Joe Scarborough on Harry Truman, Donald Trump and what the hell happened to the Republican Party

"Morning Joe" host says Trump's a "fascist" and his former party has lost its mind — but sees hope in the center

Published December 5, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Joe Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" is the author of "Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization." (Getty Images/HarperCollins Publishers)
Joe Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" is the author of "Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization." (Getty Images/HarperCollins Publishers)

Joe Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," speaks bluntly when it comes to politics — be it about Donald Trump or about historical presidents like Harry Truman, the focus of his new book, "Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization." As expected, Scarborough didn't hold back during our conversation on "Salon Talks."

Scarborough, a former Republican member of Congress, began by doing what so few Republicans will do today: He spoke glowingly about a Democrat, in this case Truman. As Scarborough noted, Truman was ridiculed by the media and his political opponents as the "little man from Missouri" and with slogans such as, "To err is Truman." Even Truman's choice as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president in the 1944 election was less about Democrats being excited about Truman and more about wanting to dump the progressive Henry Wallace from the ticket. But after Truman was sworn in as president in April 1945 upon FDR's death — just four months into his term as vice president — this "little man" rose up to accomplish the extraordinary.

As Scarborough explained, few presidents have been confronted with massive challenges like the ones Truman saw in his first term, with World War II raging in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. From there, Truman had to decide to use the atomic bomb — a weapon Roosevelt hadn't even told Truman about — then deal with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's ambitions to control much of postwar Europe. Truman worked doggedly, and generally in a bipartisan manner, to contain Soviet expansion, from providing support for Greece and Turkey to funding the immensely ambitious Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe to the "Truman doctrine" that led to the formation of NATO. Later in his presidency Truman would desegregate the U.S. military, which was unquestionably the right thing to do but made him deeply unpopular. 

While Truman famously kept a plaque on his desk reading, "The buck stops here," Scarborough remarked that Trump is the exact opposite: He blames everyone but himself for his failures. Scarborough ripped Trump's attacks on the 2020 election as a "political coup" and slammed Trump as a "fascist." On some level, Scarborough seemed to be channeling the famous sentiment used to describe Truman's unvarnished way of addressing issues: "Give 'em hell, Harry!" When asked about that expression, Truman reportedly said, "I never did give them hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell." I imagine if Truman were alive today, he'd give Trump hell over and over again, as Joe Scarborough has done. Watch my Salon Talks interview with Scarborough below, or read the following transcript of our conversation, edited as usual for clarity and length.

Joe, you're a former Republican congressman. Tell us why your new book, "Saving Freedom," is about a Democratic president. 

Well, it's really interesting to back up even a little bit more off what I didn't talk about in the book. When people ask me why I got into politics, I know they expect me to say, "Oh, well, I read something in the National Journal, or I read something in the Wall Street Journal that inspired me, or I loved Reagan and I loved Goldwater." I was always sort of strange, I would read people that I didn't necessarily agree with, that didn't fit neatly into the worldview for my family and everything. I grew up reading Michael Kinsley of the New Republic and my political heroes were yes, Ronald Reagan, but also Bobby Kennedy. After I read Arthur Schlesinger's biography on Bobby Kennedy and saw the extraordinary things he did, whether it was in Cape Town in June of 1966, or what he did in Indianapolis the night that Martin Luther King died, it inspired me because Kennedy was somebody who dared to bend history and make a difference. Harry Truman was the same way.

I liked the fact that both of those guys didn't put up with BS. One of my favorite quotes about Bobby came from his father who said, "I love Bobby, he hates just like me." Truman just didn't put up with anybody's malarkey, as Joe Biden would say. They were both tough, but they both did significant things to change the world. I talk about this in the book: In my congressional office I had two presidential portraits up, one was of Ronald Reagan, which surprised nobody since I was a small-government, libertarian, populist-type Republican in '94, but the other was of Harry Truman. People would come in and they'd go, "Huh? What?" 

I love Truman, in part, because he was a guy who really aspired to great heights. I think he's great example of American success story. The highest educational level he reached was graduating from Spalding Commercial College. He was mocked his entire life. The only reason he got to run for the Senate was because the first four people his political boss wanted to run, wouldn't run. So he ran, ended up shocking people and got elected in 1934, then ran for re-election in 1940. FDR wasn't even endorsing him, and wouldn't campaign for him. He was supposed to lose that race, but he ended up winning. In 1944, when he was elected as vice president of the United States and in the process somebody admitted that they needed to get Henry Wallace off the ticket. They just didn't want Wallace to replace FDR because they believed that FDR was going to die.

And one person that was in the meeting just said, "You know what? We just got tired. We ended up picking Truman." He was mocked and ridiculed as the "second Missouri compromise." Time Magazine called him "the mousy little man from Missouri" after the selection, the New York Times called him a rube. So here was this guy, underestimated time and time again. And of course, you know the story of when he ran for president in 1948, and it was really the greatest upset in political history. Nobody expected Truman to win. He had upset progressives by making enemies with Henry Wallace, he had upset the Dixiecrats by integrating the armed services in 1948. He was running against the left and right wing of the Democratic party, as well as against [Republican] Thomas Dewey, and the guy still managed to win. And despite his limited background educationally, he created the postwar world that we've all lived in over many years.

I always say Harry Truman started the Cold War and Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush ended it. That's of course a gross oversimplification. One of the beautiful things about our battle against Soviet communism was, it was Democrats and Republicans alike that did it. My late father-in-law, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was a Democrat who did it along with a lot of Republicans. But I love the fact that Democrats and Republicans figured out a way to work together. Truman figured out a way to yank the Republican Party out of the 19th century to stop being isolationists and actually look outside of themselves and get engaged in the world.

Truman should be more celebrated for what he went through. You're a musician, you can write a musical. "The Buck Stops Here" could be a song! In all seriousness, what you lay out in the book is that four months into Truman being vice president, FDR dies and he's confronted with one of the most daunting times for a president in their first term ever. When you look at it now, what do you think was the most daunting challenge for Truman? I'm still stunned that more Americans don't know about what he accomplished.

It actually took about 30 years for historians to catch up to the fact that this guy who was dismissed as a rube and who left office with a 22 percent approval rating is now classified as a great or near-great president. I think there's almost universal acknowledgment that he's been the most successful president over the past 75 years. Every time I get worried and stressed about what's going on in Washington and the transition between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and I throw my arms up and I go, "This has never happened before, how are we going to survive?" I think of the fact that Franklin Roosevelt knew he was going to die. In fact, during the campaign of 1944 he goes to Truman, "Hey, don't fly on planes, take trains. Because one of us has to survive. One of us has to live."

When Truman got sworn in and was going into the vice president's office, one of his friends said, "Hey, you're going to be president soon." And Truman said, "It scares the hell out of me, but yeah, I am." I mean, FDR even had massive chest pains on the day of his inauguration in '45. He was a dying man. He only met with Truman twice and they were perfunctory meetings. Once they got into the White House, he actually refused to loop Truman in on the Manhattan Project.

After FDR dies, Truman has his first Cabinet meeting. he's walking out of the cabinet meeting and [War Secretary] Henry Stimson says, "Hey, can you come here?" He walks out and he basically says, "Hey, we've got this thing called the Manhattan Project." So Harry Truman was blindsided by the fact that the United States was developing the atomic bomb. And in a very short period of time, he had to make decisions on how to wind down World War II in Europe, and then had to make that horrific decision on how to end the war in the Pacific. Was he going to use atomic bombs on Japanese cities? Or was he going to allow the war to go into '46 and '47 with maybe a million or 2 million more casualties? Harry Truman had to make that decision. 

After they won the war, they had about a year before Winston Churchill went to speak at Westminster College in Missouri and talked about the "Iron Curtain" that was descending across Europe. And Truman, after getting cables in early February 1947 that Greece and Turkey could fall into Stalin's hands, and possibly Iran too, had to make the same decision that Republicans and Democrats alike had passed on a decade earlier. Were they going to allow a totalitarian machine to sweep across Europe? They made the wrong call in the '20s and '30s, and weren't ready for Hitler because Republicans wouldn't let Wilson take the country into the League of Nations. Truman had to very quickly move to save Western Europe. 

One other thing that's inspiring is the fact that he reached out to Herbert Hoover, because there was a great humanitarian refugee crisis in Europe at the time. Hoover had been basically kicked around by Democrats for 14 years. He was the punchline for every Democratic joke. Truman knew that Hoover was an engineer who had helped with the refugee crisis after World War I. He asked him to come in and help after World War II. In the book "The Presidents Club," they write that Truman and Herbert Hoover working together probably saved more lives in Europe than any two presidents by their actions together.

You mentioned Harry Truman and the atomic bomb. In the book you quote him saying, "Look, it's a weapon. We've got to use it." Do you think a modern-day American president would be that much at ease with using a nuclear weapon? 

There's no doubt it would be much more difficult decision to make these days than it was then when nobody had used it before. But to put things in perspective, they had been bombing Tokyo, killing 100,000 civilians with conventional weapons. You look at the firebombing of Dresden, which was absolutely barbaric. In fact, really that was more of a revenge bombing, they firebombed that city and killed two or three times as many people with conventional weapons as they did with the atomic weapons. Obviously, it opened a horrific new age.

I think any president today faced with the choices might actually decide to kill more people with conventional weapons than to launch this horrific new power. But for Truman, and this really was characteristic of Harry Truman, he weighed the options, he made the tough decision, and then he went to sleep peacefully. And he never apologized for it, he lived with all the tough decisions.

He made another tough decision for him politically. In 1948, nobody expected Harry Truman to integrate the armed forces. He was raised in a pro-Confederate family and he had used very rough, racist language throughout the early part of his life. He shocked everybody when he made that decision, and it was an unpopular decision. But he made it because he believed it was the right thing to do. He thought Black Americans had contributed greatly to America's success in World War II and, by God, if they were willing to die for this country, then the armed forces should at least be integrated. Harry Truman made the tough decision. It split the Democratic Party into three factions, but he said he never slept better than after making that decision.

In the book you also touch on the descent of Great Britain's power on the world stage. They were in massive debt. We had to bail them out, almost, in that war. If the U.S. hadn't stepped up and there was no Truman Doctrine and no Marshall Plan, how do you think Western Europe would have turned out after World War II? 

The Truman Doctrine of course led to some very bad decisions in Vietnam. And you're talking about the domino theory. Most historians are very critical of the domino theory, but there's little doubt looking at the historical record if the United States had not intervened, because as you said, yes, Great Britain saved Western civilization in 1940, but by 1945 they were exhausted not only as an empire, they were exhausted as a nation, and told the United States they just could not defend Greece, could not defend Turkey.

I think most historians, looking at the facts as they were, would say today there was little doubt that Greece and Turkey and most likely Iran would have fallen into the clutches of Stalin and Soviet communism. Without Truman intervening in a dramatic way with the Marshall Plan, there's no doubt that Western Europe — there were starving people in Western Europe. Stalin understood he had an opening there. The world would have looked radically different. There would have been a lot of people in 1947, 1948, if we hadn't intervened, would have looked and said, "Wait, why did we fight World War II?" Because now we've traded Nazi tyranny for Soviet tyranny. Not much of a positive exchange for all the lives that were lost.

Truman famously had a sign on his desk that read "The buck stops here." It makes me think of Donald Trump, who seems to be the opposite of the buck stops here — a guy who blames everybody else for anything wrong because he's the ultimate victim. How do you think Truman would've seen a character like Donald Trump?

Well, actually, he had complete contempt for Joe McCarthy, who shares many of Donald Trump's characteristics and personality traits. But for Truman, you're right, he believed that the buck stopped here and he was wise enough to understand that the United States getting involved in sending foreign aid to Europe was something radical. As radical as the Marshall Plan was, it was something that we would get paid back on for that investment a hundred times over, a thousand times over. 

One of the things Donald Trump never understood, and some of his early advisors in 2017 and 2018 tried to explain to him was that when we help other countries, when we ensure that democracy thrives and we hold up democratic powers, that pays us back. If you just look at what happened to our economy, post-1947, you can look at the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and you could see that not only did it help us in foreign affairs, not only did it help us strategically, but it also helped us economically.

There were a lot of free markets that were kept afloat by the United States. And I think one of the great measures of our success, something that Donald Trump would never understand, is that countries that attacked us, countries that declared war on us in 1941, countries that we leveled to the ground, were the same countries that by the 1970s were competing with us economically, and some of the same countries that were causing great angst by the late 1970s across America because these countries had been rebuilt. Yes, we had to compete with them. But unlike Donald Trump, I am still a small-government conservative. I still believe in free and fair trade and understand that by building up Germany, by building up Japan, by building up democratic powers, in the end, we're helping ourselves as well.

Right now we're witnessing Donald Trump's assault on our democracy. There's this mindset that elected Republicans don't speak out because they're afraid of him. But I submit that a lot of them agree with Donald Trump in that they want power. They don't care how the steak gets to the table, they don't care how that cow was killed, as long as they can continue to be in power. You're a former Republican congressman — is it more that they're literally afraid of a tweet or is the bottom line that they like the power? 

This is something that obviously has haunted me over the past four years, just like it would you if there were a progressive president who came in and did the same things that Donald Trump did. What I have found, and what a lot of my former Republican friends have found, is that the very things that we fought for, that we thought we were fighting for our entire life, were actually not the same things that everybody around us was fighting for. We could disagree ideologically on a lot of different issues, but at the end of the day, I know you want what's best for America like how I want what's best for America.

One of the things that I always assumed, because all of my friends in Congress were Democrats —they considered me a right-wing, small-government nut, but all of my friends were Democrats — I'm stupid enough to believe that everybody came to the table in good faith. If you get AOC on one side of the negotiating table and you get a libertarian Republican on the other side of the negotiating table, you're going to fight things out, but at the end of the day if everybody's there for the right reason and then we come to consensus. But what I've found with the Republican party is that, I'm sorry, I have no evidence that Mitch McConnell is acting on behalf of the American people. I have no evidence that Mitch McConnell is acting in any way other than to maintain his power base. 

You look at what's going on in the past four years — you look at the silence of so many of my friends, who I served with, who were close friends of mine, who I was holed up in rooms with while we were in the House of Representatives, when we were driving Newt Gingrich out of town because we believed Newt was insufficiently conservative on the size of government. These same people now have done nothing but embrace a guy — forget about small government, they spend like drunken socialists and that's the least of their problems. These are the same people who have stood by Donald Trump.

Forget about all the other horrors, let's just look at what happened in the last two weeks of the campaign. Donald Trump was pressuring his attorney general to arrest his political opponent. And he didn't just do it once. He wasn't just joking. He did it repeatedly, trying to push Barr to arrest Joe Biden and arrest members of Joe Biden's family. That's what they do in Belarus, that's what they do in Russia. It is un-American and anybody that remained silent and continued to support that man is not American.

All of my friends from childhood voted for Donald Trump. All of my family members voted for Donald Trump. This guy accused me of murder like 12, 13, 14 times and I sit there and say, "So first of all, let's talk about that." These are the same people, I promise, if I called them up and said, "Hey, listen, I need a kidney or my kid needs a kidney," they'd be the first say, "OK, I'm flying down. We'll take care of it, Joe." They'll do anything for me, they'd lay down their life for me and I do the same for them. And yet they voted for a guy who wanted me thrown in jail based on a conspiracy theory. It's a cult. There's no other way to say it. It is a cult. And it makes me sad to see my friends this way.

It makes me sad to see the Republicans supporting him and, damn it, I've been struggling for a word. I called Donald Trump an autocrat, but he's not really an autocrat because you can't be an autocrat in America. I'd call him an autocrat in training, but let's just cut to it now: He's a fascist. You look at the definition of fascist. You look at it and he hits it on every front. A fascist is a right-wing nationalist. A fascist is somebody who attacks the others, and I remember back in December of 2015, when Donald Trump proposed a Muslim registry, I said to my audience, "This sounds a bit like Germany in 1933, 1934, doesn't it? You can't vote for him anymore, can you?" And at that point I said I could never vote for him.

And you take the fact that he's calling for United States congresswomen to go back where they're from, he's told his people to beat up opponents and he'd pay for their legal bills. You look at Charlottesville, you go to — I'm sorry, he's a fascist, it fits four corners of that definition. So I sit here and I look at my former Republican Party and I will not tell you I'm not heartbroken. I mean, I started as a conservative Democrat, then I became a Republican because I thought that, ideologically, on small government issues, that fit me a little bit better. But the conservative movement — I actually was a sucker. I actually read Edmund Burke. I actually read Russell Kirk. I actually believed things that they've said, but it ends up that only about two or three of us still do, so it is sad. I mean, it is sad what's happened to my friends and former colleagues.

I'm Muslim, so when Donald Trump called for a total shutdown on Muslims, it was one of the most stunning things I've ever seen in my life. I'm born here and it was jaw-dropping. I appreciate you calling him a fascist. It's not hyperbolic. In your recent piece for the Washington Post, you wrote about what Biden can learn from Truman, including bridge-building. When I look at the GOP, I'm not sure how you compromise on certain key things. Is there something Joe Biden can learn from Truman that would be applicable in today's real world of 2021?

I've been reluctant to say that he's a fascist, I think for the same reason that I'm sure you have, and others have too because I know it'll just turn off listeners. As I always tell my Democratic friends that say, just run over them, I'm still in the conversion business. I can't convert 100 percent. I can't convert 50 percent. I'll take 10 percent, whatever keeps this fascist party out of power two years from now, four years from now, I'll do it. 

Getting to your next question about what can Biden learn from Truman, Harry Truman in 1947 was facing a Republican Congress, the first time Republicans had been in power since Herbert Hoover. They were in no mood to deal with a Democratic president or carry a Democratic president's water. They promised to cut spending in '46 and that was domestically. They sure as hell didn't want to spend money overseas. But Truman worked with Republicans around the clock. They worked with Arthur Vandenberg, who was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He would send advisers over to Vandenberg's house around the clock, 24 hours a day if they needed to, to keep him updated with what was going on, and slowly but surely they won over Republicans. Can you do that with Mitch McConnell? Maybe not. But I do know this: There is a widening center right now. We've seen the United States Senate that went further right around 2004, 2006, the Democratic Senate, you started losing those red-state Democrats and it became more progressive.

But right now in the center, you have Mark Kelly from Arizona, he's in a traditionally Republican state, so he's not going to dart far left. You got Kelly, you got Joe Manchin, who is I know the bane of a lot of progressives' existence, but he's still in the middle. I mean, Joe Manchin was a champion on gun reform after Newtown and I'm grateful for that. You look at the fact that you have got Susan Collins in Maine. I know, again, there are a lot of reasons for people to dislike Susan Collins, but she's actually talking about forging a compromise after Trump's out. You can look at other Republicans, Mitt Romney is another example, Lisa Murkowski. On the Democratic side, we have John Hickenlooper [just elected to the Senate]. You've got six, seven, eight people who have political reasons to be moderate. Joe Biden won Susan Collins' state by nine points, right? So she has a reason to work with Joe Biden. Arizona likewise, is traditionally a Republican state. Both Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema have a reason to try to forge consensus in the center.

I'm hopeful that we can get some reform done. I talked about gun reform. I'm hopeful that we can pass extensive background checks. It's a sane, rational thing to do. We need to pass health care reform. Obviously we've got to get back in the Paris accords. There are several things that Biden can do with this moderate caucus in the United States Senate. Truman worked everybody around the clock, and it paid off for him.

Joe Biden knows the Senate. I just got to say, this is a personal thing with me. We keep electing people who are marketed like a bag of potato chips and they don't know how to make Washington work. With Joe Biden, like Harry Truman, like LBJ, you had people who knew the Senate, who knew how to make Washington work. Instead of people who are like, "Oh, I don't really like Washington and when I finish with my day, I go upstairs and I watch ESPN." No, no, you don't do that. When your day is over, you're on the phone talking to your party, you're talking to the other party and you're constantly working to make deals.

That's one of the things I respected about Bill Clinton, looking back on him, especially. And while we had some tough times together, I've grown to really respect his legislative accomplishments. And this was a guy that you could impeach on Tuesday and he would call you up on Wednesday. I was joking with him about that and President Clinton said, "Joe, you know what the best trait a president can have is?" I go, "No, what's that?" He goes, "A short memory." Memory does you no good — there's always a vote next week, there's always something you need next month. Have a short memory, work with everybody, get things done, and Bill Clinton did.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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