August 17, 2017—As President Trump continues to decry the removal of “beautiful” confederate statues and defend white supremacists, a new episode of Radio Atlantic grapples with these events as both unprecedented and, as podcast co-host and editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, describes: “a breakpoint in modern American history.” Joining the show are The Atlantic’s national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates and politics editor Yoni Appelbaum, along with Goldberg and his podcast co-hosts Matt Thompson and Alex Wagner.
Radio Atlantic Episode 5 is available now wherever you find your podcasts. Show notes and related links can be found here. Below are excerpts from the conversation:
Goldberg: “It is an amazing moment when the president of the United States can’t delineate the difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. I think this is a breakpoint in modern American history.”
Goldberg on how The Atlantic sees its role in this moment: “We work at a magazine founded by abolitionists to bring about equality in the United States, and so that’s what we stand for. Another thing that we stand for is truth, empirical truth. That we stand for the enlightenment values that there is observable empirical truth and we should double down in our support for that. … And this is not an ideological observation. I think standing for the truth, standing for pluralism and equity, these are bipartisan, or something past-bipartisan, points of view.”
Coates on how unsurprised he is by recent events: “Given where the Civil War has been in our history. Given how valorized Robert E. Lee has been for the country at large. And then given the place the confederacy has in the mind of white supremacists. Given the context of your first black president eight years before that. Given the context of your president right now who came to office openly, not dog whistling, but openly running on white supremacy and racism. No, I don’t think any of this is surprising at all.”
Coates on how white supremacy intersects with the larger Republican platform: “People talk about how crazy Trump is now, but he’s a product of the very sort of things that the party tolerated for eight years under Obama. This effort to go after voters and voting rights, claiming that two million of votes were fraudulent, that’s a direct outgrowth of the idea of voting fraud which the Republican Party en masse, which its leadership has embraced. Trump didn’t come up with that, he didn’t invent that. And so, I think he’s more blatant, he’s more direct. But he’s not the author of those ideas. … Even the folks you would point to as respectable and intelligent: their hands are dirty too. So it’s nice to hear people reject and say, ‘we have to stand up to white supremacy.’ When somebody comes up with some sort of statement against that voter commission that’s been assembled under Trump, I’ll be impressed then.”
Appelbaum, a cultural historian by training, who five years ago was teaching the Civil War and Reconstruction, describes this moment of unrest in the context of history: “This has gone back and forth in cycles for the past 150 years. … You tend to get those moments in the wake of pushes for racial equality. And I think it’s probably not a coincidence that we’re getting a moment like this just after America spent the last eight years with its first black president.”
On why he’s now a supporter of the statues coming down, Appelbaum says: “I’m a historian, I don’t love the notion of going and erasing things. And approached the statues as a historian does, as cultural artifacts to be contextualized, to be interpreted, to be understood, of a record of the messiness of America’s inconsistent progress toward democracy. And I changed my mind by talking to people. I changed my mind by listening to people tell me what it was like to walk past statues, to go to an elementary school named for the [founder of the Klan]. What it’s like for many of my fellow Americans to see this written into the landscape of our country, evidence of their lack of equality, evidence that the crimes that were committed against them are not taken seriously. And I came to understand that leaving them up imposed a cost on people other than me. ”
On the state of the white nationalist movement after Charlottesville, Appelbaum says: “At the moment it’s in a state of chaotic disorganization, but that’s for the moment. They also have the implicit backing of the president of the United States. That is not a small thing. The press conference that the president gave on Tuesday is going to really resonate. We went and talked to alt-right leaders after that, they felt they said energized, empowered, proud by what the president had said. And lots and lots of young men … are going to hear those remarks and feel as if this is something that is energizing and exciting.”
About Radio Atlantic:
We’re living in historic times. Who better than a 160-year-old magazine to help you make sense of them? Each week, The Atlantic's top editors—Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief; Matt Thompson, deputy editor; and Alex Wagner, contributing editor and CBS anchor—sit down with leading voices to explore what's happening in the world, how things became the way they are, and where they're going next.