Since the magazine was founded in 1857, they’ve only endorsed three presidential candidates, and all three faced rather demagogic opponents.
The Atlantic has been around for over a century and a half, and in that stretch, the highly reputable publication has only put its weight behind presidential candidates at seminal moments in our country’s history. There’s clearly a pattern behind their reasoning. In their endorsement of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, founding editor James Russell Lowell wrote:
We believe that this election is a turning-point in our history; for, although there are four candidates, there are really, as everybody knows, but two parties, and a single question that divides them. The supporters of Messrs. Bell and Everett have adopted as their platform the Constitution, the Union, and the enforcement of the Laws. This may be very convenient, but it is surely not very explicit. The cardinal question on which the whole policy of the country is to turn—a question, too, which this very election must decide in one way or the other—is the interpretation to be put upon certain clauses of the Constitution. All the other parties equally assert their loyalty to that instrument. Indeed, it is quite the fashion. The removers of all the ancient landmarks of our policy, the violators of thrice-pledged faith, the planners of new treachery to established compromise, all take refuge in the Constitution,—‘Like thieves that in a hemp-plot lie, Secure against the hue and cry.’
The Atlantic, and Lowell specifically, recognized the election of 1860 as a “turning-point in our history.” A large portion of the endorsement covers the importance of the abolition of slavery and the necessity of becoming a more inclusive nation. It’s telling that the opponents of Lincoln centered their campaigns around “the Constitution, the Union, and the enforcement of the Laws.” Trump calls himself the law and order candidate, and he operates under this umbrella in an attempt to justify and rationalize his xenophobic ideas. The Atlantic seems to pop its head into the conversation whenever patriotism by way of fear-mongering and demagoguery enters the fray.
Their endorsement of Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964 has a similar tone to it. In general, their endorsements are less about the candidate they are endorsing and more about rebuking the ideals of their opponent(s)—especially in the case of LBJ. Goldwater was seen as a dangerous and regressive alternative to LBJ, he was strictly against civil rights legislation and was quite keen on using nuclear weapons on the battlefields of Vietnam. So The Atlantic felt the need to use their influence to potentially sway a few undecided voters.
We believe that as the first Southerner to occupy the White House since the Civil War, the President will bring to the vexed problem of civil rights a power of conciliation which will prevent us from stumbling down the road taken by South Africa.
It’s a bit of praise for LBJ, and its followed by a denunciation of Goldwater that, if we used a find and replace (Goldwater→Trump) could be transposed directly onto their Hillary endorsement.
A President is trusted to make decisions, the most momentous decisions in our lives. In making up his mind he must reckon with those who disagree with him. We think it unfortunate that Barry Goldwater takes criticism as a personal affront; we think it poisonous when his anger betrays him into denouncing what he calls the “radical” press by bracketing the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Izvestia. There speaks not the reason of the Southwest but the voice of Joseph McCarthy. We do not impugn Senator Goldwater’s honesty. We sincerely distrust his factionalism and his capacity for judgment.
There have been many comparisons made between Goldwater and Trump, some more accurate than others, but this statement’s thesis in echoed in the Clinton endorsement. The piece, which is called “Against Donald Trump” and was written by the editors in quite explicit in its reasoning:
We are impressed by many of the qualities of the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, even as we are exasperated by others, but we are mainly concerned with the Republican Party’s nominee, Donald J. Trump, who might be the most ostentatiously unqualified major-party candidate in the 227-year history of the American presidency.
These concerns compel us, for the third time since the magazine’s founding, to endorse a candidate for president. Hillary Rodham Clinton has more than earned, through her service to the country as first lady, as a senator from New York, and as secretary of state, the right to be taken seriously as a White House contender. She has flaws (some legitimately troubling, some exaggerated by her opponents), but she is among the most prepared candidates ever to seek the presidency. We are confident that she understands the role of the United States in the world; we have no doubt that she will apply herself assiduously to the problems confronting this country; and she has demonstrated an aptitude for analysis and hard work.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no record of public service and no qualifications for public office. His affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.
Our endorsement of Clinton, and rejection of Trump, is not a blanket dismissal of the many Trump supporters who are motivated by legitimate anxieties about their future and their place in the American economy. But Trump has seized on these anxieties and inflamed and racialized them, without proposing realistic policies to address them.
If Hillary Clinton were facing Mitt Romney, or John McCain, or George W. Bush, or, for that matter, any of the leading candidates Trump vanquished in the Republican primaries, we would not have contemplated making this endorsement. We believe in American democracy, in which individuals from various parties of different ideological stripes can advance their ideas and compete for the affection of voters. But Trump is not a man of ideas. He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent.
It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for Hillary Clinton. The entire piece basically states, “She’ll probably be a fine president, and he, on the other hand, could very well could destroy everything we hold dear.” And while it’s undoubtedly historic, the reality is most of the people who read The Atlantic, or care what an endorsement from them means, are already rather well-informed. We’re not talking about a highly malleable and indecisive set of readers here.
But even if the actual impact on the election is essentially immeasurable, this is still a big deal—The Atlantic only steps in when the situation is dire, when one alternative is a direct and credible threat to the republic.
Their third endorsement in nearly 160 years is indicative of the pervasive fear surrounding the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency.