Julian Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at the University. He is also a CNN Political Analyst and regular guest on NPR’s “Here and Now” broadcast.
He is the author and editor of 22 books. His most recent book, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment,” was published by the Princeton University Press, on April 12, 2022. The book brings together essays from a number of scholars on President Trump’s time in office. He sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss the book, the ramifications of the Trump presidency, and what he hopes students can take away from the last few years.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: Could you begin by describing your latest book and its central thesis?
Julian Zelizer: We're taking a first look at the Trump presidency with each historian trying to understand those four years in a long-term perspective. It's trying to understand how the Trump presidency fit into a 20-year framework, in terms of what was happening to the Republican Party, what was happening on immigration policy. It's meant in some ways to start the debate that will continue forever, about how we interpret the significance of the President.
DP: You teach a course at the University that examines U.S. history after 1974, especially the rise of the conservative movement and heightened political polarization. Can you speak a little bit more about how the Trump presidency connects to the last 50 years of American politics and these broader trends that you note in your course?
JZ: One of the themes in the course is how the Republican Party overtime shifts to the right. It's very distinct. It accelerates with Ronald Reagan, and then it accelerates even more with the Tea Party. Tax questions for corporations, the hardline stance on immigration, a plan of attack on climate change regulation, all these rollouts where the Republican Party had been moving for a long time before Trump was in office. The strategies and the tactics that he uses, a kind of partisan warfare without guardrails, is something I've argued we've actually seen gaining strength in the party since the 1980s.
The second place you really see this is in the media. He was someone who — I don't know if it's instinctual or he thought it through, that's one of the puzzles people will study — but he really understood how the modern 24-hour cable slash social media system works and how you can really throw things out there very quickly, often unedited, and stimulate lots of debate. I think this was really important to his whole strategy. And we also understood, again connected to that, how the conservative media that takes over the ’90s and the early 2000s really would be a base for him to reach his supporters and to maintain anything in his power. Finally, I guess there's just a lot of policy areas, such as immigration or the climate, where it's not as if he was issuing policies that came out of nowhere. They actually had pretty strong support.
DP: For most current undergraduate students, including myself, the 2016 or 2020 election years that were arguably dominated by Trumpist rhetoric was the first time they were able to vote. Speaking from my own experience, the only presidential politics I've been exposed to has been marked by the divisiveness that we saw during these two campaigns. What would you say to these students to reassure them about the future of American politics?
JZ: I would be straightforward and say that some of what students respond to, whether it's divisiveness of politics, whether it's some of the dysfunction of our system — its inability to deal with issues like gun control, for example or the kind of rhetoric that is normalized — not just of President Trump, but many supporters, many parts of the media: those are real. The things that unfolded on January 6, like you saw in front of your eyes, the attacks on voting, all of this is not something we should just say will get better, because I think it reflects some of the brokenness of where politics has moved in 2022. The first thing I would tell students is understand this. Really study it — really try to grapple with why it's all happening, not just the Trump presidency, but different elements of politics altogether. Then the second thing I always say is that there shouldn't be a reason to be feeling despair. That's when politics matters, maybe more than when things are working smoothly.
DP: American historian Arthur Schlesinger called the 1960s a high-velocity age. I was wondering, how would you categorize the speed of the recent history that you're covering in your book?
JZ: Very fast. Communication is instant. I think it's a fast culture and that our attention span is not very long. And for me, what's always remarkable is watching how the public will move from one issue to the other issue very quickly and almost forget about what we were dealing with just a few weeks, if not a few days earlier. I think Schlesinger was right, and that's only intensified because of technology.
DP: Do you see any issues with this historical assessment being driven by historians from “elite” universities or academic institutions? How do you see the absence of working class voices?
JZ: That's always a question and I don't know, for me, I just pick really smart historians who can write in interesting ways. I still think that will produce the best work, and I think that it is kind of dangerous in some ways to do the opposite; some people say you need liberal historians and conservative historians and so on, but I just want really smart historians [...] whatever their personal political perspective, whatever they think about President, to write really good empirical and convincing analysis. So I am still a believer in the quality of high-quality historians above trying to find some kind of magical mix of where people come from to produce the best.
DP: What do you hope Princeton students specifically can take away from this book?
JZ: Trump, as they remember, is highlighted and some of the things he said and some of the controversy with time and center, and I hope that the book helps them not only remember that but see how it fit into that period. I just hope they can see where this all came from, where he came from, where his style of politics came from, and that they don't think the world was made anew in 2017. They can read the book and really get that on issues like race and climate and immigration and impeachment. They'll just have a richer understanding of his presidency, and that would make me very happy to have students to kind of shift from the debate of “I hate Trump. I love Trump,” to, “I see his positions on immigration, and why did the Republican Party support him on that?”
DP: Does your book reference at all a possibility of a 2024 Trump campaign, and how does it treat that possibility?
JZ: We still treat the presidency, a one-term presidency as it was. And if that changes, we'll expand the book when the time comes, but we're not there.
Kalena Blake is an associate news editor for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.