in recent years because of this first midterm backlash, which is an important story — but I think people should pay more attention to them, because what you see is the composition of Congress has a huge impact, really significant effect on what a president can or can’t do, and with all the attention in 2008 to Barack Obama and to the significance of his victory, I don’t think there was enough attention being paid to some what was brewing on Capitol Hill.

Obviously Democrats had a majority, but that eroded right away, and no one saw what was coming, I think, in terms of the ferocity of the Republican opposition. No one saw the tea party — even though you could see a little bit of it running already in 2008 — and so if you missed the congressional elections, you don’t think of both who has the majority or what kind of minority you’ll have, you don’t have a really good sense of what a presidency is going to be about. So I’ve always been a big proponent of looking at Congress, of focusing on Congress, but congressional elections are a big deal.

And it’s interesting — Hillary Clinton has cared a lot about throwing support to Democrats who are running, and I think it’s in part because of her experience. She understands that she will need very strong support on the Hill to overcome the resistance she will encounter from Republicans, so she’s been trying to win some of that loyalty during her campaign. Whereas, in the primaries, Bernie Sanders didn’t do as much of that, and Donald Trump certainly isn’t doing that for the GOP.

Of all the issues where there seems to be a real need for change in the short term, it’s money in politics.

Kathy Kiely: Do you think we’re at a flexion point in our democracy, where some enormous changes are going to have to be made? Whether it’s with traditions like the electoral college, or the way our parties are organized, or even one party changing, morphing into something else? Are we there?

Julian Zelizer: I’m not sure. Of all the issues where there seems to be a real need for change, in the short term, it’s money in politics. And that’s not simply because voters don’t like money in politics, but there’s many politicians who don’t like money in politics. That’s what’s striking when you talk to members on the Hill.

And when you have that, that’s when there is a potential to change. If something happens, if there’s some mover — whether it’s a scandal or whether it’s some entrepreneurial president or legislator who figures out how to do that. I think that’s an area where the problems caused by the political process are severe, the impression that the process gives to voters is consistently bad, and it keeps getting worse and worse. It’s not a problem that’s basically where it’s been — the influx of money is just becoming quite astounding. And so that’s the area where I keep thinking there’s potential for something to happen.

The Electoral College, I don’t think is going to change. If it didn’t change after 2000, it’s going to be hard to change now. And finally, do the parties change? I don’t think you’re going to have a third party.

I think the parties are still very strong institutions, because of the organizational capacity, because of their ability to deliver money — but you know, the business/Wall Street sector has had a huge influence in the GOP, and it is conceivable that some of their clout diminishes if Donald Trump were to win. They might go to the Democratic Party — you might see shifts, like in the ‘70s, the Democrats and Republicans remain the parties, but the South went to the GOP after civil rights. There was a shift. And I could imagine something like that, but based on class and economics, as opposed to region.

 
Will millennials vote?

Kathy Kiely: You teach millennials.

Julian Zelizer: Mm-hmm [yes].

It’s going to be a competition between how much millennials dislike and fear Donald Trump versus how uninterested they are in Hillary Clinton.

Kathy Kiely: What’s their attitude about the election, and are they going to vote?

Julian Zelizer: I don’t know if they will vote.

They were very engaged in the primary. That was striking. And it was because of Bernie Sanders. I had a few people who really loved Hillary Clinton, but not many. And so I think Sanders brought them in. I don’t know, I think it’s going to be a competition between how much millennials dislike and fear Donald Trump, versus how uninterested they are in Hillary Clinton — as opposed to Hillary Clinton really energizing them, as some people keep saying she’s going to do. I don’t think that’s going to happen.

You know, I’m not sure their sense of the potential dangers that some people see from a Donald Trump presidency are as great as older voters. In some ways they’re so cynical, millennials, about the process — not about politics, but about the political process — it’s not as if he’s the reason that this is broken. That there’s bigger issues we have to deal with, which isn’t that totally inaccurate.

Kathy Kiely: And what do you think the chances are that those bigger issues do get dealt with in the next four years? And what would you say are the top three?

Julian Zelizer:  Well, the top one is middle-class insecurity. That is, I think that’s the issue. It’s not about a recession, it’s not about economic growth versus slow growth, fast growth — it’s about how do working and middle class Americans regain the security that they felt in the 1950s after World War II and at the height of union power? Can they achieve that again? So that they don’t feel that they might have to have three or four jobs or that their job might be gone within a week or two, or that they would have no savings or no money to pay for their kids’ education. That’s issue No. 1.

A second issue is race, and I mean, after what we have seen in the last few years, this country still has a big problem with race. And the issue of policing and race is right now at the top of civil rights agenda. And I don’t think it’s clear how we get out of this, but it’s clear we can’t — this isn’t sustainable, and ultimately it’s not simply because of the impact on African-American communities, but the police will lose their authority and stature, if this continues. So I think that’s a second issue that we face.

And I think immigration is the issue that obviously brought Donald Trump to this position, but we have millions of people who are living in limbo right now. And so part of it is about the wall or no wall, but I think the real immigration issue that neither Obama was able to solve, President George W. Bush couldn’t solve, was what happens to the, whatever, 11 million people who are living in this country whose future is uncertain. I think we have to have a resolution to that. It’s a human rights issue, and this isn’t something we can keep doing.

Kathy Kiely: Do you think the emergence of Donald Trump is going to make Republicans on Capitol Hill more likely or less likely to want to get things done?

Julian Zelizer: That’s a good question. So, if he became president, where would the Republicans be? There would be incentives for them to do something — the problem is, if it could converge with what he wanted. Meaning, if he won, the Republicans would feel happy. They would have regained control of the White House, but I do think many of them wouldn’t like the image of the party that has now emerged.

I think there are many Republicans, even very conservative, right-wing Republicans, who are upset — not because of the policies, but just the image he represents and some of the kinds of rhetoric that he has used. That’s not the party they want to be in the long term. And they understand the difference between someone who, in the short term, might have a window, versus someone who, in the long term, has a vision for building a durable coalition — like Democrats had in the 1940s and ‘50s, or Republicans had for much of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

So why would they want to move forward on legislation? They could define their party as something other than Donald Trump. And other than the next candidate, that’s the way you do it. They would want to be the party that delivered, you know, legislation on something. But it would be hard, it would be hard because, again, it’s not simply the tension between Trump and the GOP. It’s the tension within the GOP between the tea party and other parts of the party, and on issues like climate change, immigration, there is no agreement. So, they’ll want legislation, but I don’t know if it will actually emerge.

Kathy Kiely: And have you ever seen a time in history where a party has been under that kind of internal stress? And is there anything we can compare it to that might give us some insight as to where this is going?

Julian Zelizer: Sure, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, race, ‘30s through ‘60s. Southern Democrats, by and large, were adamantly opposed to any federal effort to obtain civil rights legislation, voting rights legislation. Northern liberals, whose numbers were growing and who were becoming more prominent — people like Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota in the Senate — they are really more angry about the Southern Democrats than they are about the Republicans, because they’re the ones with power, the Southerners are the ones holding up the legislation.

And you have really fierce encounters, not unlike what you see on immigration today within the GOP.

So in 1948, Humphrey is running for the Senate, and he famously makes a speech at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, where he tells the Southerners that it’s time to, you know, abandon this states’ rights idea — which is a way to block civil rights — and move into a new moment of human rights. And tells them, “If you’re not with us, leave.”

And some Southerners, like Strom Thurmond, do, and they’ll actually have a third party challenge. And you see this fight over and over again, until many Southerners decide, en masse, to leave the Democratic Party. So those were really bitter fights — so I think that’s an example that is comparable to what we’re seeing today.

Kathy Kiely: And do you see a Republican equivalent of Lyndon Johnson, whom you wrote about?

Julian Zelizer: Not right now. You know, I think certainly Donald Trump is not that person. It’s not clear he would be able to bring the party together.

In part, Lyndon Johnson was at the core a Democrat. He’d been part of the party, he was loyal to the party — he was unusual in that he was loyal to a lot of the liberal ideas from the New Deal, but he also had a relationship with the Southerners. He had deep experience on the Hill, so people knew him, they liked him, whereas Donald Trump is a total outsider — to Congress, for sure. He’s not necessarily to loyal to anyone within the Republican Party, so no one totally trusts him. So Johnson famously, in 1957, Robert Caro writes about how he won over Southern support for a — to allow a really watered-down bill to pass, based on the idea that in the end, Johnson was protecting the party, he was going to protect the South from something more stringent.

Whereas Donald Trump doesn’t have that kind of clout, and the Republican leaders in Congress have been consumed — as Speaker Boehner was — by this tea party faction. So right now, it’s not clear who that leader would be, or who that figure could be in the party.

It could be that ultimately the tensions are not solved by anyone in Washington, that grass-roots politics ultimately forces this off the agenda.

Kathy Kiely: So in some ways, is this unprecedented? For the party, I mean, having something so outside and so foreign to the party buffeting the leaders? It’s out of their control, right? Is that what you’re saying?

Julian Zelizer: It was, but if we think back to the ‘60s, the solution wasn’t just Lyndon Johnson, it was the civil rights movement. So what’s remarkable about the early ‘60s is how the movement ultimately forced the issue to be resolved, regardless of all these fights the leaders were having. Johnson was really important, and he was instrumental, but it was a grass-roots change that happened.

And so, that could happen again. I mean, the immigrant and pro-immigration community is very strong, very well-organized, and it’s been fighting. It takes time, it’s not going to happen in a couple years. But it could be that ultimately the tensions are not solved by anyone in Washington, that grass-roots politics ultimately forces this off the agenda. And ironically, the party could then reconstitute itself.

 
The role of the media

Kathy Kiely: Okay. So, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the media, because you talk about that. How do you see that playing — the changes in the media — playing into this year’s campaign? And again, is there any precedent in history?

Julian Zelizer: So, the media is very important. I’m not someone who thinks the media created Donald Trump. I don’t believe that, but I do believe he’s exploited the media very well.

And we’ve seen politicians who, at key moments, get how the media’s changing and use it well. So, the most famous example is FDR in radio, with his fireside chats — and he understood that allowed him to communicate directly to the public. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, the late 1940s, understood the way journalism was practiced through objectivity gave him space to say whatever he wanted and have journalists repeat it, without feeling the room to be inquisitive, and he could get his charges out there.

Jimmy Carter in 1976, during the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primaries — this unknown governor from Georgia — understood how the new media was becoming very influential in that part of the selection process, because the party bosses lost their power. So, you know, he dressed in jeans and overalls and he sold himself, rather than him being a Democrat — and he was pretty masterful at it.

And Ronald Reagan, of course, was one of the best at understanding how television was now working. He and his team would, for example, use the line of the day, when he was president — where the whole day would be orchestrated around a single theme, so that reporters would have something to write about that would match what they wanted to get out there. So this isn’t the first time —

Kathy Kiely: And of course, Newt Gingrich, with C-SPAN.

Julian Zelizer: Newt Gingrich brilliantly understood — both in the ‘80s and after he was speaker — C-SPAN, this channel that not a lot of people watched, compared to the networks, but still had a big viewership, offered a great opportunity for someone, even before he was the leader, to just get on and make these one-minute speeches. And he even understood the theatrics, that all you could see was the speaker, so he could — the person speaking — so he could make all kinds of outlandish charges about people in the room, who weren’t actually in the room.

Donald Trump comes out of that tradition. I do believe that is somewhere where he is skillful. You might like him, not like him, but he’s understood what Twitter offered, and no one saw that before this campaign. Not that Twitter was important, but that a candidate could directly communicate with people at all moments, in an informal manner, in a manner aimed at generating readers, that with 140 characters, you could run a campaign. And I think he’s part of that tradition. But there are also changes in the media that are disturbing to many observers. That in this new 24-hour media — that’s not new anymore, we’ve really had it since the 1980s — but in the age of cable television, internet news and more partisan forms of news delivery, that there was room for someone who was theatrical and whose words and statements were often aimed at winning over coverage, constant coverage, there’s — Trump people, for example, so they understood that the new media needs content. That there’s just so many outlets right now, and they’re looking for news all the time, that they would produce the story, and that kept him in the game.

So the nature of the news is part of why Donald Trump, I think, is doing so well. He’s been able to work very well in that environment, and the partisan news — so you have the 24-hour news, and then you obviously have, since the 1990s, more partisan outlets where news is told in a particular way, and that fuels the kind of polarization that Donald Trump has done very well exploiting.

Kathy Kiely: And it also, doesn’t it, allow for propaganda to be presented in a more effective way? For example, the birther lie had legs for a long time — would that have been possible in an earlier era?

Julian Zelizer: It would be much harder. So the birther lie could be compared a little bit to some of the McCarthyite attacks, where he would say things, and his colleagues would say things about Communists being a part of government, that had no basis in fact, and it made the mainstream news.

So there was always room for lies, but there’s a lot more room today than there used to be, and part of it, I think, is just the space available. So even in the 1950s with McCarthy, you still had a few major city newspapers that really shaped the news, you had three networks were to form, and that was it — with their evening news broadcast, which was about 20 minutes, after advertising — and that’s it.

Whereas today, you have so many outlets, there’s many places to get misinformation out in the political sphere, and the editorial controls are just much weaker, because news isn’t going through several layers of editors and producers. It can instantaneously be sent out there, so I think that creates a more volatile environment. And finally, because you have more partisan outlets — both networks, such as a Fox, that are partisan, or even smaller websites — there’s more places that are willing to put things out that work for partisan purposes, like the birther argument, even if it’s not clear they’re true, or it’s clear they’re not true — they can still find space. So I do think we’ve seen an intensification of falsehood in American political rhetoric, which is a problem when you have fact-checkers — but I’m not convinced they really have a big effect, because once a story is out there, it’s out there.

Kathy Kiely: I sometimes tell students, “Now that you’re all publishers, you need to learn to be reporters.”

Julian Zelizer: That’s a good line.

Kathy Kiely: Do you think we need to educate younger people about media consumption in different ways?

Julian Zelizer: I think that would be fantastic. I mean, unfortunately, my guess is, you could only reach a limited part of the population if you find the teachers who are willing to do that. You would have to do this very, you know, significant level to really educate the public. But I think it’s true, because it’s hard to see how the structure of news delivery changes.

You could have more websites, for example, that produce good, factually based news, and hire the best reporters in the country, but they will have to compete in this environment.

And news organizations are less important, because now the news also can get out from an individual — someone puts up a website or tweets things out — and we’ve seen they can be a major voice, all of a sudden. So the education is going to be really important, in terms of consumption. But I don’t know, you know, clickbait works because people want clickbait. And so it’s education, but it’s ultimately, at some point, readers and watchers and listeners having the feeling that this is not beneficial to them or to their democracy, that you’d really have a change.

 
What historians will write about us

Kathy Kiely: So, last question is: Fast-forward 100 years or 200 years, and there’s a young Julian Zelizer out there writing a book. Who of our era is that young historian going to be writing about, do you think?

Julian Zelizer: That’s a good question. I’m not sure they’re going to write about a person as much as the culture and the system. I think, you know, what’s interesting about Donald Trump, in the long term, isn’t simply him. It’s the, it’s what produced him, what allowed this to happen. What allowed a change in American politics to take place, where someone such as Donald Trump was able to win a major party nomination? And so my guess is, 100 years from now, they’ll be looking at why were the forces of nativism and racial backlash so prevalent in 2016, that you could have a candidate not disassociate themselves from David Duke, and have it be okay?

They will be looking at the kinds of things we talked about with the media, and how the media was changing so drastically, that in some ways he was a perfect person for the moment. He will be less interesting than the media world we had. And finally, we’ll also have people 100 years from now trying to understand how did the electorate become so polarized that voters were just not willing to switch from one side to the other? And that even if someone ran on ideas that didn’t fit with a lot of what the party wanted, and even if someone had no connection to the political party, much of the party would still throw their support behind him, because that’s the world we live. So I think those will be the interesting questions.

And the other sets of questions — less on why the system allowed him — will be the problems in the electorate. So, he and Bernie Sanders, and other candidates keep talking about this economy and this structural problem that many people are yelling and screaming about, desperately. That all is not good.

And I think in the same way that we look at the ‘70s, for example, to understand the end of the manufacturing sector of the economy and the rise of high-tech, I think historians will be trying to understand what was going on now — and I don’t know where this all goes — and how that affected the politics of the period. I think that’s going to be a fundamental question, and related to that will be, how did the political system become so dysfunctional? Because a lot of what gives rise to insurgents is a feeling in the public that the system isn’t working anyway. So with Hillary Clinton, her claims are always undercut, because she can say, “I have experience,” she can say, “I know what I’m doing,” but no one believes Washington’s going to work anyway. So I think there will be people 100 years from now looking at, how did polarization bring the system, in some ways, to a state of gridlock that was this frustrating to voters, that they were willing to go into a very new direction?

Kathy Kiely: Okay, well, in the time capsule where we put this, somebody will find their dissertation topic.

Julian Zelizer:  I hope so.

Kathy Kiely

Kathy Kiely, a Washington, DC-based journalist and teacher, has reported and edited national politics for a number of news organizations, including USA TODAY, National Journal, The New York Daily News and The Houston Post. She been involved in the coverage of every presidential campaign since 1980. Follow her on Twitter: @kathykiely.