Dallek's FDR Book Invites Comparisons To Trump's Presidency Presidential historian Robert Dallek, author of, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, talks to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about the parallels between the presidencies of FDR and Donald Trump.
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Dallek's FDR Book Invites Comparisons To Trump's Presidency

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Dallek's FDR Book Invites Comparisons To Trump's Presidency

Dallek's FDR Book Invites Comparisons To Trump's Presidency

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke these words. Democracy, he said, cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. So today we're looking back to a time when American democracy was under threat. Here's our co-host Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: During the past few years as some Americans have talked more and more about fascism, historian Robert Dallek was writing a history set during the peak of fascism, the 1930s.

ROBERT DALLEK: This was a time when Mussolini was in power in Italy, Hitler in Nazi Germany, Stalin in Russia, and there was the sense that democracy might have come to its end.

INSKEEP: Dallek wrote a biography of the American president inaugurated in those times, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was the lowest moment of the Great Depression.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment. And yet, we are stricken by no plague of locusts.

INSKEEP: That was the speech in which FDR said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Dallek's biography never mentions the present day yet invites comparisons. Roosevelt took over without any real idea of how to end the Depression. He openly said he would just have to improvise until something worked. But there was one big thing he did know.

DALLEK: What Roosevelt understood was that he needed to bring the country together, and that it was essential to maintain democracy. He faced a country that had been bitterly divided during the 1920s between the modernists and the fundamentalists.

INSKEEP: This is what we would call the culture wars, right?

DALLEK: That's right.

INSKEEP: Are you going to be a traditionalist? Are you going to believe in evolution? Are you going to disavow evolution? That sort of thing.

DALLEK: And, Steve, it was the divide between the cities and the rural areas.

INSKEEP: There were also a lot of racists.

DALLEK: They were anti-Semitic. They were anti-Catholic. Asians were out of the question that you let them in the country.

INSKEEP: And yet, there were Asians and Jews and Catholics and African-Americans. The president in the 1930s somehow had to unite that big, diverse electorate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROOSEVELT: My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking. I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days and why it was done.

INSKEEP: There was this new medium that he was using in a new way. What was it?

DALLEK: Roosevelt used the radio brilliantly, the way John Kennedy would later use television, Ronald Reagan would use television and Donald Trump currently would use television and Twitter.

INSKEEP: FDR spoke directly to the people and also found ways to listen. His wife, Eleanor, and key aides traveled the country and reported back to him.

DALLEK: What is sentiment in Seattle, Wash.? In Iowa City? In Indiana? And he's absorbing this. He wasn't the man who read a lot of books. But, verbally, he took in everything possible.

INSKEEP: Are you saying he had some instinctive feel for where the public was going?

DALLEK: I am saying that. If I may jump in with a contemporary note...

INSKEEP: Please.

DALLEK: ...Donald Trump has some of that, too, you see. Now, he's never had a 50 percent approval rating in the polls, but he has this consistent hold on a substantial minority that is very enthusiastic about him. And this is what effective politicians do.

INSKEEP: When Roosevelt wanted to do something and saw that it was only a very narrow majority of the public - I don't know, 45 to 40 in an opinion poll - who favored it, would he do it?

DALLEK: No. He'd wait until he could build an effective consensus.

INSKEEP: Now, let's be clear. Roosevelt waged Titanic political battles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROOSEVELT: My friends.

INSKEEP: Here he is in 1936 railing against Wall Street types and the wealthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROOSEVELT: They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: But he worried constantly about the credibility of American institutions. For all of his rhetoric about big money, he started his administration by restoring banks. Before he expanded federal spending, he tried to prove his frugality by cutting it. He built big majorities to support his policies and waited until he had them. When he saw the United States needed to enter World War II, he waited more than two years.

DALLEK: The British ambassador urged him to ask Congress for a declaration of war.

INSKEEP: Against Germany.

DALLEK: Against Germany. And Roosevelt said to him, I could get a majority, but it's not good enough. Because at the first setback in the fighting, that majority could dissolve. Now, Pearl Harbor was a godsend for him because he wanted a stable, solid consensus. That's what you desperately need if you're going to sacrifice blood and treasure.

INSKEEP: Dallek doubts that FDR would have tried for the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's divisive health bill. And he says he's certain FDR would not resort to President Trump's constant playing to his narrow political base. Yet, for Roosevelt, gaining broad public support in such troubled times could be a dark art.

What happened in the late 1930s, early 1940s, when people came to Roosevelt and said, European Jews need a refuge. Will you help? What did he say?

DALLEK: Roosevelt felt bound by the immigration statutes of the time, the anti-Semitism, which was palpable in America. People were against any kind of expansive immigration because they feared that after the war there was going to be another Depression. And they didn't want the burden.

INSKEEP: Didn't want competition for jobs.

DALLEK: That's right. Now, he spoke out during the war against the Nazi crimes, but there was not a forceful, aggressive program to try and rescue Jews from the Nazis.

INSKEEP: Roosevelt also approved the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II because many people feared them. In the end, Robert Dallek judges one of the most important American presidents by posing a question, which historians will surely ask of our modern presidents, did they act in support of big, long-term goals?

DALLEK: Roosevelt faced a world crisis, a war, that jeopardized the country's national security. What is the crisis that Donald Trump is facing?

INSKEEP: Robert Dallek is no fan of the current president's influence on democracy, but he says we still have a democracy to argue over because FDR preserved it.

DALLEK: His motives were to promote economic well-being, prosperity and democracy. And he succeeded.

INSKEEP: Dallek's book is, "Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN")

LEO REISMAN AND HIS ORCHESTRA: (Singing) Happy days are here again. The skies...

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