October 15, 2021

Why Trump Should Announce at Gettysburg

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If done right, his speech could go a long way toward invoking unity and rebuilding a positive nationalism.

President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks at the 75th Commemoration of D-Day Thursday, June 6, 2019, at the Normandy American Cemetery in Normandy, France. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

With the in-person elements of the Democratic National Convention all but cancelled, Joe Biden is set to deliver his acceptance speech from somewhere in Delaware—maybe his basement, which is a fitting, depressing locale for the defining moment of Biden’s (please, God) final bid at the Oval Office.

Donald Trump has some different ideas: the incumbent president has announced his intention to accept the Republican nomination either at the White House or at Gettysburg. Asked about the possibility of a Gettysburg setting, historian Douglas Brinkley told CNN, “What an utterly terrible idea that is.” After a minute or two of moralizing, Brinkley circled back to his central piece of unsolicited advice: “I can’t think of a worse idea.”

Well, I can’t think of a better one.

Admittedly, there are legal objections that may be raised against an incumbent delivering a party acceptance speech on federal land, assisted by dozens or hundreds of federal employees. (There are a number of prohibitions against partisan activities in such circumstances.) But as even Norman L. Eisen—who served in the Obama White House and as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s impeachment process—admitted to the New York Times, “Applicable law does provide a variety of technical exemptions, which a clever lawyer might stitch together to claim that this is permissible.” The president has more than a few clever lawyers.

But why should he go to the trouble? What makes this such a good idea that Trump should risk serious legal action or, at the very least, substantial outrage from his critics mere weeks before election day?

The short answer: because it would be awesome.

For decades, these speeches have been conducted in convention centers and sports arenas, against hulking metal and concrete backdrops draped—or worse, lit up—with some gauche combination of red, white, and blue. Trump’s 2016 RNC acceptance speech was a masterpiece of the form: partisan, energetic, and long as hell — with all the expected theatrical trappings. A pulsing mob of fired-up supporters filled Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, cheering and jeering at the designated moments. It was effective then. It would be disastrous now.

As much as he might like to, Trump can no longer present himself as the bombastic agitator against the status quo. He is the incumbent now. What’s more, the current social chaos demands a more restrained and positive voice. While this may be out of the president’s comfort zone, it is hardly out of his wheelhouse altogether.

For an idea of the approach that would best suit the moment and the man, we might look back on two of Trump’s strongest speeches yet. Both were at places of monumental cultural or historical importance, and each of the speeches was deeply connected with the site of its delivery. Both focused on what might be termed existential questions: concerns about not just the politics of the day, but the future of our way of life and the preservation of our history. 

These are the kinds of speeches that rarely make their way into party conventions, as speakers tend to target the other candidate and party with a laser focus. But there is no reason why they shouldn’t. Given Trump’s consideration of a major historical site and the speeches he has given at such places in the past, we may be poised to see the first.

On June 6th of last year, Trump traveled to Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Throughout the whole affair his conduct was thoroughly presidential. Optically, it was one of his finest moments, and remains a year later perhaps his most polished and compelling appearance as president. His remarks reminded listeners (beside those obstinate few who insist on denouncing everything he does) that he is the leader of the whole nation. They encouraged us to look back on our past and forward to our future. They are worth recalling at length:

In defeating that evil, [the veterans of the war] left a legacy that will last not only for a thousand years, but for all time—for as long as the soul knows of duty and honor; for as long as freedom keeps its hold on the human heart.

To the men who sit behind me, and to the boys who rest in the field before me, your example will never, ever grow old. Your legend will never tire. Your spirit—brave, unyielding, and true—will never die.

The blood that they spilled, the tears that they shed, the lives that they gave, the sacrifice that they made, did not just win a battle. It did not just win a war. Those who fought here won a future for our nation. They won the survival of our civilization. And they showed us the way to love, cherish, and defend our way of life for many centuries to come.

If he can redeliver words like these at Gettysburg, Trump may prove himself not only capable of attaining a second term, but worthy of it. At Normandy, he was able simultaneously to conjure up images of one of our nation’s most dramatic existential conflicts and to ground his reflections in the here and now. Despite his frequent irreverence elsewhere, he proved that when circumstances truly require it he can be solemn, serious, respectful—presidential. The benefits of a similar showing at Gettysburg, so long as it is conducted properly and sincerely, could be immense.

For an even better idea of an effective Gettysburg speech, we can look to Mount Rushmore, where just last month the president spoke against calls to erase our history. He spoke in turn on the importance of the legacy of each of the men remembered there. In his remarks on Lincoln, he even named the field he now has his eye on:

At Gettysburg 157 years ago, the Union bravely withstood an assault of nearly 15,000 men, and threw back Pickett’s Charge. Lincoln won the Civil War. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He led the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery for all time, and ultimately his determination to preserve our nation and our Union cost him his life. For as long as we live, Americans will uphold and revere the immortal memory of President Abraham Lincoln.

Does Trump have a deeply vested personal interest in the relevance of 1863’s troubles to today’s? I wouldn’t bet on it. But that does not disqualify him as a messenger. And the message is one we desperately need to hear.

Much talk has been made in the last four years of Trump’s supposed nationalist revival. But for all the talk, we have seen very little of the right kind of nationalism come to fruition. A real effort toward that end might begin with an acceptance speech that reclaims our national story, delivered on one of that story’s most vital pieces of ground. Just imagine if the GOP nominee, instead of orating for an hour and a half on tax cuts, defense spending, and Democrat corruption, could stand in the place where thousands shed blood in defense of our Constitution and remind us that their sacrifice is not so distant as we might think—that, in fact, their cause may not yet be won. Imagine an acceptance speech that looks further back than last April and further forward than November.

It would be a “stunt” in some sense, and certain members of the media will be sure to pillory the president for it. There is a performative element to all politics—especially good politics. But it would not be merely a stunt: what happened at Gettysburg—what makes the place so sacred—is not devoid of politics, nor even of political implications for the present day. There is a right way to go about a battlefield acceptance speech, one that honors the memory of the men who died there and looks at our world honestly through their eyes. He should go to Gettysburg not in spite of its sacredness but because of it. A Gettysburg performance is almost certain to be deeper, more dramatic, more persuasive than any speech in any stadium, precisely because, in connecting our present to our past, it could elevate our temporal politics to the seriousness rightly due them.

One cannot help but wonder if the people jumping to condemn the choice before it’s made might be entirely aware of that fact. They say it would come across as insincere and insensitive, that voters would be enraged at his partisan use of hallowed ground. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Postsuggests that Trump will suffer by comparison to Lincoln, who delivered his own famous address there in 1863. But one wonders if these objections might reveal a bit of fear: what if Trump does not suffer by comparison? What if he manages to channel his predecessor at least enough to deliver an effective and compelling message, to revive some part of his spirit and his memory, to reinvigorate the sense of victory in existential conflict, the drama and gravity, that are soaked in the ground at Gettysburg? When we recall his trips to France and South Dakota, it does not seem out of the question.

This could be a defining, and redefining, moment. Trump may yet secure a win—for himself, for conservatism, for nationalism—by delivering on a promise he made last month at Rushmore: “We will teach our children to know that they live in a land of legends.”

This post originally appeared on and written by:
Declan Leary
The American Conservative 2020-08-17 04:01:00

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