Author Jon Meacham: Trump took advantage of "climate of fear"

Jon Meacham, presidential scholar and author of "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels," says that President Trump is in office because "we have a climate of fear in the country" which he "took advantage of" over the course of the 2016 campaign. 

"Politicians are far more often mirrors of who we are than they are molders. That's why the molders are so extraordinary. Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan -- those are different kinds of figures," Meacham said on CBS News' "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "I think that President Trump in many ways is president because we have a climate of fear in the country. He certainly took advantage of it. He exacerbated it. And fear is an unreasoning."

Meacham noted, however, that "we've also always grown stronger the wider we've opened our arms. So whether the issue is immigration or the free flow of ideas or just open dissent, those are the moments when we are most broad-minded, that we actually grow stronger."

Meacham, who writes in his new book that the U.S. is in a moment where the "worst instincts are playing center stage or attracting the most attention," says that while Mr. Trump woos supporters through his avid use of social media and his less-than-traditional political rhetoric, he doesn't necessarily have a sense for the office of the presidency. 

"I don't think he has a sense of the ultimate role he'll play in the moral life of the nation," said Meacham. "The best presidents, from Thomas Jefferson, again, through President Reagan, through President Obama, have been presidents who have spoken in the vernacular of hope instead of fear, who have pointed ahead instead of at other groups."

Meacham pointed to the president's response to the aftermath of the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year as a "missed opportunity." After a rash of white nationalist group protests turned violent and resulted in one death and 34 others injured, Mr. Trump repeatedly made statements placing blame on "both sides" of the clashes and failed to renounce the actions of Nazi and white supremacist sympathizers. 

"It took the president several days to decide whether he was going to side with the neo-Nazis and the Klansmen, or the people who were protesting the neo-Nazis and the Klansmen. Remember, he said there's blame on many sides, there's blame on both sides. That was more than a missed opportunity. It was really a failure to live up to the promise of his office," Meacham explained.

Meacham said Americans must decide whether to embrace being truly opened minded, adding that "there's always hope." 

"Intellectual honesty compels us to say, and a historical sense of things compels us to say that there's always hope. And we have been in dark, dark periods before," he said. "But Fort Sumter was pretty bad."

  • Emily Tillett

    Emily Tillett is a politics reporter and video editor for CBS News Digital