Is Jimmy Carter an Antidote to Trump?

David Siders thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Politico:

“Carter almost takes us out of the entire realm of what our politics has become,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster who worked on the presidential campaigns of Carter and Howard Dean. “He’s the anti-Trump … I mean, we have almost the polar opposite as president, somebody who is so an affront to everything that’s good and kind and decent.”

Maslin said, “I have felt for some time that a candidate who is not just good on the issues but can marshal a moral clarity about what our politics ought to be, in contrast to what it has become, that person … that could be the currency of 2020.”

In fact, Carter has become a constant point of reference early in the campaign for Democrats polling outside of the top tier. John Delaney, the little-known former Maryland congressman who by August 2018 had already campaigned in all 99 counties in Iowa, has likened his focus on the first-in-the-nation caucus state to Carter’s.

And after her pilgrimage to see Carter this year, Klobuchar wrote on social media, “Wonderful lunch with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter today at their home in Plains. Tomato soup and pimento cheese sandwiches! Got some good advice and helpful to hear about their grassroots presidential campaign (when no one thought they could win but they did)!”

Read the entire piece here.

I still think Carter’s 1979 “malaise speech” is one of the best presidential speeches I have heard in my lifetime.

  • Notice that Carter used the phrase “I feel your pain” before Bill Clinton popularized it.
  • The speech has a streak of populism in it.
  • It is deeply honest and humble. Can you imagine a president today reading criticism of his presidency before a national audience?
  • Carter identifies the loss of national purpose and a “crisis of confidence” as a “fundamental threat to American democracy.”  It is a forward-looking message of hope and progress.  Carter speaks with conviction, often raising his fist to strengthen his points.
  • Carter says that self-indulgence, consumption, and materialism undermines citizenship. According to historian Kevin Mattson, this comes directly from historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch and his best-selling The Culture of Narcissism.
  • Carter points to the many ways the country has gone astray–Vietnam and Watergate and economic dependence on Middle East oil.
  • Carter offers “honest answers” not “easy answers.”  Of course no one wants to work hard and make sacrifices, they want individualism and freedom instead.  A little over a year after this speech Ronald Reagan defeated Carter with just such a message of individualism and freedom.
  • Carter warns us about the path of self-interest and fragmentation.  This is what America got with Reagan.  See Daniel T. Rodgers’s The Age of Fracture.
  • Carter sees the national discussion of energy as way of bringing a divided nation together.  This seems more relevant than ever today.  Green New Deal aside, a green solution to energy would create jobs and strengthen the economy.
  • When Carter talks about foreign oil and America’s dependence upon it, he is invoking founding fathers such as Alexander Hamilton who worked tirelessly to make the nation economically independent.
  • Interesting that in the 1970s Democrats still saw coal as a vital energy source.  He also champions pipelines and refineries.
  • Carter calls for a strengthening of public transportation and local acts of conservation.  This kind of self-sacrifice, Carter says, “is an act of patriotism.”  This reminds me of the non-importation agreements during the American Revolution.    To stop drinking tea or buying British goods was seen as a similar act of patriotism. See T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution.  Carter says “there is no way to avoid sacrifice.”
  • As I have noted above, this speech hurt Carter politically.  But it is deeply honest and, in my opinion, true.

13 thoughts on “Is Jimmy Carter an Antidote to Trump?

  1. I’ve heard Jimmy Carter described as “a mediocre President, but the best Ex-President in history”.

    And I can see one similarity between Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump — both struck me as “in over their heads” as Presidents. (The main difference is Carter was and is a fairly humble man and Trump is definitely NOT. Trump’s ego always tries to brass it out.)


  2. Ed, I think you misunderstood why they’re called “rare earth elements”. It’s not because they’re rare, they’re actually pretty abundant. It just because they’re rare in their elemental form. Instead they’re usually bonded in compounds which require processing to separate. China has just perfected the processing and nobody can compete with them. But that doesn’t give them any control because if they stop selling to America we can process our own, it would just be marginally more expensive. Also, solar PV doesn’t pose any risks to birds.


  3. Bill,

    Virtuous personal deportment is something I admire, but it doesn’t always make for good leadership. I am reminded of the oft-repeated anecdote concerning Lincoln and General Grant. One of the tattling staff officers supposedly let it be know to Honest Abe that Grant was a heavy drinker. The president replied that someone needed to find out which brand of whiskey he was drinking so that it could be dispensed to other field commanders who were not nearly as successful as Ulysses. It might increase their battlefield success.


  4. “Green New Deal aside, a green solution to energy would create jobs and strengthen the economy.”

    China controls 95% of the rare earth elements market that are required to build the bird fryers and bird choppers – solar panels and wind turbines. “Green energy” requires increased dependence on China. Building pipelines and drilling for oil and gas creates jobs just as well as spreading solar panels and turbines from seas to shining sea. There’s certainly no guarantee that so-called “green jobs” will be those “good jobs that can’t ever be taken away”. “Green energy” rhetoric has about as much truth and economic reality in it as a Trump speech.


  5. James,
    I have not heard him teach in person, but I have heard some of his teaching on CD. It has been awhile back, so I’m not sure of the subject or content. The teaching style was friendly and easy to follow. Some of the lessons on CD (I’m not sure how recent) are available commercially from one of the major book publishers under the general title of “Sunday Mornings in Plains”. A friend in north Florida told me several years ago of a group from one church in his area that used to take a bus to Plains every so often to visit the class and hear Jimmy Carter teach. I read that he has (understandably) cut back on his teaching now.


  6. I have long admired Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, both as individuals and as a couple. They show a continued devotion to each other that is a good example of what marriage, especially a Christian marriage, should be. I heard Jimmy Carter speak in person twice, at a 1976 presidential campaign rally and again at a rally in 1980. I was impressed both times. He brought a down-home tone to the White House without sacrificing dignity. He was part of an era (I hope it isn’t gone forever) when politicians of both parties could also be statesmen and stateswomen and could work with others across party and even international lines. He is a very winsome witness to his Christian faith without forcing his faith on others. I can’t think of any former president who has attempted and accomplished so much for good in the world since his presidency as has Jimmy Carter.


  7. Good points, Tony. I had forgotten about a couple of those odd Carter statements. His mishandling of the economy and the Iran crisis were so glaring that his other quirky views were buried in the rubble.

    Also this is one time when I have to give Rust Belt Rick kudos for his honest and accurate assessment of former President Carter.

    Jimmy Carter is an enigmatic guy, yea almost bizarre at times. Interestingly, he may have had one of the highest IQs of any president in the 20th Century yet his national leadership ability was among the worst. He could have served the country so much better if he had remained in the Navy as a nuclear engineer. I am sure his contributions there would have been commendable. He seems to be a genuinely likable man on a personal level, albeit slightly disingenuous. I am reminded of the time he started talking about how much he liked Bob Dylan and his music. Well and good…..but then the interviewer asked him what his favorite Dylan song was. “I just like them all” or words to that effect was his answer. But don’t you have one favorite? “I like them all.” Was that Jimmy’s way of saying he could not name one? If so, it’s a curious answer from a man he had just finished extolling the singer. (I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Dr. Fea would not have a similar problem answering a comparable question about a Springsteen song!)

    Dr. Fea states that Jimmy Carter encouraged people to “…work hard and make sacrifices….” whereas Ronald Reagan praised “…..individualism and freedom….” I don’t think these two directions are mutually exclusive.

    Also Dr. Fea would probably know the answer to this question, but isn’t it former evangelical Randall Balmer who is still on the talk circuit attempting to rehabilitate the image of Jimmy Carter? If so, Randall has a rough row to hoe.


  8. “[Jimmy Carter] can marshall moral clarity.”

    Good grief. Jimmy Carter is a longstanding Hamas apologist. Jimmy Carter legitimized Fidel Castro. Jimmy Carter said this about Kim Il Sung: “I find him to be vigorous, intelligent and in charge of the decisions about his country.” Jimmy Carter smears Israel as an apartheid state. Jimmy Carter deemed Tito “a man who believes in human rights.” Jimmy Carter lauded Ceausescu and said “Our goals are the same … to have a just system of economics and politics. We believe in enhancing human rights.”

    It is difficult to find a thug or terrorist organization — especially if they are enemies of Israel — that Jimmy Carter would not reflexively champion. (In this regard, he makes Trump’s encomiums to Putin seem the font of wisdom.) With his frequent pronouncements about the wicked and controlling influence wielded by the Jewish lobby in American politics, he and Ilhan Omar would be two peas in a pod.

    Jimmy Carter has proven to be one of the most morally blind individuals in American public life. His laudable work for Habitat for Humanity doesn’t change that. Lenin had a term for well-intended but woefully misguided people like Jimmy Carter. Let’s just say that he has spent the last few decades increasing his usefulness.


  9. I grew up in northeast Ohio, and one could make the case that Carter’s response to the Youngstown Steel problem in 1977 paved the way for Trump. We saw in Carter a tepid capitulation to corporate interests, and legions of Democrats (particularly Bill Clinton) followed that template in the years since.

    By 1980, my Dad and grandpa (UAW members) had no qualms about voting for Reagan. It’s not like Carter could claim to be a champion of labor. But hey, the guy does nice stuff for Habitat.


Comments are closed.