Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
Look at those hands, are they small hands?… And, he referred to my hands — ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee. Donald Trump, Republican Debate, March 3, 2016
It is a long road from the party of Lincoln, from the party with 24 African-American Congressmen before 1900, to a party best embodied in the person of Donald Trump. Yet if anyone appreciated the fragility of the Union and the threat of depraved leadership, it was Lincoln himself.
In facing the reality of Trump, we would do well to listen to Lincoln’s address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, IL. It was the place of Lincoln’s famous prophecy: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” In his speech concerning the fragile Union, Lincoln envisions a leader readied to profit from our nation’s depravity and whose main concern was his own distinction. Lincoln cautioned that such a politician might manipulate our nation’s moral bankruptcy into a dangerous mob spirit.
Lincoln hoped that when faced with the worst leader our Union possessed the potential to produce, the Union’s best citizenship would arise. “It will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.” It is clear that Trump plays with our worst potentials as a nation; what remains to be seen is whether or not we are self-aware enough to address it. In witnessing the party of Lincoln embrace and endorse Trump, it is tempting to pretend Trump only embodies the failures of the party he represents. Yet such an interpretation misses the full power of his movement whose foundation rests on the failure of both parties to address the needs of the working class and poor since the parties realigned their priorities following the fall of segregation.
At that time, the South was a Democratic stronghold known as the “Solid South” with an ideological commitment to the poor and the working class. Yet the commitment of the “Solid South” was not simply to the poor and working class, but also to segregation and the Southern way of life. When President Johnson decoupled the Democratic Party’s commitment to the poor from the Southern segregated way of life, the Democrats knowingly risked losing “the South for the next generation.”
Following integration, the “Solid South” was no more. Southern loyalty was up for grabs and the Republican Party proved ready to incorporate the South’s indifference and tacit support of social injustices in order to strengthen its base. By doing so, the Republican Party was able to keep its original pro-business commitments but forgot the moral principles that catalyzed its inception. Thus the cost of the Republican’s growing political power was a disintegrating moral compass concerning justice and equality that is at the heart of the pursuit of an ever-more perfect Union.
The Republican compromise went both ways. For Southerners, the price of defection from the Democratic Party was allegiance to a party whose economic priorities were to the profits of corporations and their board members. The poor of the South were trained to accept the thin logic that what benefitted Wall Street and its power brokers would eventually trickle down to the working people of Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas.
The Republican story, of course, is only half the story. Equally important was the compromises the Democratic Party made when the dust settled following integration. With the new lay of the land, the Democratic Party was better positioned to secure the vote of social liberals and progressives and was no long primarily focused on being the party for the poor. Following integration, concerns of minorities and the poor, many of which were far more socially conservative than the direction the Democratic began taking, was a part of the rhetoric but the rhetoric was largely lip service that rarely translated into public policy.
With a Republican Party devoid of a moral compass and a Democratic Party predominately focused on socially progressives, an ironic common ground was forming concerning the economy. The unifying figure was Ronald Reagan. Despite the name, Reaganomics was not an exclusively Republican ideal. Its best prophet was none other than Bill Clinton. It was Clintonomics that oversaw the decimation of the welfare system, introduction of NAFTA and the deregulation of Wall Street. Reaganomics and Clintonomics were different in name and rhetoric but not in whom their policies were written to benefit. It took more than one party to concentrate nation’s wealth in the top 1% and slay the middle class to whom the trickle down method was sold.
This collaborative failure to protect the middle class and working poor, a failure that is as deeply moral as it is economic, ignited the chaos now defining American politics. Trump ’s arrogance, racism, and flippancy tapped into a latent rage of predominately middleclass and poor whites creating a Spindletop of political rage. Trump fans the flames of this rage through his message concerning our failure to fight for the middle class. That message is neither ignorant nor racist; it is a truth that neither party can ignore.
The path forward is not moving backwards to “make America great again.” Some of America’s past that Trump is attempting resurrect must stay in the past. Yet simply aiming to stop Trump may only reinforce the destructive status quo that empowers him. Trump highlights a fundamental need for both parties to re-prioritize our political and economic imaginations if we desire, in Lincoln’s words “a new birth of freedom—[so] that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Believing a government of the people, by the people, for the people is possible is, perhaps, not a bad place to begin our much needed re-imagining.