Before the Civil War, the two sides often read different authors, saw different newspapers, read different novels. Some northern works were not easily available in the south and the levels of literacy differed. Of course, today, all is open. We choose to narrow our options: a Fox listener is likely to be a Wall Street Journal reader who begins surfing with Instapundit. A CNN listener is more likely to read the NYTimes and check out HuffPost.
So, we can speak to each other, but anyone listening to the rhythms of Obama and those of Trump, the voices of the average humanities teacher and of the dirty jobs guy, may well wonder if they would understand. (Though, of course, it is a perspective rather than position – Rowe and Victor Davis Hanson, as academically credentialed as they come, understand each other thoroughly.)
Listening to Trump’s speech on Charlotte, I heard something reporters didn’t mention. The speech’s rhythms came from an emphasis we’ve heard before: in Trump’s inaugural, in Lincoln’s second inaugural – and blended them in Trump’s less rhythmical, less evocative but direct and emotion-driven voice. It lacks the distance and gravitas of Lincoln, but its purpose is similar.
So, let’s look at that great old address. The war was not yet over; the union was clearly going to win but winning was not the point unless it was means to unification. Lincoln understood that slavery could not, should not continue: as he had put it in 1858, a nation divided could not stand. And so two years later, nominated by the party he’d addressed in ’58, he became president in a four-way race and almost immediately the nation divided. The Unionists were his people – the Confederacy was not – but surely he considered a broader audience, four years later as he described the two people’s shared history and he spoke of a future more in terms of reconciliation than triumph (the title Whitman, a poet inspired by Lincoln, used for his poem on the war’s end). The speech is short, but here’s one passage that emphasizes those shared values:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
Accepting that common blood, he has a strong confidence in the rightness of his soldiers’ cause; indeed, triumph is near. That great and terrible war must have been heavy on his mind as he reconciles himself to those rivers of blood with eloquence:
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Trump, of course, is speaking to an audience that has difficulty resigning itself to a beneficent Creator whose plans are beyond our understanding. Such faith remains but it is not as available as it once was. (More accurately, I suspect it is available but modern man is more prideful, less willing to accept tragedy as the nature and heritage of man.) Nonetheless, I think we should note that Trump’s speech’s purpose should not have been to condemn as much as unite. That was the note of this speech; it was the note of another – more eloquent president, one with less baggage and less pride, facing a far larger and far more tragic moment in our history. But Trump’s statement is framed in terms of our tradition and his responsibility – one that few will ever understand as deeply as Lincoln.
Today he spoke with the specificity that the crowd of politicians and media wanted:
Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.
But he also re-emphasized the perspective of Saturday’s speech:
As I said on Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. It has no place in America.
And as I have said many times before: No matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws, we all salute the same great flag, and we are all made by the same almighty God. We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry, and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.
. . . .
We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our Creator. We are equal under the law. And we are equal under our Constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.
Some would argue he is in a weaker position because he so often spoke of Obama’s unwillingness to “name” the jihadists, especially in terms of the driving force that led them to (and they thought justified) acts of terror. Perhaps, I don’t disagree that these may seem hypocritical, nor that I, too, found such obfuscations really irritating. And perhaps that is because in 1860 a shared history, a shared faith, a shared language, a shared set of values were jaggedly torn apart. Such is not our relation with the jihadist.
But I will leave that argument for another day.
For today, I just wanted to put these up, note the similar purposes of the two speeches, and consider that the president is, after all, the president of those on both sides of those poorly drawn and violent lines in Charlottesville. When he says, God bless America, he means – he must mean if he is to be true to his office – those who listen to CNN as well as those who listen to Fox. And the quickness with which the Saturday speech was condemned was not surprising – that is the role of identity politics. To politicize, to separate, to arm us against one another. (And given the choices Robert E. Lee made at the end of that war, some irony appears that the protests were over the removal of a statue of the man who discouraged over a hundred and fifty years ago any guerrilla insurgencies such as those flying the Confederate flag this weekend would seem to represent – and an irony that those who protested the protest argued that the permit should never have been given, those voices had no right to be heard.)