tv Amanpour on PBS PBS September 1, 2018 12:00am-12:31am PDT
♪ welcome to "amanpour" on pbs. we're looking back at some of our favorite interviews this year, and tonight the renowned presidential historian doris kearns goodwin on the place president trump occupies. and my conversation with the yale professor and historian timothy snyder about the unprecedented assault on democracy in his new book "the road to unfreedom: russia, europe, america." ♪ welcome to the program, everyone. i'm christiane amanpour in
london. president trump often compares himself favorably to abraham lincoln, tweeting and talking about the great man over and over as a measure of his own success. take a listen. >> with the exception of the late great abraham lincoln i can be more presidential than any president that's ever held this office. that i can tell you. >> that was then. a year and a half into this office what would honest abe think of president donald trump? doris kearns goodwin is america's foremost presidential historian, chronicler of everyone from lincoln to teddy roosevelt to lyndon johnson. and i asked her about this special kind of leadership when she joined me from washington. >> welcome to the program. >> i'm delighted to be here. >> so what do you think of those quotes, those tweets? what do you think of president trump's comparison to abraham lincoln? >> well, so many things stand out. it's just an astonishing comparison. i mean, lincoln was known for
having a deep-rooted confidence but also an extraordinary sense of humility about himself. when trump was talking about his own humility, he said that he loved pope francis so much because pope francis was very, very humble, just like him. i think there's nobody that would imagine that president trump is humble. there's also a sense in which one of the great things about lincoln was that he had gone through adversity, he had lost time and time again. he lost his first suit for the state legislature, lost twice in the u.s. senate, he never gave up. and when trump was asked about his temperament, he said, "i have the very, very best temperament of anyone who's ever run for president because i never, ever lose. i always win." there's just so many things temperamentally that are so different that i'd like him to look up to lincoln, maybe he can learn from him but it's very, very hard to make that comparison. >> what about lincoln's ability to get over or to pass through the storms and the hurricanes of what he went through without reacting on a daily minute by
minute basis? obviously there wasn't twitter then. but what's the difference there do you think in their communication strategy? >> i think there are several things. one thing, that lincoln understood there are times when he'd be very upset with what was going on, and sew had this ritual where he would write a hot letter to the person. like for example, general mead failed to follow up with general lee's army after the victory at gettysburg, and he wrote him a long letter saying i'm immeasurably distressed you didn't do what we asked you to, do the war might have been over but now it's going to go on month after month. but then he knew it would paralyze the general in the field. sew put it aside. it was a hot letter, hoping he'd cool down and he never sent it. underneath the notation, "never sent and never signed." now, obviously the opposite of that is when president trump gets angry with somebody that tweet goes out immediately. i sometimes think if only he had a hot tweet and a cool tweet maybe things would be a lot better. he understood that words mattered. he could speak extemporaneously,
lincoln could, as well as anybody. but he knew when you're president you can't do that. so even though he was a great debater with stephen douglas, he would prepare almost everything he ever said to the public, fearful he might say something that might be taken the wrong way. so he could certainly learn from that in a different way from tweeting when you get angry in a moment of anger or ire. >> and yet we are talking almost 200 years later. and this is a completely different communications era, and president trump's supporters would say it's the very ability to use the language no matter its shape or form and the medium that has propelled him to this success. >> well, that's a very fair comment because i think each president uses the media of his moment to an extreme if they are doing it well. lincoln's was the written word. your speech would be printed in full in the newspaper. so having that extraordinary ability with language helped him. when teddy roosevelt came along at the turn of the 20th century, his short, punchy language was able to get into the mass market
newspapers. fdr had the voice for radio. reagan and jfk had the looks and the ability to talk on television. and there's no question that president trump has mastered social media. everything he says becomes the narrative of that moment. even if it may not be the right narrative for keeping his agenda going, it puts him in the center of attention. so the question is though it allowed him to win the election i think in a lot of ways, but governing is different from campaigning. and sometimes what you are able to win with has to be censored when you finally get -- maybe people like the idea that he doesn't have a girder on like many politicians have but i think it's gotten him in a lot of trouble, some of the things he's said offhand. >> let's talk about the governing. obviously, many critics, as i suggested, are concerned about the degradation of democracy. and again, going back to lincoln, who apparently at the age of 28 wrote one of his great speeches, and he foreshadowed a
sort of caesar-like figure that might threaten the united states from within and president trump has quite regularly tweeted, loosely paraphrasing from this speech, saying america will never be destroyed from the outside. if we falter and lose our freedom, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. i mean, that is pretty insightful of him. but is he helping that destruction? >> it's fascinating that he called upon that speech to talk about it. and the interesting thing is what lincoln said at that time, it was a time of a lot of violence going on, anti-slavery violence, pro-slavery stuff in the south, and he said the only way we're going to get through this turbulent time is by remembering the values of the founders. we have to reverence law. we have to use our institutions. and people should be reading about the founders. we shouldn't forget what they did. and the interesting thing today when people feel so pessimistic about america, in a lot of ways the system itself has protection. we've seen the media, who've
been terrorized in some way by mr. trump, and yet the investigative reporting is as good now as it's ever been. we've seen members of his own party speaking up against him. that's my hope as a historian, that the system itself still has lots of power left in it. >> it's interesting you point to that because in the "new york times" the conservative commentator russ talbot has talked precisely about what you're just saying and basically saying you could sort of sum up the presidency maybe as farce rather than tragedy because none of those things you said have actually come true. and he also says for all his br braggart's talk trump has done nothing that compares with the power grabs and norm violations of woodrow wilson, lyndon johnson, richard nixon, george w. bush or even barack obama. so has it been prematurely history the dire history of the trump administration? >> i wouldn't agree with the idea of the power violations of all those other presidents. i mean, what you judge power by is what is the purpose for which
it is being used. and in those presidents, many of those i would say, certainly franklin roosevelt and lyndon johnson, they were using power for expanding, except for war in vietnam, expanding the lives and the opportunities of the ordinary citizen. and that's a very different thing from just using power for self. but i do feel less pessimistic about the country than i think a lot of other people do. we've seen movements. we saw that women's march on the day of the inauguration. now we've seen new marches this year. and as long as there's still only 35% of the people that support president trump and feel good about what he's doing and they rightfully can support him, but that means there are 65% of the other people who are not happy with the direction in which his presidency is going. not even policywise but his temperament. then i think we're still safe, we don't have to worry we're entering into? terrible despotism. >> so again, you have examined in minute detail some of the great presidents of the united
states. but another historian, shawn willens, wrote that perhaps it's not constructive to compare president trump to the great presidents but maybe to some of the not so great ones. and he said some of them performed reasonably well at first, only to slide into disaster later. might mr. trump grow in the job, making us forget his rookie season bumbling, or should we expect more of the same through 2020? what do you think? >> i think the real question is whether he can learn from mistakes, whether he can be self-reflective. look, jfk's first term was marred by the bay of pigs, and yet he learned that the way he handled that decision was wrong. he listened to the experts in the military. he didn't have enough outside advisers. and he changed and the cuban missile crisis was held in a very different way because of that. if you can learn from your mistakes, you have to acknowledge them, however. the battle of bull run was terrible for lincoln, but he stayed up all night writing a memo saying why did this go wrong? so that's what we have to look for in him.
you can grow -- it's interesting. at his 100-day marker president trump did sound wistful. the first time i ever really heard him say that. he said the presidency's harder than i thought, health care's more complicated than i thought, this job is taking more out of me than i thought. and i was hoping that that allowed him to see some sort of marker. and it's true, when the repeal of obamacare came he didn't handle that well. he got the tax bill through. so i guess you have to hope you can learn from your experiences, but you have to have the temperament that allows you to acknowledge mistakes and not blame others for the mistakes and then you can grow and certainly most of our presidents who have been great have grown in office. >> is it fair to compare the incredible political partisanship today with people all over the world look at and gasp at frankly, to the incredible division that obviously lincoln presided over? i mean, there couldn't have been a greater division than that led to a civil war. >> no question. i look at the 1850s and the cultural, political, social, economic notions of the south
and the north were so at war with one another. it was almost like two countries as it seemed. and you had partisan newspapers there. in those days before mass market newspapers, for example, if you were a republican and you were reading about the debate between lincoln and douglas you would hear that lincoln was so great that he was carried off on the arms of his achievers and they thought he would be so triumphant. if you read about the democratic paper from that same debate you'd say lincoln was so terrible he fell on the floor and they were so embarrassed they had to carry him out of the hall. so we had partisan newspapers then. we had a huge division. the sad thing is, though, it ended in a war where 600,000 people died. it's just over the last 40 years that we've seen this polarization. that's why it's so hard for us. we've obviously had it in our history. and i think it has to do with the people in congress not spending time with each other. they're not there on weekends like they used to be with their wives and their children. they don't know how to have a common mission that combines -- many of them 50 years ago had been in world war ii or the korean war together.
they knew how to fight across party lines. they spent so much time raising money. the gerrymandering was so terrible. all these things were fixable. you know, we think we're in some sort of inevitable situation of decline. but as franklin roosevelt once said, problems created by man can be solved by man. so there are ways of thinking about how to make our system better. but it certainly is not a good time in my lifetime to see the broken washington the way it is. >> it makes one wistful really to listen to you. tell us about the incredible story of lincoln's renown, how it even reached to siberia. you have a beautiful anecdote about that. >> lincoln dreamed from the time he was young of doing something that would stand the test of time, that would be remembered. he was in a near-suicidal depression when he came out and said i've not yet done anything to make any human being remember that i have lived. but even lincoln could never have dreamed of the story that tolstoy told, the great russian writer told a story to a new york reporter at the turn of the century that he'd just come back from a remote area of the
caucasus. a group of wild barbarians who'd never left that part of russia, they were so excited to have tolstoy in their midst they asked him to tell stories of the great men of history. sew said i told them about napoleon and alexander and julius caesar. want to hear about that man m who spoke with the voice of thunder, who laughed like the sunrise, who came from that place called america that is so far from here that if a young man should travel there he would be an old man when he arrived. tell us of that man. tell us of abraham lincoln. tolstoy was stunned that lincoln's name had reached this corner. s so he told them everything he could about lincoln. and then the reporter said, so what made lincoln so great after all? and tolstoy said, well, he wasn't as great a general as napoleon. not as great a statesman perhaps as frederick the great. but his greatness consisted in the moral integrity of his character. and in the end that's what we should judge all of our leaders by. he got more than he ever dreamed. >> it really is a fantastic
story. doris kearns goodwin, thank you so much for joining us. >> you are more than welcome. >> now, after the fall of the soviet union it was simply assumed that western democracy would triumph. my next guest calls that the politics of inevitability, and he says it's in dire straits. timothy snyder is author of "the road town freed unfreedom: russ europe, america." >> professor snyder, welcome from yale university in new haven. >> glad to be with you. and i just want to quote something from your book. it's built around the idea that "if russia could not become the west let the west become russia." what exactly did you mean? >> the basic idea of the road to unfreedom is that ideas don't have to travel from west to east. they did for a while, but they aren't anymore. ideas can also travel from east to west. so from russia to the european union or from russia to the
united states. what i meant in that particular quotation is that russia has not managed to establish a certain kind of regime with the rule of law, with assured social advancement, with predictable meaningful democracy. and the way that it's resolved that failure is to export it to other people. to the european union. to the united states. this serves a domestic political purpose because you don't want russians thinking that better things are possible elsewhere. it also serves as effective foreign policy because if you can disintegrate and confuse the legal order in europe and the united states then those places will no longer be able to offer any kind of a counter to what you want to do yourself. >> you've outlined the strategy. but there are tactics. so we know about the interfering in western elections. you also point a lot to what happened in ukraine. give me more examples of how the rest of the world can become russian so to speak. >> the philosophy is that nothing's really true, the facts
of the world don't really matter. the strategy is something called strategic relativism. the idea is that you want to convince people at home and abroad that nothing's true, everything's relative, everything is subjective, and therefore there's no point in acting. democracy's a joke, the rule of law's a joke, we might as well stay on our couches. the tactic, the way you convey this, is that you get into the minds of your adversaries, whether they're european or they're american. you fine the exid the existing lines, whether those are social or racial, and you play on them and you try to convince people that the only things going on in the world are the momentary psychological enmities. there's no point thinking of the real world, about facts, of how to make things better. so in that way policy toward ukraine, that is, a traditional invasion combined with cyber information war against the european union and the u.s., or the campaign to support brexit or the campaign to support the far right inside the european
union or for that matter the cyber war against the united states in 2016 which led to the election of donald trump, these are all pieces of a larger picture. the picture is one where russian reality, an oligarchical regime where citizens aren't supposed to really believe in anything except their own nation, that this model can be spread everywhere. >> but on the other hand, couldn't you say that they often overplay their hand? they got a lot of sanctions, which they still haven't got rid of, because of ukraine. they now have practically the whole of the western world united and others around the world in anger and expelling diplomats overt skripal poisoning here in london. have they shot themselves in the foot and overplayed their hand? >> they play what we would normally see as a very weak hand very well. if you look at the 20th century measures of strength, economics and technology, russia is actually extremely weak. there's no reason we should be talking about russia as much as
we do if those are the indices of power. what russia has managed to do is change the rules of the international game so that power is much less about economics, which helps you build a strong military. it's much less about technology, which allows you to have a sense of progress. and it's much more about how we feel about ourselves. it's much more about our sense of trust or our sense of fear. in this sense russia is winning at the higher level because that's a form of politics in which they're the most comfortable. if you look at the practical day-to-day reality of american foreign policy to russia, it's actually astounding how often they win. on the basic issues they are winning. they want chaos inside washington, d.c. they've got it. they want a weak american department of state. they've got it. they don't want americans to investigate dark money. they don't want americans to close the loopholes which allow for an intervention in american elections. we're not doing that. they don't want us to change our
basic reliance on fossil fuels because fossil fuels are the source of the power of the russian elite. we're not doing that. on all the basic issues, including investigating cyberwar itself, which would seem to be absolutely fundamental since the cyberwar of 2016 was a violation of american sovereignty, on all of the basic issues it's actually striking how they're winning. we've just gotten used to the fact that they're the new norm. >> professor, that really is quite chilling because you are describing a supine west. the part of the world with the rule of law, with all sorts of checks and balances and institutions that are meant to maintain as america has always called itself the exceptional nation. exceptionalism. what are you saying about that, then? >> i think in order to be exceptional you have to behave exceptionally. part of our problem in the last 25 years since the end of communism, and this holds in different ways for both the u.s. and for the european union-s that we've taken for granted that various kinds of progress
were automatic. we're now facing a test. if we allow ourselves to be convinced that nothing's true, everything's permitted, it doesn't really matter, if we all become cynical, our institutions will collapse. our institutions depend upon belief. they depend upon virtues. and they also depend upon people, including new generations who are willing to see new challenges and react to them. so the west is a set of institutions and beliefs around those institutions. the question is whether we can gather ourselves around those beliefs and revive them. >> where do you think the west went wrong, if it did, in the sort of post-soviet world? everybody called it a great triumph for democracy. as you have written also, the end of history was declared after the berlin wall fell in 1989. and you describe a conflicting philosophy. the politics of inevitability that the west has versus the
politics of eternity held by russia and elsewhere. what do you mean by that? >> you've put your finger on i think the basic intellectual mistake after the revolutions of 1989. the thing that i'm calling the politics of inevitability is precisely the idea which so many of us held that history was over, there are no alternatives, and somehow automatically democracy, liberal ideas of rights, free trade were going to spread around the world. we had a quarter century of thinking like that, of thinking that it didn't really depend upon us personally because there were certain laws of history which would make sure that things went in the right direction. when you hit a shock, when it turns out that that's not true, you have a temptation to fall into another set of ideas, which i call in the book, which i call in "road to unfreedom" the politics of eternity where you start to think politics is not about progress, it's not about the future, it's about the past. it's about how the same people
threaten us over and over and over again. russia has already moved into that model. in the united states under president trump we're moving in that direction as well with our constant invocation of america first or of making america great again, of the politics which begins from internal enemies rather than from a vision of how america might in fact be a better country. so the main thing we got wrong was our complacency. the main thing we got wrong was thinking historic or economics was go to dot political and intellectual and moral work for us. now we recognize we have to do that work and maybe that's a good thing. >> we spoke almost exactly a year ago, shortly into president trump's first year. and there were the elections in europe coming up. everybody was wondering what would happen in france and the netherlands and elsewhere. and you told me at that time that things were going to get i wonder how you judge now in
hindsight, we saw france didn't go to the extreme right racist party of marine le pen. we saw the similar candidate in the netherlands did not win. on the other hand, highly populist groups did win in italy and racist groups or neo-nazi groups are the opposition now in germany. where do you come out on balance? >> on balance what i say is this is a time of rebuilding and the rebuilding will take years and not decades. and i think -- years if not decades. it's a mistake to wait for each election as being a sign that things have finally turned around. that's always the temptation, to think that the trump election means that things are doomed in one direction or things are wonderful in the other direction. in fact, we're dealing with a long-term challenge and a long-term trend. there's bad news everywhere. there's good news in other places such as slovakia recently there's been some good news. but what i would say is this is a moment for kind of reconsideration in both the u.s. and the european union and in
the uk for what it is that we actually stand for. waiting for the next election is another form of the politics of inevitability, we just hope that the trends are going to rescue us. the trends aren't going to rescue us. it's going to be the good people like the lawyers filing suits or the reporters carrying out investigations or the young people who choose to run for office who are finally going to make things turn around. but it's going to take work and it's going to take encouragement. it's going to take some focus. >> do you believe that the checks and balances and the institutions in your own country, in the united states, are strong enough to withstand the kind of pressures that you're worried about? >> not on their own. not on their own. that's the whole point. some of our checks are not working. the legislative branch of our government, which is supposed to be branch number one, is not serving as a very effective check on branch number two, which is the executive. the judiciary may be a bit more effective. >> just one final question. you know, it's clear where you
stand on, you know, politics. but what do you say to those who say, well, you don't like the current crop of people who've been elected, certainly it's obvious you don't like president trump's policies, but i guess people voted for him because they didn't like the alternative. what's your answer to that? >> i've got a very strong view about the sovereignty of the united states. i care a great deal about the sovereignty of the united states. and what happened in 2016 was exceptional because a foreign country, the russian federation in particular, found ways to intervene in our elections. it seems that before we break ourselves down into political loyalties and parties we have to get that right, we have to be a sovereign country ruled by law first, and then we can have our political disagreements. i'm happy to agree that the alternatives put up in 2016 were imperfect. but what i wouldn't concede is that politics is only ever about the clash of imperfect candidates. politics is also about things
that are more important. it's about the virtues that we stand for and it's about the rules, the laws that we choose to live by. so it is possible to be very patriotic and to have that very patriotism lead you to a concern about the behavior of an individual. i don't have strong feelings about mr. trump one way or the other. but i would like the president of the united states to be an example of the rule of law here and an example of democracy here. that's what i would very much like to see regardless of the party. >> timothy snyder, author of "the road to unfreedom." thank you so much for joining us. >> it's been my great pleasure. thank you so much. and that is it for our program tonight. thanks for watching "amanpour" on pbs and join us again next time.
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