At the 2020 Republican Convention, Lara Trump rolled out a Lincoln quote: ‘America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we lose our freedom it will be because we destroyed ourselves.’
Not surprisingly, Lincoln never said those words. What he did say was: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” The source of this particular twisting of words is Lincoln’s “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” speech delivered in Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838.
That rewrite is representative of Donald Trump and crew’s central approach to everything – utter disregard for facts, science, history, reality, truth, laws, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and on and on. Ironically, Lincoln goes on to describe why such treachery is the only thing that could possibly bring down our democracy. Team Trump uses made-up words and truth-twisting to defend their treachery, while at the same time cynically pinning the blame for America’s problems on the very people who struggle to fix those problems. Their utter contempt for laws and ideas and voices that don’t support their agenda is the beating black heart of the movement to take down our democracy.
Lincoln continues: I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country.
Over wary? Apparently not. Lincoln’s inquisitive and compassionate mind, as well as his life as a country lawyer, instilled a deep understanding of human nature, of the insatiable thirst for power among some, and why our imperfect democracy is designed as it is – to protect the citizens of the United States from the power hungry amongst us, and the mobs (e.g., January 6) they create and encourage.
At the end of the speech, Lincoln weaves in our ancestors who fought to bring about the United States: “As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor….They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason…That we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our Washington.”
The last trump shall awaken our Washington. (That Lincoln chose those particular words is kind of startling, huh?) With the words “our Washington,” he’s clearly talking about the never-ending need for wise leaders who understand the aspiration that is democracy — and who will fight like hell to get us closer to a truer version. But, who -– or what — is the ‘last trump’?
For democracy to overcome treachery, the ‘last trump’ must be an engaged and vocal majority of citizens — a community that sees Trump’s movement for what it is. Trump walks the earth with a severely wounded ego. Like every aspiring dictator, he seeks a dangerous and fleeting balm known as power, not caring who and what he destroys along the way. The pandering national “leaders” who are afraid to speak out against him suffer from the same affliction. What remains is for those who see the treachery to fight back to ensure a better, more inclusive democracy. A future that addresses the economic inequality afflicting the supporter base that many (but thankfully not all) “leaders” so cynically use.
Are we at the start of movement into a more noble and enduring phase of our democracy, or are on a slippery slope to its failure? If Americans who believe in our democracy remain passive, instead of fighting back en masse though non-violent channels, the hope in Lincoln’s speech will lose out to the worry in his words. What each of us choses to do over the next few years will decide the question. If you think you have no part in that imagine what the farmers and framers of the 1700’s who fought for this nation would say to you.
Or, just read Lincoln’s speech: The question recurs, “how shall we fortify against it?” The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. It really is that simple. Like it or not, we all have to choose sides. Like it or not, we’re at the point where remaining silent enables more treachery. Holocaust survivor and Nobel laurate Elie Wiesel’s recurring message was “thou shall not stand idly by.”
If you’re not sure what to do — or think you have no power — do some hunting on the web. Before you know it you’ll find a group fighting for something that sings to you. If you’re an older person, check out Third Act, a new group started by activist Bill McKibben and friends that is gathering “experienced Americans” to move Washington and Wall Street in the name of a fairer, more sustainable society and planet. This group will be a force to be reckoned with.
Join the fray, find your community, find your Washington. Do what you can – big or small – to help. Get into some “good trouble.” You’re going to feel much better.
Conor Quinlan lives in West Hartford. Dan Quinlan lives in Burlington VT.