Abraham Lincoln’s Warning: ‘We Must Not Be Enemies’

I was recently struck by an observation from Johnathan Chait about the intellectual vacuum that Trump has created among conservatives. Carlos Lozada took that observation to the next level by reviewing some of the books written by Trump supporters in an attempt to “impose a rational framework onto this most impetuous and incurious chief executive.” Here is what I found most intriguing from his analysis.

In their recent books, Trumpist thinkers spend less time offering specific, persuasive defenses of the president’s tenure than relentlessly attacking his opponents — liberals, establishment Republicans, Never Trumpers and any nonbelievers whose perfidy has rendered Trump not just necessary but inevitable.

The pro-Trump intellectuals claim to embrace Trump for his mind. But they stick with him for his enemies.

To the extent that Trumpism is the extension of where the Republican Party was heading before he came along, the GOP doesn’t have an agenda, they have enemies.

One of the books Lozada reviews is the expansion of an essay written by Michael Anton titled, “The Flight 93 Election,” in which the author postulates that voting for Trump “was like charging the cockpit of a hijacked plane on Sept. 11, 2001. You might die, but if you do nothing, death is certain.” Unlike Anton’s 9/11 analogy, the threat never ends.

…except the emergency is of the permanent variety typically used to justify authoritarianism. Anton cannot get past the election and his own interpretation of its stakes. Apparently, Flight 93 did not end with the 2016 vote; we are forever on the plane, endlessly in danger, no matter who has seized the controls.

Given that, as Ed Kilgore reminds us, white evangelicals are still the heart of Trump’s base, that aligns perfectly with their view of the situation. Lance Mannion once wrote that the only Beatitude revered by white evangelicals is the one in which Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” He concludes:

They like feeling persecuted. They need to feel persecuted. It’s how they know they’re good Christians. Like I said, it’s the only one of the Beatitudes they seem to know how to put into practice. But it feeds their self-pity and sense of entitlement, and it gives them their excuse.

It’s how they turn offense into defense, how repression and oppression become liberty.

If they are under attack, then they’re free to fight back.

What we are dealing with is a conservative movement that defines itself as perpetually under attack and whose destruction is certain if they don’t fight back. The current leader of that movement is someone who assumes that winning is everything because losing is the equivalent of obliteration. That is why David Frum wrote that “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”

I would suggest that the conservative movement has already rejected democracy, because ultimately, any form of government “of, by and for the people” is primarily based on methods to resolve our differences. The mindset I have just described views differences as a threat to their existence which must be destroyed. That shuts down any attempt to compromise or collaborate, the pillars on which our democratic institutions have been built.

That reality poses a difficult dilemma for liberals. To the extent that conservatives refuse to negotiate or compromise, any attempt to work with them is dead on arrival. It is therefore reasonable to mirror the opposition’s worldview and assume that conservatives are the enemy that must be defeated at all costs in order for our democracy to survive. That might be where all of this is headed: toward a figurative, it not literal, civil war.

When Democratic voters query 2020 candidates about how they will unify the country, they are asking those questions with a dark alternative taking shape on the horizon of our current trajectory. While his efforts to forestall civil war were ultimately a failure, I suspect those voters are looking for another Abraham Lincoln who can deliver a message like this:

You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

A uniter would have to tap into the better angels of our nature to remind us that we are not enemies. Under very different circumstances, Lincoln was unable to do that. The question Democratic voters are asking is whether any of the current contenders have that capacity in our current situation.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.