Politics & Policy

Trump, Lincoln, and the Importance of Symbols

President Trump watches the Navy Blue Angels aerial flypast during the Independence Day Mount Rushmore celebrations in Keystone, S.D., July 3, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
With his unidimensional messaging, President Trump has proven unable to respond to a cultural crisis with anything but a culture war.

Speaking on national television two weeks ago, French president Emmanuel Macron delivered a clear and unwavering condemnation of riots and vandalism: “The republic will erase no trace or names of its history, it will forget none of its works, it will tear down none of its statues,” Macron declared. “We must instead lucidly look together at our history, and in particular our relationship with Africa.” After reiterating his support for law enforcement, the French president promised “to fight against the fact that one’s name, address, skin color still all too often reduce the equal opportunities everyone should have.”

With these words, Macron successfully combined a firm condemnation of racism with a resolute defense of history and public order. Since the worldwide eruption of riots and statue demolition in the name of social justice, France has been able to defend its cultural heritage better than most of its neighbors. As statues began to fall all across Europe, the French government managed to keep the situation largely under control. Despite its colonial past, France does not find itself ravaged by the kind of racial tensions that have long permeated American political life. And this peaceful state of affairs may be due to the ability of moderate and conservative French politicians to understand the importance of race relations and handle controversial matters with tact.

When conservatives fight to preserve statues and national myths, they reaffirm their belief in the crucial role that symbols play in the polis. In politics, actions and objects signify much more than their surface existence. A handshake can turn into an alliance, just as a nuanced response to a racial protest can transform a rigorous defense of public order into a conciliatory message healing national tensions. Ultimately, the masterful handling of symbols and frustrations constitutes a pillar of statesmanship.

Which is the reason President Trump’s response to the protests has been so poorly received. Last Monday, he defended Confederate monuments. Last Tuesday, he went after a federal housing rule meant to combat racial segregation. Last Wednesday, he called Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate,” while refusing to use the same words for Confederate emblems. As for his fiery Mount Rushmore address, where the president took ample time to condemn “angry mobs,” at no point did he discuss the entrenched mark that racism has left on American history. Perhaps we should not be scandalized that Trump refuses to support the Black Lives Matter movement, an organization whose cofounders are self-described “trained Marxists.” But what this attitude does show is his inability to respond to a cultural crisis with anything but a culture war.

This failure is but a symptom of Trump’s unfortunate tendency to equate his personal interests with those of the nation. Traversing a deadly pandemic, a surge in socioeconomic precariousness, and a divisive battle over history and culture, America’s disbanded national body was — and remains — in urgent need of social surgery. The Trump campaign might have needed bombastic rhetoric, historical hyperbole, and ominous imagery; but America did not. With his embrace of unidimensional messaging, President Trump failed to showcase the nuanced statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln and others whose statues he is trying to protect.

On the evening of January 27, 1838, a youthful Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Ill. In “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” his ardent rejection of mob violence and unchaperoned riots remains in many ways remarkably applicable to our present situation:

Whenever the vicious portion of [our] population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing-presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure and with impunity, depend upon it, this government cannot last. By such things the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it, and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak to make their friendship effectual.

To counter the vices of mobs and extremists, Lincoln defended the erection of a “political religion,” a sense of national identity that would bring everyone into the tent of republicanism. Lincoln did not want to found this political religion against anyone. Instead, he thought of national identity as a matter of “compromise” and “unimpassioned reason.” In Lincoln’s eyes, the cultivation of long-lasting order required a careful and moderate use of rhetoric.

For the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, “to lend a voice to suffering is a condition for all truth.” We need not expect Trump to seek counsel from Marxist social theorists, but this past week, lending a voice to suffering could have been a shrewd political move. He had an opportunity to show that beyond the well-insulated walls of leftist antechambers, conservatives are not — and have never been — living caricatures of unparalleled narrow-mindedness. The task would have been particularly easy given that the president has much to be proud of when it comes to racial justice. The First Step Act of 2018, for example, was a masterful combination of compassion and public safety. But all the bills in the world will never suffice as long as Republicans do not manage to handle symbols and rhetoric with the appropriate amount of caution.

In 2015, this magazine deplored the GOP’s conspicuous absence from Selma on the 50th anniversary of the historic march for civil rights. Today, yet again, a Republican president gives his political opponents a wonderful occasion to portray the party as a refuge for closet racists. To paraphrase the 17th-century French theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Republicans cannot deplore the effects whose causes they cherish. If Republicans accept to enroll themselves in a polarizing culture war in which any attempt to reach out to black America is perceived as a sign of weakness, they should no longer wonder why they struggle to capture the votes of socially conservative African Americans. Every missed opportunity, every denigrated symbol of racial justice, every maladroit provocation pushes the GOP further away from people who belong to what should be a natural Republican constituency.

In W. E. B. Du Bois’s words, “if [our] unusual development is to progress amid peace and order, mutual respect and growing intelligence, it will call for social surgery at once the delicatest and nicest in modern history. It will demand broad-minded, upright men, both white and black, and in its final accomplishment civilization will triumph.” Every time President Trump thinks back to his exalted celebration of America’s greatest heroes, may he be reminded that beyond the ever-deepening Twitter trenches of interminable culture wars, real political progress requires the sophistication and nuance of giants on whose shoulders we stand.

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