"As if George Wallace had won in 1968": "Morning Joe" historian on Trump's family separation policy

Historian Jon Meacham told "Morning Joe" that Trump's "a return to the most disturbing elements of white supremacy"

By Matthew Rozsa

Published June 20, 2018 11:20AM (EDT)

George Wallace, Donald Trump, Strom Thurmond   (AP/Sue Ogrocki/Ira Schwarz)
George Wallace, Donald Trump, Strom Thurmond (AP/Sue Ogrocki/Ira Schwarz)

As historian Jon Meacham explained to the hosts of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump is bringing about "a return to the most disturbing elements of white supremacy."

"This is as if George Wallace had won in 1968, that’s where we are," Meacham explained, referring to the independent presidential candidate who ran in that year's presidential election by running on an openly racist platform. "If we'd been talking fifty years ago today, the level of violence in the country would have been incredibly high. We would have just buried Sen. [Robert] Kennedy, just buried Dr. [Martin Luther] King. We'd be heading into the Chicago Democratic National Convention. You had an immense amount of violence, both on the left and on the right. George Wallace carried five states, 13.5 percent of the vote, in November of '68. But he didn't win."

Meacham added, "The one through-line here from Charlottesville to this issue is — to use your phrase — a return to the most disturbing elements of white supremacy, white male supremacy to be precise, in the national character."

Meacham made it clear that Americans can't dodge the fact that the ugly impulses which Trump has brought to the fore are very much ingrained in the nation's history.

"One of the things I think we have to confront is, when we say this isn't America, in fact it is," Meacham pointed out. "It's the worst part of America. It's the darker instincts. But they've been with us from the very beginning and they're with us now. And what so many of us hoped is that, we believed in a kind of idea and reality of progress, and that in fact you could move forward. And what President Trump represents I think is the fullest and most vivid and, frankly, the scariest manifestation of these dark impulses in the country's soul."

Meacham earlier argued that Trump is acting against his own self-interest by pursuing policies such as the one that forcibly separates immigrant parents from their children at the border.

"I promise the Fox cycle, the Breitbart cycle, is very quick. History is forever. If I had three minutes with President Trump I would say ‘we know you care about success, we know you care about ratings, why don’t you do what other great presidents have done, reach beyond your base, surprise us," Meacham told "Morning Joe" host Mika Brzezinski, citing as an example how President Richard Nixon cemented his legacy by shocking the world and opening up relations between America and China.

Meacham urged Americans to live up to the spirit of what Ronald Reagan preached in his farewell address in 1989.

"I'm gonna keep quoting this until people yank me off. When he said in his farewell address that part of being a shining city on a hill — this is Ronald Reagan, okay? — said all the lost pilgrims in all the lost places hurtling in the darkness toward home," Meacham told MSNBC.

While Reagan had far from an ideal record when it came to race relations, Meacham's point contrasting Reagan's optimistic rhetoric with the hatemongering of Wallace and Trump is well taken. If nothing else, the reactions to the news that Trump is forcibly separating children from their parents demonstrate the state of America's soul.

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Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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