This spring I taught a seminar (via Zoom, of course) at the University of Chicago on the art of political persuasion. We read Lincoln, Pericles, King, Orwell, Havel and Churchill, among other great practitioners of the art. We ended with a study of Donald Trump’s tweets, as part of a class on demagogy.
If the closing subject was depressing, at least the timing was appropriate.
We are in the midst of an unprecedented national catastrophe. The catastrophe is not the pandemic, or an economic depression, or killer cops, or looted cities, or racial inequities. These are all too precedented. What’s unprecedented is that never before have we been led by a man who so completely inverts the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
With malice toward all; with charity for none: eight words that encapsulate everything this president is, does and stands for.
What does one learn when reading great political speeches and writings? That well-chosen words are the way by which past deeds acquire meaning and future deeds acquire purpose. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” are the only false notes in the Gettysburg Address. The Battle of Gettysburg is etched in national memory less for its military significance than because Lincoln reinvented the goals of the Civil War in that speech — and, in doing so, reimagined the possibilities of America.
Political writing doesn’t just provide meaning and purpose. It also offers determination, hope and instruction.
In “The Power of the Powerless,” written at one of the grimmer moments of Communist tyranny, Václav Havel laid out why the system was so much weaker, and the individual so much stronger, than either side knew. In his “Fight on the beaches” speech after Dunkirk, Winston Churchill told Britons of “a victory inside this deliverance” — a reason, however remote, for resolve and optimism. In “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., explained why patience was no answer to injustice: “When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
In a word, great political writing aims to elevate. What, by contrast, does one learn by studying Trump’s utterances?
The purpose of Trump’s presidency is to debase, first by debasing the currency of speech. It’s why he refuses to hire reasonably competent speechwriters to craft reasonably competent speeches. It’s why his communication team has been filled by people like Dan Scavino and Stephanie Grisham and Sarah Sanders.
And it’s why Twitter is his preferred medium of communication. It is speech designed for provocations and put-downs; for making supporters feel smug; for making opponents seethe; for reducing national discourse to the level of grunts and counter-grunts.
That’s a level that suits Trump because it’s the level at which he excels. Anyone who studies Trump’s tweets carefully must come away impressed by the way he has mastered the demagogic arts. He doesn’t lead his base, as most politicians do. He personifies it. He speaks to his followers as if he were them. He cultivates their resentments, demonizes their opponents, validates their hatreds. He glorifies himself so they may bask in the reflection.
Whatever this has achieved for him, or them, it’s a calamity for us. At a moment when disease has left more than 100,000 American families bereft, we have a president incapable of expressing the nation’s heartbreak. At a moment of the most bitter racial grief since the 1960s, we have a president who has bankrupted the moral capital of the office he holds.
And at a moment when many Americans, particularly conservatives, are aghast at the outbursts of looting and rioting that have come in the wake of peaceful protests, we have a president who wants to replace rule of law with rule by the gun. If Trump now faces a revolt by the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership (both current and former) against his desire to deploy active-duty troops in American cities, it’s because his words continue to drain whatever is left of his credibility as commander in chief.
I write this as someone who doesn’t lay every national problem at Trump’s feet and tries to give him credit when I think it’s due.
Trump is no more responsible for the policing in Minneapolis than Barack Obama was responsible for policing in Ferguson. I doubt the pandemic would have been handled much better by a Hillary Clinton administration, especially considering the catastrophic errors of judgment by people like Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo. And our economic woes are largely the result of a lockdown strategy most avidly embraced by the president’s critics.
But the point here isn’t that Trump is responsible for the nation’s wounds. It’s that he is the reason some of those wounds have festered and why none of them can heal, at least for as long as he remains in office. Until we have a president who can say, as Lincoln did in his first inaugural, “We are not enemies, but friends” — and be believed in the bargain — our national agony will only grow worse.
Imagining Covid under a normal president.
This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.
If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.
In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.
If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.
Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.
In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.
If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.
After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.
Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.
But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.
All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”
Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.
Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.
One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.
John Fea’s Virtual Office Hours: Fall 2015 Season – Episode 1200:08greetings everyone and welcome to the00:10virtual office hours this is episode 1200:12of our fall 2015 season my name is John00:16fee I’m your host here I teach American00:19history at messiah college Abby Blakeney00:21our producer as usual behind the camera00:23she’s back from Thanksgiving break which00:26basically means after today we only have00:28two more office hours to do here in our00:31fall season and as you really recall we00:34are thinking about the place of America00:38as the role of America should say as a00:42Christian nation and how people00:44perceived of America throughout much of00:47American history how people perceive00:49themselves as living in a Christian00:50nation some of you remember that July00:54hopefully in July sometimes in the00:56summer the second edition of my book was00:58America founded as a Christian nation01:00will be out so we will be revisiting01:03we’re here revisiting that things are01:04getting ready for that release now again01:07just a caveat I’ve been making this01:09caveat before when we talked about the01:11idea that Americans believed that they01:14were living in a Christian nation we of01:16course are stating that historically01:19that’s a historical statement it’s not01:21an ethical statement it’s not a moral01:23statement so again if you want to argue01:26with my premise here that America it has01:29always seen itself as living in a01:31Christian nation what you would need to01:33do is you would need to look at the01:35evidence I’ve mounted both in the book01:37and over the course of the last 1101:38episodes and try to suggest that no01:42Americans didn’t think that they were01:44living in a nation that was Christian01:46that would be a historical critique of01:49what I’m doing as opposed to it so the01:50ethical or political critique to say01:52people are wrong for believing that that01:55they lived in a Christian nation this is01:58again the difference between historical02:00thinking and other kinds of thinking my02:04point is historically whether they were02:06right or wrong whether they were02:07following what the founders truly02:09believed America has always understood02:12themselves as living in a Christian02:15nation at least up until the 1970s as02:17we’ll see you next week or maybe the02:18week02:18after today I want to focus on civil02:22rights movement now religion and02:25christianity has been a dominant theme02:28recently in among scholars who were02:30writing about the civil rights movement02:32and the way they’re writing methyl02:34Christianity and forms are had informed02:37the civil rights movement thinking here02:39especially of David Chappelle’s book02:41stone of hope in which he points to an02:44Old Testament prophetic tradition that02:47that really defined the vision of the02:50civil rights movement what I want to02:52focus on quickly with you today’s I want02:54to think about one particular episode in02:56the civil rights movement and that is02:57Martin Luther King Junior’s visit to the02:59city of Birmingham in April set of 196303:03it’s in that year that King come South03:06comes to Alabama to fight against03:09segregation in that city many of you03:11know the story he is eventually put into03:14prison by the public safety commissioner03:17of the city Eugene Bull Connor and while03:20he is in prison he writes what becomes03:22known one of it as one of his most03:24famous pieces of writing the letter from03:26a Birmingham jail now that letter is03:29written from prison obviously and it’s03:31addressed to the white clergy in the03:35city of Birmingham and most of these03:37white clergy that he’s writing to03:39believe that segregation should be03:41handled locally they don’t like king03:43they think he’s an outside agitator03:45who’s coming in and disrupting the good03:48order of the city which is pretty much03:50based upon racial segregation so King03:54writes this letter it’s published it’s03:55put out in the pamphlet form so it gets03:57a kind of national ventually gets a kind03:59of national audience and it’s a04:01fascinating argument because on one hand04:03King is arguing for a a nationalist04:08vision right where there is if there’s04:11injustice anywhere or injustice anywhere04:14i should say is a threat to justice04:15everywhere in other words he’s a04:20challenging localism he’s challenging04:22the idea that local governments local04:26clergy get to decide what is right and04:29what is wrong on this04:30question of race and thus challenging04:32segregation in the process so he appeals04:34to people like Abraham Lincoln and04:36others these great figures of American04:39nationalism to say you know we you know04:42we have to we have to stop the kind of04:44localism that’s going on we have to stop04:47these local prejudices and local ideas04:49especially if they’re challenging what04:51he believes is justice and king secondly04:56sort of defines justice through his04:59vision of what it means to be a05:01Christian so he’s making constant05:03appeals in the in letter from a05:05Birmingham jail about just laws and05:08unjust laws right he’s referencing05:10people like everybody from Agustin to05:13Aquinas to Paul Tillich the modern05:17theologian to he’s going back to the05:19Bible and showing how Shadrach Meshach05:22and Abednego in the Old Testament05:24challenged King Nebuchadnezzar who is05:27putting an unjust law upon them so this05:31idea of civil disobedience is rooted in05:33the Bible it’s rooted in theology at the05:38same time then King is bringing these05:41two ideas together this idea of05:43nationalism vers / localism and this05:47Christian idea of justice to suggest a05:49new vision for the nation which is going05:52to be defined by the idea that we are05:55indeed a judeo-christian country and we05:58must live up to the principal’s not only06:01of our founding fathers but the06:02principles as well of God I think he06:06summarizes this very very well in06:09towards the end of the letter and if I06:12can just find it here I want to make06:15sure i get the wording right where he06:17says he basically says he reminds the06:20birmingham clergy here that he’s06:22standing up for quote what is best in06:25the American dream and for the most06:27sacred values in our judeo-christian06:30heritage thereby bringing our nation06:32back to those great wells of democracywhich were dug deep by the foundingfathers in their formulation of the06:39constant06:39tution and the Declaration of06:41Independence again it’s a powerful06:43convergence here of American values06:46national values and Christian values and06:50King is calling us to a sort of06:52different kind of Christian nation a06:54sort of beloved community in which06:56people are not judged by race or by the06:58color of their skin so clearly here even07:02Martin Luther King a man of the left a07:04man of the civil rights movement makes07:07his case based upon many of these07:11Christian nationalists kind of07:14sentiments that we’ve seen all the way07:16in American history all the way from all07:18the way back in the early 19th century07:20we have two more episodes to go will07:23hopefully get to the end of the07:24twentieth and twenty-first century here07:26in the meantime thanks for watching and07:29we’ll see you next time
Martha Nussbaum discusses her book, “The Monarchy of Fear” at Politics and Prose on 7/9/18.
One of the country’s leading moral philosophers, Nussbaum cuts through the acrimony of today’s political landscape to analyze the Trump era through one simple truth: that the political is always emotional. Starting there, she shows how globalization has produced feelings of powerlessness that have in turn fed resentment and blame. These have erupted into hostility against immigrants, women, Muslims, people of color, and cultural elites. Drawing on examples from ancient Greece to Hamilton, Nussbaum shows how anger and fear inflame people on both the left and right; by illuminating the powerful role these passions play in public life, she points to ways we can avoid getting caught up in the vitriol that sustains and perpetuates divisive politics.