Let me share a few thoughts on this moment and what it portends in the days and years ahead. Optimism is not primarily a prediction but an ethic, a philosophy, a way of confronting the world. I know many people are not simply disappointed about today’s events but gripped by a deep apprehension and worry. This is natural, logical. What we are seeing transpire, because of the person and character of the man who is about to become President, is unlike anything any of us have seen in our lifetimes. Trump is a bully. He is not just ignorant but militantly ignorant. He is palpably driven by a need to dominate in every case. He has the most fragile of egos. His vision of leadership is one we find from strongmen in pseudo-democracies and soft dictatorships. His most driving needs are to be praised, loved and to dominate. All of these qualities, not simply in the abstract but in how we have seen them manifest in recent months, are wholly at odds with democratic leadership and the rule of law.
But as I wrote a few days ago in a somewhat different context, we should have more faith in our values, our history and our country. America, in all its greatness, its variousness, its customs and history is far, far greater than any President. And that is not just some generic or abstract statement. A President has little power without popular support. I don’t believe that a President can change the country, on his own, the way many fear that he will.
Consider how much millions have done to preserve democracy in countries that have little heritage of democracy, few protections for democracy, no robust system of courts, press, and so forth. And then think what all Americans can do now. I just see no excuse for sulking or any feelings of powerlessness or resignation. This is America. It’s not Russia. It’s not a crippled and embryonic democracy in 1920s Germany. This is America.
In 1838, at the age of 28, Abraham Lincoln gave what history calls his ‘Lyceum Speech’. He was not only not President at the time. He was a man of no political consequence anywhere. He delivered the speech at what was called the Young Men’s Lyceum, in Springfield, Illinois.
The speech has many themes and it’s been studied closely for 150 years for evidence of Lincoln’s early thinking. It has had numerous political and also psychological interpretations. Edmund Wilson among others believed that Lincoln was talking about himself, projecting himself on to what he warned against. At one point, for instance, Lincoln writes, the desire for greatness, “thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us?”
But let me note here two themes. One, which Lincoln refers to in this passage, is that America can’t really be destroyed by a foreign foe but only by a domestic one, a tyrant who would rise up and see an opportunity to find personal greatness and glory through taking advantage of the public’s discontent with democracy. The analogue to this moment is obvious.
But it’s the second theme I find more resonant. Lincoln explained that his generation faced a paradox. They were blessed with free government. But their duty was simply to preserve it. They had no field for glory and great deeds like those who had lived during the revolutionary era, the last of whom were just dying at the time. To Lincoln, his generation was both immeasurably blessed and yet robbed of the chance for greatness, condemned to a competent and steadfast mediocrity.
As Lincoln writes …
This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others?
Our field of vision is quite different today, certainly in retrospect. We know that in 1838 slavery was practiced throughout the South, women couldn’t vote, much of what we now know as the architecture of democracy and freedom didn’t exist. It’s hardly like there was no work left to do. And yet there is a basic similarity. The challenge, the potential for accomplishment, for ‘glory’ to use that archaic and perhaps uncomfortable word that could be found in preservation and betterment simply couldn’t compare to that of creation. There is a certain boringness and restraint inherent in being the preservers and betterers of a republic that has endured for almost a quarter of a millennium.
And yet here we have the opportunity to be its guardians and protectors at a unique moment, perhaps a moment of especial peril. Who would not embrace that challenge? We know the curse: may you live in interesting times. We are living in interesting times. Most of us would not have chosen it. But we have it. I think many of us look back at critical momentous moments in our history, the Civil War, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and other comparable passages in the country’s history and think, what would I have done? Where would I have been? Well, now’s your moment to find out. We are living in interesting times. We should embrace it rather than feel afraid or powerless. We have a fabric of 240 years of republican government behind us. We have the tools we need.
This isn’t naiveté. It’s not any willful looking away from anything that is before us. It’s being ready. It is embracing the challenge of the moment rather than cowering. It’s having some excitement and gratitude for living in a moment when a new and potent challenge to preserving who we are has fallen to us.