John Avlon is a familiar television presence. He is senior political analyst and fill-in anchor at CNN and appears every morning on the network’s “New Day” program. He is also a frequent guest on programs like “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.” For good measure, he is married to Margaret Hoover, the great-granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover who is host of PBS’s “The Firing Line” (the public affairs program founded by conservative eminence William F. Buckley Jr.) and a CNN contributor. However, John Avlon is also a scholar of U.S. politics and a bestselling author, whose latest work is a study of America’s sixteenth president entitled Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.
In this podcast, John speaks with the Niskanen Center’s Geoff Kabaservice about what inspired him to examine Lincoln as a peacemaker. He describes Lincoln’s formula for peace as one that requires decisive victory — in the case of the American Civil War, Lincoln’s demand for the Southern Confederates’ unconditional surrender — followed by a magnanimous peace. John describes Lincoln as “a reconciler in a time of radicals and reactionaries,” and adds that “there’s a lot about his life and the lessons of leadership that are enormously applicable to people searching for a way to overcome the threats of violent polarization we’re dealing with today.” In John’s view, Lincoln was a pragmatist who aimed to achieve sustainable change rather than utopian transformation, and whose political approach was rooted in his understanding of human nature rather than ideology.
The discussion also touches on John’s previous books on political centrism, his work as New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s chief speechwriter, and his “Reality Check” program on CNN that examines the growth of political extremism. John also discusses how Lincoln’s perspective may be helpful in sorting through current controversies over Confederate statues, how Donald Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen election is a manifestation of Lost Cause mythology, how Lincoln’s formula for peace should guide our approach to the January 6 seditionists, and how the strength of American democracy depends on the strength of the political center.
John Avlon: Character is the indispensable quality in a president. We learn that over and over and over again. Lincoln was not particularly well prepared for the presidency, to the extent that he’d held no executive offices, no military experience, but he had character and the capacity to grow.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m truly pleased and honored to be joined today by John Avlon. He is Senior Political Analyst and anchor at CNN, where he hosts the “Reality Check” video series. He is also the former chief speechwriter for New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, the former editor-in-chief and managing director of The Daily Beast, and an author, columnist, and commentator who has written several books, including most recently the terrific new study Lincoln and the Fight for Peace. Welcome, John.
John Avlon: It’s a great pleasure to be with you, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: And congratulations again on your new book. As you know, I’m a big fan of Lincoln and the Fight for Peace, which only came out about two weeks ago. I note that it’s already the number one bestseller in U.S. Civil War history on Amazon.
John Avlon: Yeah, I was gratified to see that, I know. It’s freshly hatched, it’s making its way in the world on wobbly legs but gaining strength every day. And when you’ve been to this rodeo a few times, you know how things go. And I’ve been grateful to people like yourself, and the people who bought my previous books, and Colbert and Bill Maher and all those places that have me on to talk about it — more relevant than ever but still history, so I appreciate it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, congrats! Among your other books is 2017’s Washington’s Farewell, so this is not your first work of applied history which looks back to our greatest presidents for usable wisdom. But there’ve been 16,000 books written about Lincoln, as you pointed out, and really this is the first to examine him as a peacemaker. So it’s really both enormously original and a thought-provoking historical study that in so many ways speaks to our present polarized political predicament, as well as just being a beautifully written and engaging read.
John Avlon: Well, thank you, I appreciate that. I’m a big fan of applied history, as you say, but I want it to read in a bracing way. But as you also know, in all my books — Independent Nation, Wingnuts, Washington’s Farewell, and my columns and journalism — the through-line has always been reasserting the strength of the center, offering lessons on how to play offense and to overcome hyperpartisanship and polarization and those forces that I think you and I and our listeners agree threaten democracy. And the Founding Fathers worried about it as well. We are fighting in good company against long odds, but democracy in America’s worth it.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. I’m curious to know how the idea of this particular book project came to you.
John Avlon: Sure. Well, first of all, I mean, Lincoln is a soulful companion for anyone who buys into the civic religion of America. And I certainly did, from a young age, because my grandparents were immigrants and like many immigrant families we were taught to appreciate America — that you couldn’t take the blessings of liberty in this country for granted. And there’s something about Lincoln that is medicine to the soul, particularly in divided and polarized times.
Also, of course, my last book being about Washington. 80 years after the Farewell Address (or 70 years after the Farewell Address), the nation is facing that great crisis that Washington and the founders feared, and Lincoln steps into the breach to try to heal a divided nation. He’s a man of peace in a time of war. He’s a reconciler in a time of radicals and reactionaries. And there’s a lot about his life and the lessons of his leadership that are enormously applicable to people searching for a way to overcome the threats of violent polarization we’re dealing with today.
What also attracted me — which is the other layer of the book — is this question of how you win a peace. It’s one that, certainly in our lifetime, America has struggled with, unsuccessfully in many cases. And to look at how Lincoln as a peacemaker anticipated many of the best practices that were ultimately put in place by the United States after the Second World War. And that was crystallized for me in a quote I found years ago by General Lucius Clay, who was an American general born in the South thirty years after the Civil War, son of a three-term Georgia senator, and he presided over what’s sometime known as “the good occupation” of Germany. Some reporter asked him what guided his decisions and he said, “I tried to think what Abraham Lincoln would’ve done for the South if he had lived.” And that opened it up to me, because I’m always interested in the afterlife of ideas and the application of ideas and turning ideas into action.
And certainly you see in Lucius Clay — and in the Marshall Plan most primarily, which is an investment in peace, the opposite of reparations — that this approach of combining strength with magnanimity, unconditional surrender followed by a magnanimous peace, is enormously effective. It’s given us 70 years of peace and prosperity in Europe, which is being tested today by Vladimir Putin, but it’s all the more reason for us to not take those gains for granted.
Geoff Kabaservice: John, I think you mentioned that you grew up partially in the South. Can you tell me something about your early upbringing and education?
John Avlon: Sure. I was born in New York City and my folks moved to South Carolina, Charleston, when I was fourteen years old. I love the South, I love Charleston, I love South Carolina. And I did get a glimpse of kind of the last cultural hangovers — I mean glimpse, where we’d pass a plaque that says “the War of Northern Aggression” and stuff like that. And so I appreciate that perspective, but I’m also interested in reconciling it. And the South — and Charleston in particular — has changed so much since my folks moved there 30 years ago. But you know, it is this fitful progress we’ve made, particularly since the civil rights era, when all of a sudden things opened up again.
And it’s also a reminder for me — and something that you and I are both passionate about — that this stereotype of the nation being comprised of unbridgeable divides between red states and blue states is fundamentally false. In fact, if you want to look, without discounting the danger of the tribal politics we’re dealing with today, it’s much more true to say that the deepest divides in our politics are urban versus rural. And then when you study history, you see that those were in many ways the dividing lines at the Constitutional Convention. And I wrote about this at great length in Washington’s Farewell, but in recent research I noted that almost every major Southern city voted, for example, for Biden over Trump, and Hillary Clinton over Trump, and for Obama. I mean, there are one or two exceptions like Oklahoma City, but it is just a reminder that we are not as divided as it seems sometimes.
And that’s something of an article of faith for people like you and me who try to speak from the center and who are looking for ways to reunite the nation. And we realize so often we are divided by false choices and false dichotomies. And it’s important to call those out, to give people hope that resonates with their own real, lived experience.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you have become one of our greatest bards of centrism, I’m curious as to who some of your early heroes or inspirations might have been.
John Avlon: Well, from American history, certainly I’ve always gravitated to Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington to some extent, Jefferson to some extent. And it always seemed to me that the bifurcation of politics into partisan divides actually ignored the way that we look at leaders in the rear-view mirror of history, where in many cases the least important thing about them is what political party they belonged to because the associations no longer apply. Republicans in Lincoln’s time were an upstart third party. It was a big-tent party. It was a moderate, progressive party devoted to stopping (at very least) the spread of slavery. And we can have a great conversation, you and me, about the different varieties of the centrist and moderate experience, because it’s important I think to make moral distinctions for folks, or functional distinctions.
In my own growing up, I think that Bill Clinton’s sort of Third Way/DLC Democrats when I was a freshman in college made a big impression on me, mostly because it did manage to break down a lot of the dichotomies and false choices. And Democrats today sometimes forget that before Bill Clinton came along, for all of his self-inflicted wounds politically, that Democrats had lost three consecutive elections in more than 40 states, and that recentering the Democratic Party through the DLC was an enormously effective, principled political project.
And then I went to work for Rudy Giuliani in New York as mayor. And at the time, Rudy also represented a Third Way tradition, and politically there wasn’t that much of a difference between him and Bill Clinton, albeit working in a city, an overwhelmingly Democratic city. But he drew on that urban Republican tradition that dates back to at least Fiorello LaGuardia and Teddy Roosevelt. And I remember there was a New Republic cover story by Peter Beinart at the time called “The New Progressives,” and it highlighted these Third Way mayors at the time — people like Rudy, Dick Riordan in L.A., Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis, Michael White of Cleveland — who were really bringing urban America back from the brink by challenging the sort of sclerotic bureaucracies that had stopped progress in all sort of manners of excuses they came up with. But that was a major inspiration to me as well. And Rudy today is very different as a matter of judgment and temperament than he was then, but I learned a lot from him as well as a young man, as his chief speechwriter in my twenties.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, without naming names, we’ve both known people who once were considered centrists, maybe who even believed themselves to be moderates and centrists, who subsequently were drawn toward the political extremes. And I wonder how you would respond to what I think is a growing perception, really on both the left and the right, that centrism is gray and boring, or that it stands for nothing, or that at any rate it can’t command the passions needed to bring about widespread change.
John Avlon: So I fundamentally reject that, not surprisingly. And I think you can speak to the leadership of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and many others to show that that’s a completely self-serving argument that rewards the extremes and ignores the mainstream of wisdom in American political history. It is one of the things that the extremes do to try to diminish the power and effectiveness and record of the center in American politics. And I think that in many cases it’s reinforced in our time not only by the political weight that’s been given via polarization, but the rise of the partisan economy, which itself is enormously corrupting. It takes people who are more sensible and more centrist in any given party and it says, “Look, the smart money politically and economically is to back the extremes. And we will distract you through the narcotic of negative partisanship. And we will ask you to focus almost exclusively on the perceived sins of the caricatures of the opposite side.”
And that feedback loop is enormously effective in polarizing the electorate. And that in and of itself is reinforced by the incentive structure in our politics, which is completely screwed up (by intention) through the rigged system of redistricting and closed partisan primaries that further polarize the electorate, and then gives people the appearance of choices between the relative extremes. It means that general elections are virtually uncontested and it slides states to one-party status, which itself is always a recipe for corruption among other things — moral or practical or criminal in some cases.
That is not the great wellspring of strength in American political history. That is not where most of our most effective leaders have come from. It is a false choice being reinforced by people with a vested interest in these outcomes. And that’s why it needs to be pushed against deeply, in a principled way, drawing on history, drawing on the realities of effective leadership. But it does require that those of us in the center first of all stand up, speak out, straighten our civic backbones; that we clad ourselves in bright primary colors not pale pastels; and that we also recognize that some of the criticisms of the center need to be pushed back on as well.
The idea that some folks in the center are transactional and opportunistic, as opposed to principled and determined, is one that even Lincoln himself faced. I mean, he was, as I say, a reformer, a reconciler in a time of radicals and reactionaries. As Frederick Douglass said, from an abolitionist perspective, he could be seen as tardy, cool, and indifferent. But seen from the perspective of other politicians who were bound to consult the sentiments of the citizenry, he was zealous, radical, and determined. And the wisdom there is that Lincoln was focused on trying to achieve sustainable change. That’s what folks in the center do, in the vital center.
And Steven Douglas, I could argue, is an example of how not to be a moderate in the context of Lincoln’s time. He pushed a compromise bill of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He pretended to be agnostic on the question of slavery. He said, “Let’s leave it up to the states.” That is the kind of amoral trimming that gives centrists a bad name.
Ultimately the strength of the center — like the strength of the middle in our political system, like the strength of the middle class — is absolutely necessary ballast for democracy to move things forward. It depends on competitive general elections and people competing for votes in the center. What we’re dealing with now is a complete perversion of the system. And it has led to politicians deciding that the smart money means you will play to the extremes, and that directly leads to a crisis of confidence in democracy. It leads to division and dysfunction, where politicians are only thinking about how to win the next election and protect their jobs, not how to solve problems on behalf of the American people. And that only feeds into the worst stereotypes of authoritarians as they try to run down the effectiveness of democracy.
So that’s the big picture we always need to keep in mind. The strength of the center absolutely, directly results in the strength of democracy. So if you are working against that in any way, shape, or form, where you are trying to offer people false choices and trying to come up with all sorts of ornate rationalizations for why playing to the base rather than playing to the center is the smart political move, at the end of the day you are contributing to the arguments that our enemies make against democracy: that we are divided and dysfunctional and can’t make decisions on behalf of people.
So we do need to build a movement, a broad movement, to defend democracy in America right now. We also need to strengthen the center in America and to wake ourselves and shake ourselves from this incredibly dangerous tribalism, which has preoccupied our politics and compromised democracy’s strength and effectiveness at a time where we need to demonstrate that, arguably now more than any time in living memory.
Geoff Kabaservice: Amen to that. And I want to insert here a little plug for your “Reality Check” series on CNN, which is looking at extremism but also I think diagnosing the vulnerabilities of moderation and the center, which in some sense enables the success of extremists.
John Avlon: Yeah. I mean, any understanding, a rational understanding, of the relative merits and demerits of any political perspective requires understanding in an empathetic way where the hit on you is that’s rational and what’s just cynical and specious. And so the center needs to be very aware of this idea that it’s a split-the-difference, mushy middle — you know, find a mathematically gauged middle point on any moral issue and/or trade away great principles for marginal gains. That is the exact opposite of what we need to do. We need to play offense from the center. We need to call out the extremes. We need to figure out what are the great principles we are steering towards that can unite people — at the end of the day understanding this is not a maximalist ideological project, but it is about saying that many of us in the center are more fiscally conservative and more socially liberal-to-libertarian. That is not the only formulation for the center, but it is where many folks are.
And most of all, we need to insist and fight for reforms that will defend democracy by resulting in more representative elections. Representative elections get representative results. So I do think it’s a matter of having a fighting spirit, being a happy warrior, but standing up clearly for what we believe in to counteract those negative stereotypes about the center. It’s the old poem by W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” where the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. Asking for passionate intensity from the best, from the center, is not too much to ask given the stakes. And that’s what we need to supply. We need to show people there is an alternative, and that this is a great cause worth being part of and joining.
Geoff Kabaservice: Allen Guelzo wrote a generally admiring review of your book in last week’s New York Times…
John Avlon: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: And he’s a great Civil War historian, but he’s also one of the few conservatives in academia. And he seemed to be puzzled by your whole conception of centrism. He seems to feel, as he put it, that your portrait of the sixteenth president as a soulful centrist “plays down the highly ideological Lincoln.” And I think that’s because, in Guelzo’s view, Lincoln took firm and non-squishy positions on tariffs, on infrastructure-building. There wasn’t a lot of room there for compromise with the Democrats’ position. And he further took a frankly confrontational position that there could be no compromise between freedom and slavery, and that the nation had to become “all one thing or all the other.”
John Avlon: Well, look… I mean, first of all I appreciate his review. It was overall very positive. And I appreciate the headline “A Lincoln for Our Polarized Times.” I’ll take that all day long. I was struck by the fact that yes, he is a self-identified conservative in academia — more power to him for that. We need ideological diversity. It matters as much as any other kind of diversity, probably more.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s right.
John Avlon: But I was struck by the fact that he seized on one line in the conclusion, where I describe Lincoln as “a soulful centrist,” and decided to make that as his counterpoint, where he is clearly exercising an ideological option of his own. Look at Lincoln in the times in which he lived. It’s human nature to try to claim people as a member of your tribe. But if you just look at the way that Lincoln was clearly at odds with radical Republicans in his party — and, God knows, conservative Democrats, who were conservative populists in his time — the argument starts to break down from there. Lincoln is a single-issue candidate when he runs for the Senate, but he is opposed to slavery’s expansion. He is not an advocate for abolition, even as president, because he feels he’s constrained by the Constitution. Only the war gives him the power, he believes, to start pushing through the Emancipation Proclamation.
Not only that, he intentionally waits on the Emancipation Proclamation in part because he doesn’t want to alienate the border states. He’s working on the border states, which are states that have had slavery but did not join the Confederacy. If he had gone too far, too fast from an ideological, absolutist position, those states would’ve joined the Confederacy and tipped the balance of power at a crucial time. Instead, Lincoln keeps them in the fold. He withstands the slings and arrows of abolitionists who say he’s not committed enough, not zealous enough, not radical enough. It’s not just Douglass but Chase and other members of his own Cabinet who say that about him.
By the way, those people were not anything resembling conservatives in their time. They were on the liberal side of that equation, which is something that our conservative friends sometimes forget because they latch onto the label “Republican” and don’t look at the underlying philosophical continuity between positions of conservative and liberal. And if you give people solely those two choices, Lincoln is a liberal leader, but he is not a radical leader, i.e. from the radical left.
So over and over and over again, as I quote both from people assessing him as he lived to Lincoln’s own assessment of the political dividing lines of his time, he is not a conservative in anything like the way we would define it today — in part because conservatives were in favor of conserving the Union and the Constitution as it was, as it was written then. So Lincoln is not a conservative as we would understand the term today — though yes, he is a Republican. The Republican tradition is very different than what it has come to be today. But neither is he a radical, because he’s conscious of the fact that if you move too far, too fast, you will create a backlash that can actually hurt the cause of progress. He is interested in sustainable progress.
As I say, his gradualism has a grandeur to it, because he’s interested in how you can structure forces and incentive structures and articulate principles, undergirded by his personal example, that can lead to sustainable progress. And this is a combining of strength with mercy. And this is something that I think people misunderstand about the center. It is about combining… As I say, Lincoln believes that decency can be the most practical form of politics: the politics of the golden rule, treating other people as you’d like to be treated. But he understood that people were far more likely to listen to reason when greeted from a position of strength. There is no substitute for winning. And that’s an equation which requires holding two ideas in balance not tension — or tension but not contradiction — that is key to effective leadership.
And so that’s where I feel that Allen sort of missed the mark. But I do understand that for a lot of committed partisans or ideological-minded people today, that there is this sense that the center is not a credible place and everything must be sliced and diced into your own sort of virtuous frame of reference. But Lincoln was not a conservative in the context of his time. And there’s every reason to suggest that he was not only not an ideological absolutist, he was impatient with absolutism. And there’s quote after quote to suggest that.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s pointed out in your book that Lincoln is rarely described as a peacemaker because he was assassinated five days after Appomattox. He didn’t live to see Southern Reconstruction. But you very convincingly, I think, put together Lincoln’s view of how the peace was to be achieved after the war through a sort of narrative history of his last six weeks. And, again, I think you very convincingly have described how he transmitted his view of the peace to come to people like Ulysses Grant, who then carried it out. In simplest terms, what is the Lincoln formula for peace?
John Avlon: Unconditional surrender followed by a magnanimous peace. And that’s absolutely critical to understand. Again, it’s combining strength with mercy to get the most optimal outcome. And it’s reflected also in, I think, Lincoln’s understanding of human nature — which, by the way, incorporating an understanding of human nature and human frailty in the most forgiving sense is a very centrist thing to do.
Most people don’t like to be subjected to utopian projects. Lincoln in his vision of Reconstruction notably does not believe in a top-down, one-size-fits-all ideological approach. He is pragmatic. He is problem-solving. He actually believes in federalism: he wants the states to buy into their own reconstruction. He believes and says that different states might have different solutions to this problem, and as long as they’re steering towards the same great goals, he doesn’t much care how they get there. They’ll be doing it at different paces and a different tone and temper, and that’s okay with Lincoln. One of the many things that he has to teach us all — but I think also in reflecting the best side of centrism — is that he is willing to be enormously flexible on details. He is offer willing to offer enormous face-saving mechanisms to his opponent. He believes that empathy is a means of reasoning with his opponents.
But he believes it’s important to be inflexible on a handful of great goals. In the context of the war, when he is negotiating with Confederates on the River Queen and elsewhere, he writes that there are three indispensable conditions. He writes out in his own hand and he presents them to Confederates on the River Queen at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference and also after the fall of Richmond. It’s an acceptance of federal authority: the seceding states will accept the authority of the United States government. Two, an end to slavery for all time, removing the root cause of the war. Three, no ceasefire before surrender. And that’s incredibly important because he believes that if there’s a ceasefire before surrender that there will be backsliding on the great issue of slavery, that the political will will be lost. And that if that’s not addressed, the peace won’t hold; you’ll see war erupting on the ashes of the past. And he’s right about that.
And so too in Reconstruction, he is focused on the great goals but he’s willing to be enormously flexible on the details. He wants to be very forgiving to the rank-and-file Confederates, whom he feels have been misled. He wants liberal and honorable terms of peace: give them their guns to shoot crows with and their horses to go home and plow with. But among the people who should know better, the leaders who rebelled in the insurrection, the people who left Congress or the courts or the military to join the Confederacy — he does not want to offer those people the same sort of amnesty so they can simply reclaim their power. And that’s not a contradiction. It’s a sense of judgment and an understanding of human nature, and realizing there needs to be accountability and truth before there can be real, effective reconciliation.
And that is rooted in an understanding of human nature, which is one of the things that centrists do, I think, more empathetically, honestly, and accurately than our more ideological opponents who try to impose ideas, whatever they may be, and don’t take into account human nature and the fact that people want to be treated with dignity and respect. And they can be incentivized towards societally beneficial behavior, particularly if someone communicates to their head and their heart rather than presume to dictate rules from top-down, which most people will rationally push back on. That’s something that some folks on the left and the right miss all the time.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’re reminding me that one of the things I liked so much about your book was how you often take cultural objects — like in this case G. P. A. Healy’s painting of Lincoln aboard the River Queen discussing plans for a postwar peace with his generals — and you kind of tease them apart in a way that’s really entertaining.
John Avlon: Well, thank you. That painting is great.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. And I also really liked just the luminous portrait you paint of Lincoln as a human being and how his qualities gave substance to his centrism and his moderation. And the portrait you present is, in one resounding quote, “Lincoln as a person of empathy, honesty, humor, and humility,” and how all of those qualities were really very essential to his moderation.
John Avlon: Absolutely. And this is something I think as a journalist/historian. I think it can’t be said enough, first of all, that character is the indispensable quality in a president. We learn that over and over and over again. Lincoln was not particularly well prepared for the presidency, to the extent that he’d held no executive offices, no military experience. But he had character and the capacity to grow. He knew how to empathize with people. And I do think, as I distill it, that it is empathy, honesty, humor, and humility that are the essential qualities of his personality. Those personal qualities translate to his principles and ultimately find expression in his politics and policies. And I think that general equation stands, which is why we need to think about character far more fundamentally, I think, when we’re selecting our presidents. And Andrew Johnson is an example of the dangers that can occur, or we’ve had other more recent examples.
And I think certainly from a matter of temperament, judgment, instinct, Trump is the anti-Lincoln and vice versa. But so was Johnson. I mean, Johnson is described by the Atlantic Monthly at the time as being “egotistic to the point of mental disease: thin-skinned, vain, and resentful.” And those are dangerous qualities in as powerful as an executive as we have now, especially because they can take the nation further off-center, particularly at a time when firmness and magnanimity were I think most required. And we didn’t have them at a critical moment. And it’s one of the reasons why ultimately slavery is replaced by segregation for a century.
Geoff Kabaservice: You very convincingly, I think, present the tragedy of Reconstruction under Johnson as one of the greatest missed opportunities in American history, and within that overall tragedy Johnson’s abolition of the Freedmen’s Bureau as one of the completely missed opportunities to rebuild an equitable and lasting peace among the peoples of the United States.
John Avlon: Yeah, the Freedmen’s Bureau is a tragic, lost opportunity. It’s created by Lincoln. It’s under the auspices of the Defense Department but it really is sort of a public/private initiative designed to help bridge slavery to self-sufficiency and address the critical needs of refugees, both white and black, in the immediate aftermath of the war. And Johnson decides to gut it and attack it and dismantle it at a time when it could have done great good.
I try not to get into what-ifs, but policy does interest me. I mean, it’s the ideas being put into action that interest me, the applied history, the useful wisdom. And you look at some of the things that Lincoln did even in the darkest days of the war in 1862 to set up a structure that he believed could help us win the peace: from the Transcontinental Railroad to the Homestead Act, which incentivized people to move west, to the Land-Grant College Act that established colleges… What he was trying to do was create a structure, an incentive structure rooted in public policy, that would move the nation’s attention west rather than fixating on North/South divides. It would be essentially a steam valve that would let out steam and move people’s attention, and then setting up a structure where he believed that economic expansion would give people a sense of shared investment in a prosperous future, putting the past in the past.
And he knew it would take time. I mean, we’re talking about big things: multiracial democracy, majoritarian democracy. But he said over and over again: he hoped that gradually even whites and blacks in the South would learn to live together, navigate a new way. That underscored why voting rights were so essential to blacks, and of course that’s what was subverted, really, to the nation. The violence, voter intimidation, the voter suppression, the election subversion that characterizes Reconstruction is a reminder that we cannot take our gains for granted. And I think Grant’s actions with the anti-KKK Enforcement Act, which he had implemented by a Southern attorney general — a very centrist move that — is an example of where things briefly worked. He got us back on the Lincoln path.
Geoff Kabaservice: You call attention in a careful way to the distinction between Lincoln’s vision of a reconstruction of the South versus a restoration of the antebellum status quo, as it were. And I think that’s very important because Lincoln was really holding out a vision of refounding the nation and modernizing in many ways, and offering greater opportunities to people of the South and North alike. And you dug up a very curious quote from Jefferson Davis (of all people) near the end of his life, who you’d think would’ve been great with Andrew Johnson’s crabbed and conservative vision of what happened in Reconstruction. But in fact, Jefferson Davis thought Lincoln’s vision actually would’ve worked out better for the South.
John Avlon: It was an extraordinary interview I found, towards the end of Jefferson Davis’ life. And in it, he grants that Lincoln was a great and wise man, and he says the death of Lincoln was one of the greatest misfortunes the South could have endured. And that was not an uncommon — it was far from unanimous, but you had many leading Southerners who realized that the death of Lincoln was a great misfortune to the South, because it would rupture that feeling of magnanimity that he had done so much to put into place. And as Davis says, he was replaced with a demagogue, Andrew Johnson, the worst of all men: Johnson, who was a Southerner, who was a War Democrat, but ended up really re-empowering the restoration of the planter class by giving basic blanket amnesty and by fighting equal rights at every chance he could when it came to blacks. Because he was really motivated by a deep bigotry, which suffused almost everything he did. It’s an object lesson in what not to do, or at least the danger of the wrong person at the wrong time.
Geoff Kabaservice: So although you’ve said that you don’t like to engage in hypotheticals, I wonder what factors Lincoln might have brought up, if he were around to guide us, in our recent controversies over the Civil War statues that we find throughout the nation pertaining to the South and the Confederacy.
John Avlon: As you say, I don’t love what-ifs. But I tell a story about Lincoln in Richmond, where he’s in a carriage ride soon after arriving… The city’s still smoldering and is just coming under Northern control. And he gets a carriage ride with his boy, Tad, next to him. And they go up to the Libby Prison, which was a converted tobacco warehouse that had been one of the most infamous POW camps during the war. It’s now being briefly used to hold Confederates, some of whom are being guarded by their former slaves.
The crowd surrounding Lincoln shouts, “Tear it down!” And Lincoln, even in that moment — and I think here there’s among other things that kind of a powerful cautionary tale about how wise leaders should always resist the calls of the mob — he raises his hand and said, “No. Leave it as a monument.” And that to me is profound because the easy thing to do, of course, is to tear it down, erase the history. We’ve been through a traumatic event: destroy any remnant of it. Lincoln’s impulse is to say, “No, that’s the easy way out. And that’s dangerous because we need to learn from our history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. It requires learning the right lessons. And erasing history is the easy and unwise way out.”
Now, how is that different than Confederate statues? Well, first of all, I think it would augur to the very least to say that Confederate statues should be in museums. We can’t erase our history. But when you look at the context in which these Confederate statues were created, often decades after the Civil War, sometimes by descendants who wanted to think well of their forefathers and the overall process of reconciliation at the expense of honoring emancipation, but especially getting upticks in the wake of Brown v. Board. The most recent Confederate statue I’m aware of is to Nathan Bedford Forrest, former KKK grand wizard and Confederate general, erected in the Tennessee state capitol in 1970. What’s that about? It doesn’t take a genius. UVA did a study recently showing that the overlaid locations of known lynchings versus overlap with the locations of Confederate statues, there’s a high degree of correlation.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, and obviously there’s a question of the accountability that was so much of a part of Lincoln’s formula for peace, right? Denying the legitimacy of the South’s defeat is what’s at the heart of so many of those statues.
John Avlon: Well, that’s exactly right. The Lost Cause mythology is particularly pernicious. It’s one of the reasons why Lincoln insists on an unconditional surrender. He believes at the end of the war that the South knows it has been decisively defeated, but the rise of the Lost Cause mythology is one of the things he feared. Indeed, I think you can make a strong case that the Big Lie is a manifestation of Lost Cause mythology today, often in some cases using the same Confederate iconography. Whenever our politics start descending into tribalism, we’re on a dangerous path, and Lost Cause mythology defends and tries to ennoble that. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that what it has been ennobling, especially seen with perspective and over time, is the textbook definition of treason.
There are lots of ways to know it’s not simply a matter of “heritage not hate,” one of which is that the Confederate constitution explicitly mentioned that slavery is predicated upon the idea that all men are not created equal. And if you’re obsessively trying to defend that tradition, what are you really talking about? Lincoln has a great phrase called “the wolf’s dictionary,” and it speaks to a lot of our divides today about language. Even then he said we don’t have a common definition of liberty, because the South argued it was fighting for liberty while of course fighting to defend slavery. He told a story, as he often was wont to do because he spoke in parables, learning it from Jesus and Aesop among others. He said the shepherd defends a sheep from an attack of a wolf, for which he is praised as a protector, a liberator of the sheep, but for which he is denounced by the wolf as a destroyer of liberty, particularly if the sheep is a black one. He says we’ve gone a long way towards repudiating the wolf’s dictionary in recent years.
And I think that’s still a challenge we have today. Words have meaning. A lawyer like Lincoln knew that. When people invoke liberty for causes that are contrary to the essence of that word, beware. That’s one of the things we learn from history. When you hear echoes of old arguments that have been used to defend tyrannical things, don’t take it at face value.
Geoff Kabaservice: Absolutely. I’m thinking that on January 6th of last year, we actually saw the Confederate flag unfurled in the Capitol, as it never was in the Civil War itself.
John Avlon: Correct.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’ve been haunted ever since then by a piece by Anne Applebaum that came out in The Atlantic just a few weeks later called “Coexistence with January 6 Seditionists Is the Only Option.” And by “seditionist” she doesn’t mean just those who stormed the Capitol but those who sympathize with them, because essentially they believe Donald Trump’s Lost Cause, the Big Lie of a stolen election, and essentially reject the American political system. Again, drawing on Lincoln’s example, what are we to do with these seditionists — and not just the leaders, but those “misled creatures,” as the Confederates were referred to by an observer at the time?
John Avlon: Well, first of all, I think the world of Anne Applebaum. And some of the wisest people, analyzers of our times, are people who have been associated with the center-right but broke decisively with Donald Trump because he was a repudiation of everything that movement allegedly believed in. I think looking at the Lincoln playbook, you’ll see two things. First of all, there must be accountability and truth before there can be reconciliation. That means legal accountability, particularly for the instigators of the insurrection. The Civil War generation left us a number of laws, I should say, to deal with insurrections, from the 14th Amendment Section Three, which would bar people who participate in insurrection from holding federal office, to criminal statutes that deal with seditious conspiracy and treason, insurrection, rebellion, to (I would argue and have argued) conspiracy to defraud the United States.
They should be invoked. They exist for a reason. They were bequeathed to us by the Civil War generation specifically to use in future instances. They were not intended to be solely retrospective. I do think there needs to be a distinction between the people who try to perpetrate a fraud and attempt to overturn an election with the rank and file who’ve been misled. I do think also there’s no substitute for victory in elections. I think ultimately the incentive structure has to change where people feel it’s not profitable to follow a lie. That’s a reason to push for election reforms that would actually re-empower the center and disempower this attempt to move our elections to closed partisan, play-to-the-base contests where the extremes have stacked the deck in their favor. Because that only guarantees more division and dysfunction, as we’ve seen. Because apparently an attack on the Capitol is not enough to unite us as a nation anymore.
But I do think a distinction needs to be made. And if you study, as I’ve done in my book Wingnuts and more recently in “Reality Check,” if you study any cults or extremist groups and talk to people who’ve gotten out of them, there is a known process of how you de-radicalize people. The problem is that’s not particularly scalable. But first of all, elevate the stories of people who have come to their senses and left the cult, have left the extremist group. The reason why these groups hunt for heretics so much is that the heretics are the people who are most threatening to their hold on power, because they will have the most credibility ultimately with the people in the group.
But it does require empathy and giving people a face-saving path away from extremism. It requires reminding them of the values that they said they once believed and how the movement they’re following or the leader they’re following contradicts those values in a fundamental way. It does not require a humiliating, confrontational approach. Again, this is separate from legal accountability, which absolutely is necessary. The process of getting to the truth, and getting people to accept the truth in widespread public education efforts, is also essential. We must establish the broadest possible coalition to defend democracy and to elevate the truth. That’s why Kinzinger and Cheney & Co. are doing incredibly important work right now, at their short-term political expense.
Geoff Kabaservice: John, as a last question… You and your wife are extremely good at being able to see the present political moment in the long sweep of history. You’re also parents, I believe, to two children who are under the age of ten.
John Avlon: Yep.
Geoff Kabaservice: Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the kind of world and America that they’re going to inherit?
John Avlon: I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic because my study of history suggests that while progress is far from inevitable, that day follows night. I believe that evil exists, must be confronted, but the vast majority of people are basically good. I believe we are at a jump-ball moment where basic things like democracy and truth are under threat. I believe that in the fullness of time it will be seen as a reaction to globalization, at a time when a lot of tribal identities and old certainties have been shaken. All the more reason to give people a sense of belonging to an idea that’s bigger than themselves, that is not rooted in tribal resentments. History shows us also that cults ultimately fail, cults ultimately fade. They ultimately end — usually badly, by the way.
What really sums up my feelings on that subject — beyond the fact that having children is a civilizing force, in part because it forces you emotionally to think about something larger than yourself, to think about the chain of destiny, to combine the past with the present with the future, lessons of the past applied to the present in order to steer us toward a better future — is an unfortunately apocryphal Lincoln quote. But I love it enough to quote it, which is: “I’m an optimist because I don’t see the point in being anything else.”
Geoff Kabaservice: On that wonderful note, John Avlon, thank you so much for talking with me. Congratulations on your new book, and best of luck in everything you do.
John Avlon: Thank you so much, to you as well and to all the listeners of the Vital Center. Keep fighting the good fight.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.