Lincoln’s democratic mythology at Gettysburg gives us hope that our twenty-first century political circumstances can be overcome.
Obama and Trump: Playing to Party Strengths
Barack Obama and Donald Trump have been justly attacked for their recent inflammatory rhetoric. But these criticisms miss the mark unless they are seen in the context of how, in their ways, the Democratic President and leading Republican contender reflect the presidential politics of their respective parties.
Amid much bluster, posturing, and his omnipresent false dichotomies, Obama’s speech about the Iran nuclear agreement contained arguments that merit consideration. The substantive issues aside, one needs to focus on his logic in engaging in such partisan rancor.
In a speech about staving off nuclear war with Iran, Obama could not resist making a joke: an odious equation of the Republican opponents of the agreement with Iranian hardliners chanting “Death to America.” But we misunderstand this President and his place in political history unless we see the extent to which he is acting true to Democratic form. For this is far from the most vicious slander ever uttered by a Democratic President.
In his 1944 State of the Union address, with war raging on two continents, Franklin Roosevelt denounced Republicans in extreme terms:
One of the great American industrialists of our day — a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis — recently emphasized the grave dangers of “rightist reaction” in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop — if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called “normalcy” of the 1920s — then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.
To Roosevelt’s mind, if the Republicans were to nominate and the country to elect a candidate such as Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, or Herbert Hoover, the United States would be embracing the spirit of Nazism. The deaths of Americans and all others who love freedom would be dishonored and rendered in vain by a conservative Republican victory. Following D-Day later that year, Roosevelt went on to win reelection to a fourth term.
If this wasn’t enough partisanship, Harry Truman outdid the man who picked him for Vice President. Nothing exceeds these lines from the 1948 comeback campaign that pollsters are mocked for and Truman is hailed for:
“It happened in Italy 25 years ago. It happened in Germany 15 years ago. It happened in Czechoslovakia just a few months ago. And it could happen here . . .
“What are these forces that threaten our way of life? Who are the men behind them? They are the men who want to see inflation continue unchecked. They are the men who are striving to concentrate great economic power in their own hands. They are the men who are setting up and stirring up racial and religious prejudice against some of our fellow Americans.
“I propose to state in simple, unmistakable language, just exactly how each of these three groups of men–working through the Republican Party, if you please–is a serious threat to the future welfare of this great Nation . . .
“This country has been mercifully spared extreme racial and religious strife. [Truman conveniently forgets his party’s protection of slavery.] But in recent years there has been a new outcropping of demagogues among us. Dangerous men, who are trying to win followers for their war on democracy, are attacking Catholics, and Jews, and Negroes, and other minority races and religions . . .
“Such is the spirit behind government by Republicans in this great State. In that spirit, democracy can be destroyed and tyranny born . . .
“This is not just a battle between two parties. It is a fight for the very soul of the American Government.”
Obama has some ways to go before descending to Truman’s rhetorical depths. (The Truman rhetoric, I would add, must be weighed against the importance of Truman’s actions in the Cold War.)
Had the American national will been somehow corrupted, to such a degree that voters would crown with victory politicians who had made such over-the-top statements? In fairness, it was clear to the American people that defeating Nazism, Imperial Japan, and Communism required toughness, if not brutality. The people sensed that the Republicans lacked that fighting spirit. But their choices also contributed to the decline of constitutional government by making demagoguery respectable.
The calumnies about fascists have had a long afterlife on the Left. Go ahead and google “Bush Hitler,” or even just “Barry Goldwater” and you will find a goose-stepping portrayal of the 1964 Republican presidential nominee. This sort of thing ought to go out of style but never quite does. Whenever Progressivism feels on the defensive it returns to its models. As Obama’s Iran speech and his Second Inaugural show, he recognizes just how big a battle Progressivism is in, unlike his Republican opponents, who do not seem to know what they are up against.
As for Trump, although his ad hominem attacks are remarkable, the phenomenon of his candidacy is not. Often Republicans have turned to or at least considered a non-politician (in this case an anti-politician) as their standard-bearer. The appeal of Trump reflects an aspiration that has run throughout the GOP’s history: the quest for a pure soul above the stench of ordinary politics.
Opponents of the Democratic Party and its political machine have been searching for one such ever since the early 19th century. Protesting the one-party rule of Democratic presidents were only two Whig war heroes, Generals William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor.
In their post-Lincoln dominance, the Republicans returned to non-politicians following the quirk of Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson. They ran Progressive Republican Herbert Hoover, whom conservative Calvin Coolidge derided as a “wonder boy.” Hoover, as a private citizen and before running for any elective office, deserved credit for saving post-World War I Europe from starvation and, while in Coolidge’s Cabinet, much of the South from the aftermath of flooding. Another political novice, the businessman and former New Dealer Wendell Willkie, turned Republican just in time to scoop up the party nomination at the 1940 convention.
The victory-starved GOP met with success in luring a genuine hero, Eisenhower, who quelled (at least temporarily) the Democrats’ Nazi rhetoric. Ronald Reagan, despite two terms as Governor of California, persuaded supporters and opponents alike that he was an ordinary citizen, albeit a movie actor, and seemed to herald another Republican era. But a quarter century after Reagan, the presidential future seems far from settled. And, even more exasperating, the possibility of choosing between another Clinton and another Bush looms.
Enter Trump: A successful businessman, television celebrity, and above all a political amateur who speaks bluntly and crudely and derides politicians. He even boasts of his past support of the Clintons, as evidence of his political acumen and the problems with lobbyist-driven politics today.
Cleverly, he hops to the other side of the lobbyist-politician equation (and expects voters to believe this transformation is profound, as done by him, and oh-so-easy). He testifies in a way that recalls one of the reformed alcoholics described so glowingly by Lincoln in his Temperance Address—as a man who has known sin and has now come forward to testify on how the rest of us can escape it.
Most significantly of all, Trump gives voice to passionate views widespread in the country, not just his party, such as illegal immigration, and the lack of Republican success in countering the President politically. That is at the heart of his appeal: he is the anti-politician. Thus, George Will’s accurate charge that “Donald Trump is a counterfeit Republican” disregards his strength. It is not just party weakness that enables Trump to succeed; he reflects a possibility that emerges from the non-politician choices the party has made several times in its history.
For all his disparagement of politicians, there is nothing in the Trump record to indicate that he is any less a Progressive who would expand the power of government than Obama or his would-be successors in the Democratic Party. Trump just wants to fire “incompetents,” replace them with smart people, and make government run better.
Is it possible, then, that Progressive government has given Americans so much despotism that politics is reduced to choosing between despots? Early in his life, Abraham Lincoln diagnosed this democratic blindness. His remedy for democratic ills remains the same for us today: faithful adherence to the principles of constitutional government and individual liberty. Until Republicans realize that this is the critical choice, Trump’s poll numbers will continue to soar.