On March 4th, just months before the end of the Civil war, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address and we see that his mind had turned towards reconstruction and reconciliation. He concludes:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
These are words we might turn to again as the wild success of Donald Trump exposes a large population of people who have a lot in common with Southerners after the civil war. These are people: not wholly bad people, not wholly good people. They are mostly average people who have gone through a lot of change and now face economic and moral uncertainty. They have watched as the world has changed around them in ways contrary to their welfare, understanding, and sentiments. They are defensive and they are acting defensively.
Of course we can say mean things about them, as well Lincoln might have demonized southerners, but that will only be more of the same. The Trump supporters I know are not malicious or even authoritarian as recent articles have claimed. It is likely that Trump supporters do have authoritarian leanings, but here’s one helpful rebuttal that at least casts it in a more friendly light. Most of them are traditionalists who resent the liberalization of the media, economy, academy, and so forth. These are people who feel their freedom of speech threatened, and people who are publicly been ridiculed for their perspectives.
It is no secret that modern political rhetoric has become very polarizing. Each side throws everything but sticks and stones (and sometimes those too). But this is no civil war. The civil war had a clean ending. Instead our partisan parties move from one victory to another. There is never time to pause, to take off our uniforms, and salute each other with respect for what was noble and good in our opponents.
While I lean conservative, I believe Obama has been an effective president—a president connected to Lincoln in obvious ways. During Obama’s tenure, the left wing has made massive strides forward—some of which I disagree with. But while I would not choose universal healthcare, I still believe it can become a tenable solution. Obama has worked towards what he believes to be right, and he has been very successful. But I wonder if he has forgotten to heal wounds.
That is what made Lincoln’s rhetoric remarkable. It is not the sort of rhetoric we’re used to hearing. We are used to overly confident rants calculated to please the mob rather than pacify it. Lincoln’s rhetoric is conviction without certainty and without blame. He is not demonizing the south and yet he pursues his objective “with firmness in the right.” And then, he humbly adds “as God gives us to see the right.” There is a touch of doubt in his rhetoric—something almost entirely absent in modern politics.
Lincoln goes on to encourage the people to “finish the work” which is not winning the war (that has arguably been done already) but “binding up the nation’s wounds.” Lincoln knew that if wounds were not healed, and if the south was left to suffer emotionally, economically, and politically as an atonement for their sins, there would be a recoil into a new form of slavery (segregation). And when reconstruction did indeed fail, that is exactly what happened.
There are strange parallels to what we are seeing now. Trump’s followers share belief in state rights, populism, and even racism. They mirror the frightened, embarrassed, and defeated confederacy.
As we try to understand the rise of Trump we wrongly focus on the man. Trump is as good at being a politician as he is at tying his shoe. He says what will get a favorable reaction from his supporters. The more we demonize Trump, the more we miss the point. And the more the media and academy attack him, the more they stoke the fire. (His supporters already distrust ivory tower elites and news agencies anyways). Who cares about Trump. Who cares if he is a bad man or a good man. If not Trump it will be someone else. We need to focus instead on the group of people who are finding a voice this election—even if we completely disagree with them. I do not believe this is a group of people who will be silenced and by trying to shame them we will only perpetuate the problem. Shaming tactics is just the sort of rhetoric that got us here.
The leaders of our modern revolutions are often forgetting what Lincoln knew. We cannot simply defeat our opponents, we must empower them. Nothing is more dangerous than a defeated class. Our modern revolutions are too myopic. After winning, instead of nursing wounds we are flaunting our victories. And the rhetoric is so thick people believe their causes could not possibly be wrong and that opposing views have no validity.
If we want to make lasting change we need a higher rhetoric, a rhetoric that looks to the future. It succeeds because it moves from promoting change to establishing peace. It sees not only the opposition’s weaknesses but also its great strength. It knows what should be painfully obvious by now: You never really win a war until you have stabilized the defeated nation. Until then, there is always the threat of a counter revolution.
This is not a war. There is no reconstruction underway, no physical policies to consider. But it is a rhetorical battle, and as such there is a sort of rhetorical reconstruction possible. We can, and ought to, consider ways in which our rhetoric can seek reunion. We can take our lesson from Lincoln. Rather than boasting or condemning, we can see our opponents as family—part of our union. We can step down from our pedestals, take off our top hats, and doubt our own convictions without sacrificing our integrity. That is, we can still promote our cause, but let us labor over our words and press forward with malice towards none, and charity for all.