Seven Score and 13 Years Later, Trump Impersonates Lincoln
When Donald Trump journeyed to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on Saturday to deliver a speech, his supporters said that the Republican presidential candidate saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate purpose and gravitas.
"Trump's Gettysburg speech will be the most decisive break with the corrupt establishment in modern times," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich advised on Twitter. "He is detailed and decisive."
Trump was also venturing onto some of the country's most hallowed political soil (as legions of other politicians had before him) to associate himself with Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, in the midst of a Civil War that would ultimately cost about 750,000 lives. The 16th president had a number of goals for the Gettysburg Address, but one of his key objectives was to reshape how Americans thought about the war.
The North was fighting the Civil War not only to preserve the Union, Lincoln said in his speech. It also was waging war to defend and then enshrine the ideal of universal equality.
"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," Lincoln said. "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
Lincoln's speech was also part of a broader ceremony meant to consecrate a national cemetery at Gettysburg, where one of the Civil War's most pivotal battles had recently concluded. In addition to embracing equality, the Gettysburg Address was a call to civic duty and shared sacrifice, written by a self-taught man whose writings were marked by the cadences and values of the Greek classics, Shakespeare and the Bible.
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion," Lincoln said. "That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Trump's speech at Gettysburg neither looked backward to the principles Lincoln memorialized, nor forward to a new, complementary set of values that might challenge Americans to think above and beyond themselves in complex times.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address took about three minutes to deliver. Trump's ran about 40 minutes. And Trump used a chunk of that time to introduce a laundry list of complaints that, in part, dwelled on corruption, retribution and conspiracy.
Trump's prepared speech was also a compendium of action points that he said would mark his first 100 days in office should he be elected president, including voiding some of President Barack Obama's executive actions, rolling back trade and climate accords, establishing term limits for Congress, getting tougher on immigration and deregulating the energy industry.
While Trump devoted the second half of his speech to those issues, he departed from the script in the beginning to revisit some familiar themes: The electoral system is "rigged"; Hillary Clinton should be "locked up"; the women who allege he sexually abused them are "liars."
“Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign,” Trump said at Gettysburg. “Total fabrication. The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.”
Trump also used his speech to excoriate the media for low-balling the size of the crowds he was drawing, and for not reporting polls that he said showed him surging ahead of Clinton with voters. (I'm a media member whom Trump once sued for libel. He lost.)
"The rigging of the system is designed for one reason: to keep the corrupt establishment and special interests in power at your expense, and everybody's expense," Trump said. "I have no special interest but you, the American voter."
Trump went on to explain that he chose Gettysburg as a venue because he wanted to "drain the swamp in Washington, D.C." and "replace it with a new government of, by, and for the people."
His campaign had a slightly different take. "Abraham Lincoln is going to be an important figure in terms of Mr. Trump's vision for the Republican Party," a Trump aide told the Washington Post after Trump's Gettysburg speech.
That's an interesting thought. Abraham Lincoln's handiwork at Gettysburg was lyrical and long-lasting. He delivered an epic speech that linked the misery of a brutal war to the promises of the Declaration of Independence, and he would then go on to ask his country and the Republican Party to make equality a permanent, acknowledged feature of the Constitution.
Though the political party Lincoln forged has undergone seismic changes since then, his words have endured for more than 150 years. Trump's words are likely to be more ephemeral, and the Republican Party will have to decide in the wake of Trump's candidacy what values it plans to hold dear for the next 150 years.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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