Donald Trump’s story of America is changing. Four years ago, Trump loudly denounced Mexican immigrants, Muslim terrorists, urban criminal violence, and China. But he ultimately blamed all the nation’s ills on the “corrupt political establishment” in Washington “and the financial and media corporations that fund it.” They were the “central base” of a “global power structure” that was hostile to most Americans.
By the time of Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech on July 3 of this year, his targets had shifted, slightly but significantly. Now America faced threats from “angry mobs” trying to “tear down statues of our Founders” and “unleash a wave of violent crime” in the service of a “new far-left fascism” found “in our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms.” Trump swung his focus from the “globalism” of Washington elites to the “totalitarianism” of the promoters of “left-wing cultural revolution.”
Ratcheting up his past defenses of “beautiful” Confederate statues, at Mount Rushmore, Trump warned that the largely peaceful recent protests ultimately aimed to “tear down . . . our national heritage.” He waxed lyrical about the country’s alleged need to create a “National Garden of American Heroes.”
It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s celebration of symbols and the “incredible story” of America, and his attacks on protestors and immigrants, as merely cynical, a rhetorical means of distracting his audience from a raging pandemic and a feeble economy.
But stories and symbols are indispensable to constructing the meaning and purposes of our political communities and shared lives.
Of course, America has grown into an extraordinarily diverse land, and its diverse inhabitants tell many different stories of what it means to be an American. But no story has been more widely resonant than the narrative of American purposes enunciated in the opening paragraphs of Declaration of Independence, first drafted by Thomas Jefferson, refined by the Continental Congress, and reinterpreted as the nation’s founding document almost a century later by anti-slavery constitutionalists, Frederick Douglass, and President Abraham Lincoln.
The Declaration held that “Governments are instituted among Men” to “secure” the “unalienable Rights” with which all are equally “endowed by their Creator,” including rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” If governments instead became “destructive of these Ends,” they should be altered or even abolished, so that those goals can be pursued effectively.
Four generations later, Abraham Lincoln argued that “the Declaration contemplated the progressive improvement” of all humanity through governmental policies aimed at enabling all to possess basic rights securely. He insisted that in regard to those rights, a “black woman . . . is my equal, and she is the equal of all others.” That was why America’s principles required placing the “monstrous injustice” of slavery on the path to extinction.
Over the Fourth of July weekend this year, Trump fundamentally rejected this familiar American narrative. Like Lincoln, he looked back to the Declaration. But Trump’s version of the American story had two striking features.
First, while he noted that the Declaration launched “a revolution in pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity,” Trump presented it not as an inspiration for carrying forward that project, but solely as a reason to celebrate what Americans have already done “to promote human progress.” To Trump, honoring the Declaration means defending America’s “history” and “heritage” against all critics. His speech listed many past American accomplishments but set no new tasks for today, other than erecting new statues and building a “National Garden” to house them.
Nothing could be further from Lincoln’s understanding of the Declaration’s proclamation of equal human rights as a “maxim” which should be “constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.” To his credit, Joe Biden is now also telling America’s story as a “tug of war” between the “ideal that we are all created equal” and the “racism” that he sees as also “part of the American character.” He is calling on Americans to labor together to “make this imperfect union as perfect as we can.”
Trump promises only to make America what it used to be. He did say at Mt. Rushmore that Martin Luther King Jr. called on Americans to “live up to their heritage.” Yet unlike King, he identified that heritage with pursuing America’s “Manifest Destiny” to conquer land, oceans, skies and stars, carrying forward the mission of his beloved Andrew Jackson, who pursued it via the expansion of slavery and the forced resettlement of Native Americans.
In Trump’s eyes, there is nothing imperfect about America’s past. Instead, the nation’s only real problem is that some now deny that the United States is and always has been “the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist.”
Therein lies the second striking feature of Trump’s 2020 story of America. Its villains are no longer confined to the nation’s corrupt elites. His target now is many of us: for example, teachers who fail to teach children only to love America, never to criticize it, as well as the tens of millions of Americans who have joined protests proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” a statement Trump calls a “symbol of hate.”
He and his strategists believe that if the election becomes a contest between those who want to defend all statues and those who want to tear down all statutes, Trump will win. Perhaps so.
But if voters decide instead, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, that is “for us the living . . . to be dedicated here to the unfinished work” of realizing the promises of the Declaration of Independence, then Americans will reject building a garden full of marble monuments to the past. Instead, they will choose to move forward, working to forge a more perfect union, because they’re not afraid to admit that there is a lot more to be done.
Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.