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Julian Zelizer: Living with Fear of Nuclear Weapons, Again

October 10, 2022
Notes
Transcript

Since Ronald Reagan signed the INF nuclear arms reduction treaty, all presidents have worked to limit nuclear proliferation — except Trump, who pulled the US out of arms control deals. The nukes are still here, and we’re depending on Putin to be rational. Julian Zelizer joins Charlie Sykes.

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This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions. Ironically, the transcription service has particular problems with the word “bulwark,” so you may see it mangled as “Bullard,” “Boulart,” or even “bull word.” Enjoy!
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:08

    Happy Monday. I think it’s happy Monday, although as I just was saying to somebody, I feel like I’ve taken crazy pills this morning, but that was probably because I spent too much time listening to some of the audio from former president Trump’s rallies over the weekend, margery, Taylor Green, etcetera. Hey, before we get started, some news, as you as you know, we’re holding our first live in person event next Thursday. It is sold out. I have to tell you, Even before our announcement this morning of our special guest, officer Michael Fanone, one of the heroes of January sixth, then He’s gonna be joining me for a live discussion and, of course, a podcast about the insurrection.
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:45

    And his new book, which is coming out tomorrow, it is called hold of the line. It’s making some news. You can check it out. We talk about it in the newsletter this morning morning shots. Also, do a quick review of how that House Judiciary Committee Republican tweet is working out.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:02

    Remember that one, the one where this is the official account of the House Judiciary Committee Republican put out a a cryptically bizarre tweet, three words, Kanye, Elon, Trump. This, of course, is right before Kanye went on his anti Semitic meltdown rant Elon Musk, of course, welcoming his good friend back to Twitter but because Elon Musk is not actually in charge of Twitter, Kanye has now been kicked off of both Facebook and Twitter for this any Semitic rant. And of course, as you know, conservative media and Republican officials are rushing forward to denounce this outburst of anti Semitism. Just kidding, you know, none of that is happening. So we have a lot to talk about this week, and to put some of this in some sort of a context because I know that there are people who say, well, you know, we’ve been through tough times before.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:57

    Why would this be different? How do these threats stack up against previous threats, including the anxiety about the possibility of nuclear armageddon? So joining me this morning. Julian Zella’s are professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and the author and editor of twenty four books, including the presidency of Donald j Trump, a first historical assessment. He’s also a political analyst for CNN.
  • Speaker 1
    0:02:23

    Julian Zellezger, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast today.
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:26

    Thanks for having me. It’s great to be with you.
  • Speaker 1
    0:02:28

    Okay. I’m gonna ask you to explain a lot of things to me. Okay. Including the historical context of some of the things that are happening now. So let’s just start off with this little sound bite of Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville.
  • Speaker 3
    0:02:44

    I think,
  • Speaker 1
    0:02:44

    dude, this has made me taking a deep breath for diving back into this. He’s at a rally over the weekend. And had this to say about the crime issue, of course, this has become a big issue in the midterm elections. And Tommy Tuberville had his own rather unique take on it. Let’s put it.
  • Speaker 4
    0:03:02

    Some people say, well, they’re soft on crumb. No. They’re not soft on crumb. They’re programmed. They won’t crumb.
  • Speaker 4
    0:03:08

    They won’t crime because they wanna take over what you got. They wanna control what you have. They want preparation because they think the people that do the crime are all dead. Bullshit. They’re not old dad.
  • Speaker 2
    0:03:23

    Julian, what is that? I think it’s what it sounds like. It’s a pretty blatant appeal to some of the and worst source of racial ideas and it’s an example of where we’re seeing these kinds of comments made freely. In rallies, on the media and without any sense that you can’t say things like that, let alone that you shouldn’t say things like that. And it’s change in the discourse that’s become really pronounced in the last, you know, few years for sure.
  • Speaker 2
    0:03:58

    And it’s dangerous.
  • Speaker 1
    0:03:59

    If this was nineteen fifty seven and a politician from Alabama was saying something like this, we’d go, hey hey, it’s nineteen fifty seven. He’s a politician from Alabama. This is the way they talk. But it’s twenty twenty two, and I am struck by the with what you just described, the changing in the discourse. The Republicans spent decades trying to say no, no, no, no, we’ve moved on from that.
  • Speaker 1
    0:04:21

    That’s not who we are. And now, it feels redundant to say a week after Donald Trump’s cocoa chao slur. It it seems redundant to point out that there’s no blowback at all. Complete silence from Republicans about this.
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:37

    No, that’s right. I mean, we went through this long cycle where decades ago, you would hear rhetoric like this certainly from southern politicians, for example, who would use this kind of discourse to mobilize voters. But then, to some extent, faded, sometimes code words were used instead. To describe these sorts of issues or to elicit these kinds of feelings. There was a famous interview with Liav Water talked about this and and using, you know, rhetoric about states rights as a different way to talk about the same kinds of issues.
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:14

    But now we’re in a period where it’s coming right back. And it’s just said, you know, without, again, any idea that there needs to be guardrails and part of it is they think the media atmosphere and infrastructure allows for this a lot easier. There’s fewer guardrails There’s fewer gatekeepers. But some of this is a change in what elected officials are willing to do and certainly within the GOP, without blowback, you see comments like this pretty frequently.
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:46

    Well, I you know, look, Tommy Tuberville is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. And, you know, Hamlin’s razor always, you know, reminds us that we should never attribute to malice, what can be explained by stupidity. But, you know, blatant racism and stupidity are are not strangers. They’re not mutually exclusive. It was just weird listening to him just drop in reparations.
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:05

    You know, these people committing the crimes, reparations, and crime. I mean, it was it was again you know that those ideas are side by side in his head. Whether he meant to say that seems irrelevant because, you know, what he was doing was trying to link together two completely separate issues with the with the obvious implications that is not subtle, and we don’t need to spend a lot of on it. Right? I mean,
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:28

    you know, and and it’s very revealing. I mean, whether or not he intentionally wanted to lay it out that way, it isn’t his head. And when we’re talking about reparations, they’re talking about black Americans. Right. And so that was on his mind.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:43

    And the second part is he set it to a rally, and and now it’s all over the place. And so whatever the exact intention which isn’t good regardless. It also is the point that it gets out there in the public, and it’s uncontrollable kind of rhetoric. And it can lead to really bad actions. You know
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:04

    what? And the and the fact that there’s no reaction to it also says, what is the Republican Party today willing to accept? Well, obviously, they find this acceptable because they’re accepting it. This takes place the same weekend because there’s more, of course, Marjorie Taylor Green, and I apologize for bringing her up again. Also is amplifying the replacement theory, you know, Biden’s five million illegal aliens are on the verge of re placing you, your jobs, and your kids in school coming from all over the world.
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:31

    They’re also replacing your culture. Now again, Look, it’s not new that you have these crack pop back ventures out there spewing this kind of white nationalist rhetoric, but You know, the associated press has a piece today, pointing out, you know, that she is poised to become a major player. She’s no longer a fringe player. Let me just read you what the AP reports. One shunned as a political pariah for her extremist rhetoric, the Georgia congresswoman, who spent her first term in the house stripped of institutional power by Democrats, is being celebrated by Republicans and welcomed into the GOP fold if Republicans win the House majority in the November election Green is poised to become an influential player shaping the GOP agenda and agitator with cloud.
  • Speaker 1
    0:08:20

    So give me some sense when is the last time someone this extreme had this much power in the Republican Party. Well, just remember the former president,
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:32

    and there you have the answer. And and I think your point is something important in that. If you look back at the fifties and sixties, there was a lot of writing and journalism and social sciences about what was often called the radical right really extremist voices, anti Semitic, Nativeistic, racist. But part of the point of all that writing was that the forces of the radical, right, still remain marginal and that, you know, mainstream Republicans, for example, were reluctant to get too close to these forces and ultimately try to distance themselves. And I think what we’re seeing now is those kinds of voices are front and center.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:11

    With congresswoman Green. These are people who are not marginal players. They’re actually becoming serious voices in the party. Obviously, president Trump was at the top, not just of the party, but of American politics. So this kind of rhetoric, these sets of ideas are now getting a hearing and being articulated by the leadership of a political party as opposed to staying on the fringe.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:37

    And that’s a very big and I think dangerous difference.
  • Speaker 1
    0:09:41

    Yeah. And it is a huge difference. And the only reason we are talking about these fringe characters who are no longer fringe characters is because they are being amplified by the former president of the United States who is right now. I think the prohibited favor to be the Republican nominee for president. So the House Judiciary Committee GOP tweeted out Kanye Elon and Trump in case you’ve missed it, you can read about Kanye’s anti Semitic rant and Elon embracing and whatever.
  • Speaker 1
    0:10:09

    And then, of course, there was Trump completing this trifecta who used his rally appearance to celebrate the January sixth insurrection and to spend these completely contradictory rationales for his law breaking So here’s Trump at the Nevada rally this weekend. They
  • Speaker 5
    0:10:27

    never wanna show how massive our crowd was. You know the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen, January sixth. And you never hear that. It was the biggest. And they were there they were there largely to protest a corrupt and rigged and stolen election.
  • Speaker 5
    0:10:46

    It’s the biggest crowd and you never hear
  • Speaker 3
    0:10:48

    that Okay.
  • Speaker 1
    0:10:50

    So Julien, he here is the president who who continues to do this this retrohist this revisionist history of January six that this is now I mean, he is embracing it. He’s not denying it. He’s not spinning it. He’s saying, yes. You know, I brought them and it was a good thing.
  • Speaker 1
    0:11:11

    Yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:12

    I mean, look, it’s it’s not even totally a revisionist history. I mean, if you listened to him back in twenty twenty one, he would often speak about how peaceful it was and how most people there were law abiding and that it’s being kind of made into something it was not. You even heard that from some Republicans who called it essentially a tourist, you know, visit. But now there’s just this total embrace of what happened. He’s step away from almost endorsing the violence itself.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:45

    And he hasn’t done that. But my point is that He is not separating himself from January six. He understands everyone knows exactly what happened. He’s embracing it. He’s using it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:56

    To rally supporters. I think we’re gonna see more of that as time goes on. And here, an attack on congress happened as congress is trying to complete an election. And the president lost is now using that moment and using the violence as agenda setting defining idea for a possible candidacy in twenty twenty four. So, you know, in nineteen eighty, Ronald Reagan talked about anti communism and cutting taxes.
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:28

    Here we are in twenty twenty two, and Trump is talking about an insurrection against congress where It’s the US Congress. It’s the enemy as opposed to something overseas. And as we said earlier, that too is a dangerous place for the democracy to be
  • Speaker 3
    0:12:44

    in. This
  • Speaker 1
    0:12:46

    continues to be extraordinary. You have election deniers all around the country who are running, and many many of them are poised to possibly win, including the Secretary of State candidate in Nevada. And Cary Lake, one of the most extreme election deniers running in Arizona. And, I mean, it’s very possible that they could win the most extreme voice is Doug Mastron. I was not going to win in Pennsylvania.
  • Speaker 1
    0:13:11

    But that’s another extraordinary thing is that when we talk about the fringe versus the mainstream, you have people who are buying into this narrative who, you know, might be in power because a lot of voters have decided they’re okay with this. I mean, let’s be honest about this. This is not being imposed from the outside. This is something that Republican voters go, yeah. I like that.
  • Speaker 1
    0:13:35

    This I want more give me more of that. That’s what the small donors want. That that’s they what the primary voters want. And in places like Arizona and Nevada, they might actually elect the phringiest of the
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:47

    fringe characters. Now, that’s that is correct, and it’s a two track problem. One is discussing candidates. You just talk about election denialism and our are willing to put false information out there, but essentially set up a future argument where it’s okay to claim that an election lost was an election stolen without evidence. And then the second part, it’s a very systematic effort to put people in place, whether it’s the Kubernetes tutorial level or as secretaries of state who will actually have authority come twenty twenty four and be able to make the kinds of decisions which didn’t go their way in twenty twenty.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:27

    And that’s serious. This is not, you know, some kind of hysterical warning We saw it play out in twenty twenty. It didn’t work, but it almost did. And now in some ways, the Republican Party will be much better positioned, and the electorate has shown that they’re okay with this. They’re not really pushing back.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:47

    It’s not a turning point in the Republican party at all. So I think a lot of elected officials come the next election. We’ll feel comfortable moving forward with these kinds of challenges and using this kind of of rhetoric. And democracy depends on losers accepting the loss. It’s an essential part.
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:07

    Of how the process works. And right now, I think it’s fair to say that one major political party, the GOP, doesn’t subscribe to that anymore. And so then it’s a question,
  • Speaker 1
    0:15:19

    will
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:19

    the democracy function as it needs to be? And will the strength of the democracy erode because this has now become legitimate.
  • Speaker 1
    0:15:28

    Okay. So did let’s put this in some historical context. Now you were on another podcast and you pointed out that we’re at one of those moments where a lot of things are hitting the system all at once, you know, denying the results of elections, talking about overturning them. Now it’s not as bad as a civil war, but you said we’re in one of the worst places our democracy is struggling at this point. So again, give me some sense of where you think the danger lies.
  • Speaker 1
    0:15:53

    I mean, we have had moments of real stress before. The civil war obvious the sixties when things were coming apart. How do you put that in context?
  • Speaker 2
    0:16:04

    Look, it it it ranks very high. It’s it’s hard to rank bad moments and and I always say, you know, we’ve had other bad moments, but it shouldn’t make you comfortable that this bad moment somehow isn’t dangerous. It’s not a civil war yet. I mean, that is the worst of the worst in which a country literally breaks down and as it were with itself, But I think we’re in a very bad place. And again, even in the nineteen sixties, you’re really talking about different parts of the country, fighting it out over key issues of the day such as Vietnam or such as different social programs.
  • Speaker 2
    0:16:42

    And it was bitter. Now, you’re talking about the former president with party support arguing that elections don’t necessarily matter. And that they can be overturned. And that’s a pretty fundamental problem. So I rank it very high.
  • Speaker 2
    0:17:00

    And again, just because it hasn’t worked yet, doesn’t mean it can’t. And I think for me as I look back on twenty twenty, not just January sixth, but everything that came before and everything that followed. It’s very easy to see that all unfolding again, and it’s very easy to see it being more successful because of what might happen in these mid term elections and the kinds of figures we’re now gonna be in positions of power in the states who will have authority over these matters.
  • Speaker 3
    0:17:27

    Okay. You’re an
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:28

    extraordinary and not a psychologist, but I need you to help me with this. Okay? Because you’re describing, you know, conflicts in the past that we’re over things were over issues. This seems to be different. So at his rally in Arizona the other night, here’s here’s the psychological thing that I want you to try to help me with.
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:46

    You have Trump standing up there talking about his documents from Mar a Lago. And without batting an eye, he gives two separate defenses, two separate arguments that are completely contradictory. And and nobody just says anything about it. It’s a so he says first he says, they plant documents. Let’s see.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:06

    Is there a book on nuclear destruction or building up of a nuclear weapon? Put that book in with Trump. So number one, the FBI is planting evidence, which is extraordinary. And then in the same speech then says, I had a small number of boxes in storage. There is no crime.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:23

    They should give me immediately back everything they’ve taken from me because it’s mine. My precious. So, you know, on the one hand, it’s like, this wasn’t mine. They planted it. But, you know, again, I guess what I’m asking is we’re in this era of complete cognitive dissonance where he will throw out these complete bullshit arguments.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:45

    That contradict one another. And you have adoring crowds that go, yeah, applaud explanation number one. Explanation number two, completely contradictory. Yeah. We buy that.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:57

    What’s going on right now? It seems like a cliche to say that the country is having a nervous breakdown, but I’m sorry, but it feels like the country is having a nervous breakdown. Well, I
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:07

    think there’s something that the former president understands about certainly his electorate, meaning a consistency doesn’t really matter. What you really need to do is throw out enough arguments that people who wanna support you can find an argument or two that works for them when they’re talking to a friend, when they’re talking to a neighbor, and and they don’t remember every different part of it. They remember bits and pieces of what they heard. In some ways, it’s a strategy that’s built for our kind of age of overwhelming social media and, you know, news where, you know, people pick bits and pieces. And I think that’s part of what he’s doing.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:48

    I think and I’m starting to read this new book by Maggie Abramsman. I think there’s a
  • Speaker 3
    0:19:53

    part of
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:54

    Trump who, you know, it it’s not about making some straight kind of argument. It’s about saying so much that you can’t actually pin him down on eighth. Right. And I think that also is a strategic decision. Why does the electorate accept this?
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:11

    I think when partisanship is so strong, when your determination to have your person and your party in power is so total. Over any other concern, the health of the democracy governing, then it doesn’t matter. You’re just looking for rationales to keep doing what you’re doing. And I think that’s how these rallies work. And and I think some extent, he is incredibly effective at doing that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:36

    Yeah.
  • Speaker 3
    0:20:36

    It’s not
  • Speaker 1
    0:20:37

    just that we’re in a post truth world, we’re in a post linear thought world where you just sort of scatter out? Do you throw these things up against the wall? And as long as they work, people go, hey, I’ll I’ll go with that. You know, whatever works for me. Okay.
  • Speaker 1
    0:20:52

    So from this absurd stuff to something that’s very very real, You wrote a piece that was published on Friday about Joe Biden talking about the nuclear elephant in the room. This is the story about the Democratic fundraiser on Thursday where the president warned that the risk of Armageddon, you know, hasn’t been this high since nineteen sixty two, and this was actually before that Bridgeline Crimea was blown up. And of course, this morning, we’re seeing sort of massive Russian retaliation aimed at Keith. So, euro, while multiple officials told CNN the Biden warning was not based on any new intelligence, those were unsettling words for a nation to hear from the commander in chief. So what is your take on this?
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:37

    You know, should he have said this? And what is the nature of the the actual
  • Speaker 3
    0:21:43

    threat?
  • Speaker 2
    0:21:43

    Yeah. I mean, the the words are pretty strong ones and comparing it to nineteen sixty too, obviously, when we were on the brink of a true global nuclear war with the Soviet Union over Cuba, It it might have not been the words he should have chosen. I mean, a president, and and he does this usually. Is is very inclined the good ones to try to contain the fears and keep some control over those kinds of discussions. That said, since this all started, the threat of nuclear weapons being used by Russia has been very real.
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:21

    This is a country with a large nuclear arsenal. Putin is not a leader who’s working at this point with a great structure around him. He is making decisions. And so the idea that a nuclear weapon can be used in Ukraine, not a total nuclear war, is still very possible. And I think maybe the president’s exact words were not right, but his basic message is an important one.
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:48

    And and part of what I’m writing about is I don’t think we’re paying enough attention anymore to nuclear arms control, something that had support from both parties for a long time. And this shows that danger is very much alive and well. And one bad leader, one tense moment, you can see these being deployed. And that too is a really dangerous path even if it’s a contained attack that would still be devastated and it would open the door to doing it even more. So
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:18

    I what I found interesting in your piece was that you reminded us that we really have let nuclear arms control fall off the public agenda. I mean, it used to be a major major issue and it just has kind of evaporated. And now suddenly, it’s like, wait, so we’re back into that era. And, you know, for Biden to remind us what the Cuban missile crisis was like, I mean, I’ve sort of vaguely remember this at the time, you know, when people were, you know, talking about the escape routes from the major cities and people were talking about, bomb shelters and bunkers and things like that. And of course, there were all of these treaties.
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:52

    I mean, the history of much of the cold war was, you know, the back and forth over, do we have a, you know, missile gap? Do we have an arms race? Are we going to have treaties and everything? And then it kind of just disappeared completely. So your point that we’re not talking about all out, you know, ICBM’s, but we are talking about normalizing the use of weapons of of mass destruction.
  • Speaker 1
    0:24:14

    Traction. I mean, that has tremendous consequences, and you could see how that will spiral over the next several decades if that in fact happen.
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:24

    No, it’s true. And it doesn’t even have to be the nineteen sixties for Gen Xers who lived through the nineteen eighties. I’m one of them. Nuclear war then too was a very real fear. In the early nineteen eighties, there was a lot of public concern about a possibility of war.
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:42

    I mentioned the TV show the day after that was broadcasting.
  • Speaker 1
    0:24:47

    Simulated
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:48

    yeah. It simulated a war in Kansas, what it would look like. And, ultimately, Ronald Reagan, one of his great achievements was when Mikhail Gorbachev emerged and the possibility for negotiations happen. He seized it, and he did it despite many in his own party, not thinking it was a good idea. And he ended his presidency with the INF Treaty, which was a major arms control treaty.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:14

    And it became a signature move. And and even since then, presidents until Trump have certainly continued to push forward on this. George w Bush did with Russia and understood that these kinds of treaties were essential, president Obama moved forward, and and Trump moved in a very different direction. And I think partly because of that, partly because of the pandemic, you talk to nuclear arms experts, and they’re worried because we’ve undone agreements, we’ve let others expire. Biden certainly wants to pursue this, but the political landscape has changed.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:50

    So I don’t know if this moment gives him more of an opportunity to deal with an issue that the president clearly cares about, but I think has faded too much and those weapons didn’t disappear. And now we’re seeing with Russia how very dangerous they remain. And and more countries have nuclear weapons even then in the nineteen ladies or nineties.
  • Speaker 3
    0:26:10

    So what is
  • Speaker 1
    0:26:11

    the fate of getting now more specific? The Obama administration had a nuclear deal with Iran, which of of course was abandoned by the Trump administration. It doesn’t seem like there’s any prospect that that is going come back anytime soon, especially with what’s going on in Iran right now.
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:29

    I think there’s some I mean, there are efforts to build something back that’s different that addresses some of the concerns. I mean, one of the things that’s happened though is Iran has accelerated. Their nuclear program since that agreement ended, which was a warning that supporters of the agreement had always made that this will act actually make the situation worse. And I don’t know if Iran has the incentives at this point to get back into some kind of negotiation. But I don’t know.
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:59

    I mean, I do think there are people who are still trying to pursue it. I do believe that the Biden administration is sympathetic and interested in in trying to rebuild some of
  • Speaker 3
    0:27:10

    these? Well, one
  • Speaker 1
    0:27:11

    of the subtext of what’s happening with Russian Ukraine is that Ukraine sometime back agreed to make itself a nuclear free zone. There were nuclear weapons, of course, in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union, and they agreed to give them all up in exchange for all of these international guarantees of their borders, all of these assurances. And you look back on that now and I think it’s reasonable to say what all of those assurances worth was that really a good idea to give up nuclear weapons And I don’t know what you think, but it seems just like it would be pretty evident that other countries including small countries would go, that was not a good call if I have nuclear weapons you know, on on our turf, we’re gonna keep them based on what’s happening with Ukraine. No. It
  • Speaker 2
    0:27:56

    it’s true. Although imagine the scenario now, in which you had two competing sides with nuclear weapons. I mean, the the premise of nuclear policy in the Cold War, which many think was not a good one, was that because of the idea of a rational actor, no one was actually going to use these. That in the end, people would pull back. Obviously, this defies the atomic bomb that the US did use.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:25

    But that was the premise that each side would see. It was in their self interest not to use these kinds of weapons. I’m not sure that’s the kind of leadership we’re seeing right now. And I would not be a hundred percent confidence that in Russia, Putin wouldn’t be willing to deploy something. And so you know, the other way to think about this is imagine if everyone’s armed up in this kind of world, how easy it would be for a situation to quickly ask late with both sides using arms against each other.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:54

    That said, just the practical calculation you’re outlining is right, there’s a lot of countries who are going to be reluctant if they don’t believe that international alliances are strong enough to protect the country from these kinds of onslaught.
  • Speaker 3
    0:29:08

    We think of the fact
  • Speaker 1
    0:29:09

    that we’ve gone for this many decades without seeing any nuclear strikes as the norm In retrospect, it’s actually kind of surprising, isn’t it? That with all of this, I mean, in in in some ways, we have been very lucky.
  • Speaker 3
    0:29:23

    Yes. I I
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:24

    don’t think, you know, there’s one way to teach you about the Cuban missile crisis in nineteen sixty two as model moment of diplomacy as the essence of how a sound administration can walk us away from war. The other way to think about it is, boy did we get close? You know, we got very close and close a few actions by leaders or military officials who we now know had more authority than we thought at the time within Russia, within the Soviet Union. We we could have had a nuclear war and there’s a lot of moments in the history of the cold war that were like that. So just because it’s a little like our discussion of of the election and and the effort to overturn it just because it didn’t happen.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:09

    Didn’t mean that it almost didn’t happen. And I think we got close many times. And that was, look, again, Ronald Reagan, who is iconic in the conservative movement, believed this danger was very real and and was never fully comfortable with nuclear weapons as a book about how nuclear abolition was something he came to believe very early in his career, but certainly at the end of his presidency, he put this front and center because he understood that were one mistake away, one bad decision away, one miscommunication away from catastrophic warfare. And I think that’s the lesson, not that we averted it, but that we came so close so many times.
  • Speaker 1
    0:30:54

    Yeah. One of the details that really surprised me from from your piece was, you know, after that ABC broadcast of the day after in nineteen eighty three, which depicted the fictional war, that that Reagan wrote in his diary, it’s very effective and left me greatly depressed. We certainly didn’t know that at the time. We
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:13

    did. Right. And he now his rhetoric was very different, and this is the same time in eighty three, eighty two, eighty three of an international nuclear freeze movement, which is gaining a lot of strength politically. And so he’s he’s at odds with it in the first part of his presidency, but privately, whether you’re talking about that dire entry, whether you’re talking about secret efforts where he was allowing discussions with the Soviets. He’s very fearful of of what can happen.
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:43

    He understands this. He has a different position than the nuclear freeze movement. But ultimately, in the second half of his presidency in the second term, he really comes around to the notion that arms agreements are a good thing. A a stark contrast to where he had been in the nineteen seventies when he railed against Nixon and Ford and Carter. For pursuing the policy of Daytona.
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:05

    So he got it. And he he understood the cost of doing so. He talked the garbage off in one of the summit saying that Gorbachev can move forward with these agreements pretty easily. He had to deal with the right wing of his party, and he was trying to figure out how to do that. Ultimately he did it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:22

    And I think that also is a lesson of leadership that we should look back to today.
  • Speaker 1
    0:32:28

    On a darker note, it is interesting listening to Putin and Russian prop again to talk about nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons and how often they cite the fact, well, we’re not gonna be lectured by the United States because the United States is the only country that actually has dropped an atomic bomb and they dropped an atomic bomb on civilian centers. So another reminder that every action sets a precedent that can come back decades, decades later and have potential impact? No,
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:59

    I that that is true. I mean, it can come back. It can be used as a press I think just the act of doing something, whether it’s rhetorical or whether it is an actual act of war. Or use of weaponry, it becomes a a way for others to see how you do it again. And that is the danger with with these situations.
  • Speaker 2
    0:33:20

    It takes something and makes it possible. It allows leaders to see how to do it. And so that is the danger.
  • Speaker 1
    0:33:29

    So I have been over the last several years constantly reminded of Mark Twain’s old adage that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rimes. And I’m sure if you’ve had the same thought that you you look back at the things that happened in the past, you know, through new eyes given what’s happening right now. I don’t know whether you’ve had a chance see Ken Burns documentary on the United States and the whole of cost and the nativism there. You know what American first politics was, but you watched that as a sordid moment in American history, but it seems shockingly relevant right now.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:01

    It seems shockingly relevant. I also think those moments are important because we look at them from the perspective of today. So you see where it’s all going. So you can look back at the kind of early nineteen thirties or even part to the twenties and see that rhetoric. And you see those forces and and you say, oh, I see where we ended up.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:22

    But at the time, it’s not always clear. You know? And it’s out there and people who are living through it didn’t understand the strength that these forces would get. And I think that’s also an important reminder. Sometimes people dismiss those warnings.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:34

    This is dangerous stuff. This is not tolerable saying, well, that’s not gonna go there and we’re overall okay. But when you’re living in these moments, you can’t see how they unfold. And I think if you look back, you see that they can unfold badly. And that’s why you need to be vigilant.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:51

    And that’s why there needs to be really strong pushback and and it needs to be pushback in part from voters and and average Americans, but it needs to be political leaders. They have to have some lines they won’t cross. And we need
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:07

    to
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:07

    get into a place where we’re seeing that from the leadership of the parties. We’re not now And and so that increases the odds that this stuff moves in a bad direction. And that’s what happened on January six. We we saw hints of it all along. It wasn’t it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:23

    Total mystery, not only that that rally wasn’t happening, but but dangerous forces were being mobilized and energized, including by the president at the time, and we didn’t do anything. And then if you were watching TV on January six, following the news. However you follow the news, there it is. That’s how it unfolds. And we don’t wanna see that happen again.
  • Speaker 3
    0:35:45

    Well, and
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:46

    sometimes history does not repeat itself. I’ve thought a lot about, you know, what happened in the nineteen seventies with Watergate and the precedent we thought that that established at the time where all of the guardrails held the institutions pushed back No one was above the law. And your thoughts comparing the, you know, what we thought of the rules of the game were post Watergate versus what we’re seeing now with the rule of law and Donald Trump’s legal problems. I I
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:17

    don’t think anyone knows what the rules of the game are anymore. Right? Watergate look was an incredibly traumatic moment for the nation. There’s many critics who argue that in the end for its pardon of Nixon, didn’t complete the process, but there was some sense of the parameters of what was legitimate. Watergate and Nixon’s overall actions did cause outrage.
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:41

    They did cause pushback from the political system. They ultimately created sufficient pressure even from within his party for a resignation to happen, and they remained a source of shame. Certainly for many Republicans who tried to move away from that, but even for the nation at large that we allowed this to happen and we got to a place where the presidency was so grandiose that a president with bad intentions could do stuff like this. Today doesn’t feel like we’re there anymore. It feels like there are no guardrails and there’s no sense of what the rules are and what you saw with President Trump and you see with some of these legislators is they cannot follow the rules and there’s no great fallout from doing so.
  • Speaker 2
    0:37:25

    And so why not keep doing that if you’re pursuing power and don’t have some kind of ethical compass about what the limits are in pursuit of that goal? So
  • Speaker 1
    0:37:35

    when we talk about history rhyming, it also rhymes prospectively. I keep thinking about the precedents that we are setting now that are gonna come back and bite us. Thirty years from now, forty years from now, fifty years from now. Particularly, if the Department of Justice does not charge Donald Trump and essentially says a president and a next president, really cannot be held legally accountable. What what do you think about the Department of Justice’s
  • Speaker 2
    0:37:56

    decision? I understand the fears that exist in the Department of Justice, both of going after a former president and one who might be the opponent of the administration that you are working within. That said, it’s a really bad idea, I think, to have argument out there that DOJ is supporting that a former president can do lots of things and and subvert the law and and not follow the same rules that everyone else in the country has to follow. That goes against something pretty profound in in our democracy as well. And I fear that this too will be a signal to future leaders, not just President Trump —
  • Speaker 3
    0:38:43

    Yeah. —
  • Speaker 2
    0:38:44

    do what you want. No one’s really gonna come after you. And certainly, presidents both in office and after office are gonna feel much greater leeway because of what’s going on right now.
  • Speaker 3
    0:38:55

    Julian Zeller’s Professor of
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:56

    History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Julian, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast. I always appreciate it. Thanks
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:04

    so much for having me. And thank you all for listening to
  • Speaker 1
    0:39:06

    today’s Bulwark podcast. I’m Charlie Sykes. We will be back tomorrow and we’ll do this all over again.
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    0:39:18

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    0:39:20

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    0:39:30

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    0:39:37

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