Until Trump, Presidents throughout history have always addressed the entire nation as their own. Even on the verge of Civil War, Lincoln was conciliatory to the nation’s Southern enemies.
Indeed, Lincoln’s early succor to the Southern states can be viewed in hindsight as appeasement, having pledged “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” He assured Southern intransigients that he had “no lawful right to do so,” and “no inclination to do so.” Indeed, he confirmed “the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively,” and that principle “essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend.” He thus “denounced” the “lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.” As an aside, the ironies are glaring. Lincoln resolved to use federal forces to free the slaves. Trump uses them to perpetuate the inequities slavery caused.
In fairness to Lincoln, he could do very little with a limited electoral mandate–a plurality victory over a splintered opposition–but offer the South his own version of the same unholy compromises on which the nation had been constructed. As Publius, Madison in The Federalist described the long and bloody history of the small republics of Europe, which maintained their power only through perpetual war and conflict. The anti-slavery delegates to the Philadelphia Convention (and later, their ratifying states) accepted the compromises necessary for America to avoid a similar fate. And time and again between 1776 and 1860, political compromises were offered–and accepted–to protect the Union, ultimately at the expense of slaves. But by 1860, even Lincoln’s capitulation couldn’t keep the Southern states in the Union.
In 2020, as so many times over the past four years, we have Trump inverting Lincoln’s example for malignant ends. Instead of offering a bargain—conciliation for Union—Trump offers an ultimatum—extremism for division.
And Trump does so for laughably poor reasons. Lincoln knew slavery was wrong, loathed the practice, and yet attempted to manage the nation around it until the South refused to be managed any longer. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that Lincoln took his conciliations on slavery too far. In 2020, Trump works with no such moral limitations. He has no principles, and even those principles he might adopt pale in comparison to the weight of the slavery question in the 1860s. And yet, Trump refuses to sacrifice even fake principle to the cause of American unity.
Not only does Trump refuse to offer even the slightest compromise for the sake of nation, he has dropped any pretense that there is one nation. This is at least intellectually consistent with his extremism—there is no reason to sacrifice for a principle one doesn’t believe in. One evidence of Trump’s divisiveness was delivered yesterday at a political rally in North Carolina, where Trump told a mob of supporters:
People don’t like [Kamala Harris]. Nobody likes her. She could never be the first woman president. She could never be. That would be an insult to our country.
For the moment, set aside that Harris is at least popular enough to represent the largest state in the United States of America. Set aside that a very many people like her, and that not a single unnamed Harris aide has ever defended her by saying that she sometimes “sounds lIke an asshole,” the White House’s lame excuse for Trump’s “losers” and “suckers” comments about the military. Further set aside that 54% of Americans approved of Harris’s nomination as the Democratic VP nominee and that she is the only of the four individuals on either ticket registering higher favorable than unfavorable ratings. These things can be set aside because Trump lies, and the consequences of that fact are unavoidable.1Trump would be fine with the part of Whose Line Is It Anyway? where everything is made up, but don’t try to convince him the points don’t matter.
The part of Trump’s statement that does deserve quite a lot of consideration, however, is the two-word phrase: “our country.” Whose country could he possibly mean? He can’t be speaking for the entire country–presumably Biden voters are pricing the potential of a Harris presidency into the equation–many of them enthusiastically. Meanwhile, Trump has no chance of winning even a majority of the popular vote in 2020. So he’s not talking about a governing majority of voters either.
Perhaps he was demonstrating allegiance with the crowd, but this provides little comfort. Whether he is talking about Republicans, or white Americans, or Christians–and frankly, they might as well be interchangeable terms at this point–what Trump has established is two Americas, “our” America and the “other” America.
In so doing, Trump–by design–imposes for the first time in American history the small republic dynamic that encourages, and ultimately rewards, chaos, conflict, and war.2I once worked at a law firm where I was regularly told there was an “A” team and a “B” team. No points for guessing how that governing philosophy worked out. Also no points for guessing who put themselves on the “A” team. You may be shocked—shocked—to find merit may not have been the primary criteria for the dividing line. Make no mistake. By these means, Trump is not preserving America. He is destroying it from within. Likewise, history is not repeating itself. It is undoing itself.