The world still judges Lincoln by his Gettysburg Address. Now, it may judge Donald Trump the same way—but with strikingly different results.
On Saturday, Trump spoke to supporters in the small Pennsylvania town where, a century and a half before, Americans met in battle. It was a speech that, as much as any in this campaign, offered the very best of Trump, underscoring why so many Americans are drawn to his candidacy. It also offered the very worst.
He began by invoking Lincoln’s fight against division, and framed his run as dedication to something larger than himself. “When I saw the trouble that our country was in, I knew I could not stand by and watch any longer. Our country has been so good to me, I love our country, and I felt I had to act.”
He proceeded to denounce the ways that Washington and Wall Street have “rigged the rules of the game against everyday Americans,” from the one in five households where no one has a job, to the inner cities. And he closed with a clear, bullet-pointed plan for action, as a contract with American voters, asking them “to rise above the noise and the clutter of our broken politics, and to embrace that great faith and optimism that has always been the central ingredient in the American character.”
In between, though, that optimism curdled into bitter resentment. Trump asked Americans not to trust the machinery of their democracy, raising the specter of massive voter fraud without offering evidence to sustain that charge. He said his rival “should have been precluded from running for the presidency of the United States,” doubling down on his criminalization of political difference. He denounced massive corruption, fulminating against his enemies, foreign and domestic.
The speech’s most remarkable passage, though, sounded both notes simultaneously. Trump inveighed against the concentration of power in media conglomerates, offering himself in the mold of earlier trust-busting presidents. But he singled out those outlets which have been personally critical of him, as well as the women whose stories they have aired, promising to sue them all. And he painted himself as a victim of elites, just as much as ordinary Americans. “If they can fight somebody like me, who has unlimited resources to fight back, just look at what they can do to you—your jobs, your security, your education, your health care, the violation of religious liberty, the theft of your Second Amendment, the loss of your factories, your homes, and much more.”
It hardly bears saying—but Donald Trump is struggling to counter the stories of women who have stepped forward to accuse him of groping them. That is not what has cost Americans their factories, their health care, or their homes.
The rancid resentment that animated the heart of Trump’s speech would have been remarkable no matter where he delivered it. But it forms a particularly stark contrast with the Gettysburg addresses of others who have held the office he now seeks.
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There is a common rhythm to the rhetoric of Lincoln’s successors, which a short overview of a handful of such speeches drives home. Each of the presidents who came to Gettysburg to speak to the American people, who dared to have their own words measured against his unparalleled address, offered their audiences a warning—and a promise.
Woodrow Wilson’s speech of the 50th anniversary of the battle elided much—celebrating reconciliation without grappling with the racial oppression that enabled it. But at the same time, Wilson—although a Democrat—offered his own gloss on Lincoln’s Republican vision. He vowed to serve “the people themselves, the great and the small, without class or difference of kind or race or origin, and undivided in interest.” And he promised to protect “their freedom, their right to lift themselves from day to day and behold the things they have hoped for, and so make way for still better days for those whom they love who are to come after them.”
His speech set the pattern for those who followed. At Gettysburg, a succession of American presidents warned of the dangers of civil strife and division, stressing the essential fragility of the American experiment. But they also paid tribute to the expanding opportunities enabled by the sacrifices of earlier generations—to the American idea that, blessed with freedom, citizens could reap the rewards of their own efforts.
Teddy Roosevelt, in 1904, warned that “we, the people, can preserve our liberty and our greatness in time of peace only by ourselves exercising the virtues of honesty, of self-restraint, and of fair dealing between man and man.” But he also, characteristically, extolled the soldiers of the Union for their work ethic. “They stood for the life of effort, not the life of ease.” Freedom, Roosevelt warned, had to be earned by the exercise of restraint, and its bounty could only be harvested by diligent labor.
In 1930, Herbert Hoover came to Gettysburg, to offer a prescient warning that “the weaving of freedom is and always will be a struggle of law against lawlessness, of individual liberty against domination, of unity against sectionalism, of truth and honesty against demagoguery and misleading, of peace against fear and conflict.” But he married that warning to a positive vision of the America that the Civil War had defended, and brought more fully into being. He articulated his own American creed, stressing religious liberty, the defeat of prejudice, and efforts “to pursue diligently the common welfare and find within its boundaries our private benefit [and] to enlarge the borders of opportunity for all and find our own within them.”
Four years later, Franklin Roosevelt came to town to warn against “those who seek to stir up political animosity or to build political advantage by the distortion of facts; those who, by declining to follow the rules of the game, seek to gain an unfair advantage over those who are willing to live up to the rules of the game.” Instead, he advanced a vision of prosperity grounded in mutuality. “The grain farmers of the West and in the fertile fields of Pennsylvania do not set themselves up for preference if we seek at the same time to help the cotton farmers of the South; nor do the tobacco growers complain of discrimination if, at the same time, we help the cattle men of the plains and mountains. In our planning to lift industry to normal prosperity, the farmer upholds our efforts. And as we seek to give the farmers of the United States a long-sought equality, the city worker understands and helps. All of us, among all the States, share in whatever of good comes to the average man.”
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Surveying a century-and-a-half of Gettysburg addresses reveals something of the diversity of American political thought. Some speakers extolled government as a vehicle for common purpose; others placed more emphasis on the danger it might encourage dependence. Some praised the example of a vigorous military, others came to make the case for peace.
Yet for all their disagreements, they elucidated two simple principles. First, they warned their audiences of the fragility of democracy, picking up Lincoln’s warning that America is an experiment—and absent continued commitment, can still end in failure. And second, they explained that through hard work and sacrifice, ordinary Americans could demonstrate that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people could yield a level of opportunity and prosperity unmatched by any other system.
And there is something that none of them did. On a field that claimed more than 50,000 casualties, a turning point in a war that took three quarters of a million American lives, none made themselves the subject of their speeches. They did not air grievances, or offer complaints, although each had much to complain about. They did not blame others for the problems they faced, or threaten their critics. And they did not put themselves forward as the solution to the problems facing the nation. In a town consecrated by the sacrifice of those who had given the last full measure, they asked Americans to dedicate themselves to causes greater than any one individual’s needs, and to work towards ends that might only be achieved collectively.
And that humility manifested itself in another way, too. Wilson asked whether America “has it yet squared itself with its own great standards set up at its birth”; he asked Americans not to make the country great again, but to make it better than it had ever been. Hoover warned of the struggle “of truth and honesty against demagoguery and misleading,” and FDR condemned “those who seek to stir up political animosity or to build political advantage by the distortion of facts.” They stood at Gettysburg, and warned of the fragility of the democratic experiment, urging Americans to protect it.
Trump came to Gettysburg, and attacked the integrity of American democracy.
He began by condemning division. “It is my hope,” he said, “that we can look at [Lincoln’s] example to heal the divisions we are living through right now.” He did not expand the thought; instead, he quickly turned to expanding those divisions. He told his audience that their institutions could not be trusted, that the system is rigged against him, and that he alone can fix it. He asked for no sacrifices, called for no collective effort.
Lincoln himself, by contrast, in his second inaugural, spoke of the irony of a Civil War in which “both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” He understood the dangers of self-righteousness, and urged Americans to understand the perspectives of others, even as he held fast to his own moral principles.
Lincoln, though, did not succeed in healing America’s divisions. He was felled by a white supremacist’s bullet, killed by a man convinced that American democracy had devolved into tyranny. The hatred and resentment that led to Civil War felled the president whose example would ultimately help bind the nation back together.
Today, the Party of Lincoln is led by a man who returned to Gettysburg and attacked the faith that he had fostered, as if determined to validate the warnings of his successors. But Trump also called on Americans to “embrace the great faith and optimism” of the American character. In Gettysburg, those two messages of his campaign found themselves in conflict.
But for 150 years, Americans have found that a simple choice. They have repeatedly rejected demagoguery, and chosen instead to rededicate themselves to the democratic experiment—to prove that a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can still endure.
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