The American People's Burden on Inauguration Day

Citizens of the United States are called this year to tap ”that glittering instrument, the human soul.”

Jason Reed / Reuters

In Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, the new president begged men on the precipice of war to reconsider. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he concluded. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Today the charge of every American is to summon those better angels.

No civil war is imminent and no institution as intolerable as slavery divides us. We are prosperous beyond the wildest imaginations of our forbearers, and thus far, most of us have been called to sacrifice less than nearly every bygone generation of Americans. So the burden of remembering that we are not enemies, but friends, even as tens of millions are bitterly divided over the merits of Donald Trump, can be born.

This Inauguration Day, let the awesome powers of the presidency make us better.

The victors, Trump supporters, can look on fears of their fellow Americans that they regard as hysterical as an opportunity for outreach and reassurance rather than an occasion for disdain. Though they believe it to be unnecessary, they can pledge that if those fears come to pass, if abuses of power are in evidence, they will be first to object. They can urge their coalition from within to govern in the interest of all Americans. Trump opponents can undertake outreach of their own, endeavoring to understand why different individuals cast ballots for the real-estate mogul rather than presuming the least charitable explanation and forging relationships across the divide. They can identify those grievances that are legitimate and address them.

So many gave their lives for us, fighting in lousy trenches and jungles swarming with dengue fever. So many of us ask, without thinking anything of it, that Hutus and Tutsis, or Israelis and Palestinians, set aside their differences and get along for mutual benefit. To be certain one is right about American politics and reach out generously, with love in our hearts, to those who are wrong: Is that really so heavy a burden?

Surely we can lift it if enough of us try together. Let this improbable day inspire us to try.

Trump himself may make this more difficult. Many of his supporters believe his agenda will be good for the country and thus held their noses at flaws in the man himself that they see and dislike. Trump rose to power while posting schoolyard insults on Twitter and assigning demeaning nicknames to his primary opponents. When thinking to himself, “How can I brag to Billy Bush and make myself look good,” he settled on claiming that he grabs women “by the pussy” without permission. Never has a president repudiated “Do unto others...” with such passionate intensity. His example may influence some. But the dearth of that “do unto others” ethic at the top makes it more vital to the health and endurance of American communities that we strive toward it at the bottom, as if to test whether a people can bring out the best in its leaders.

Individuals can oppose one another full-force on subjects like Obamacare, or a border wall, or the best person to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, in concert with this project. They can politick and debate, protest and lobby, write Washington and picket Main Street. But they cannot be uncharitable, or indulge hatefulness, or presume the worst of their neighbor, or revel in trolling, or conceive of fellow citizens as enemies. Or at least they must fight those impulses and win most of the time.

“Ah, love, let us be true to one another!” Matthew Arnold famously pleaded on the cliffs of Dover Beach, “for the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; and we are here as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night.” There is so much that is now beyond our control, fellow Americans. But each of us can decide whether to summon the better angels of our nature, to do unto others.

That power is ours to wield. No force on earth can take it away. Thou mayest! “Why, that makes a man great... for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”