As Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke of America by referring to the four score and seven years that had passed since its birth, President Trump envisioned an America twelve score and 10 from its birth; its 250th birthday, or sestercentennial. That would place us in 2026, a year and a half following an eight-year Trump presidency. Our rendezvous with that year has the potential to indicate an America alive with the revolutionary spirit that began its existence or a doddering nation, content to live in misery and delusion, on life support.
Trump’s theme in this speech before a joint session of Congress was his campaign’s theme: Make America Great Again! The usual suspect pundits and politicians praised the speech for its tone and patriotism and comparative lack of partisan divisiveness and its alleged distance from the “darkness” of the inaugural address. Even the leftists at CNN, led by Van Jones, declared that with this speech “he became President of the United States of America.”
The uplifting notes nicely disguised the clear partisan (and I don’t use that word as an epithet) purposes, unchanged from his campaign. President Trump showed he can deploy a variety of rhetorical weapons, depending on his audience. One reason for the changed tone is his respect for constitutional forms. Though not a State of the Union message, one mandated by the Constitution, it functions as this constitutional duty to apprise Congress of his intentions and, as such, it should be as an occasion of dignity. This was above all a law and order speech, conveyed to the putative law-making branch of government.
The Founders envisioned the president speaking primarily to Congress, not directly to the people. President Trump’s speech emphasized the executive’s duty to enforce the laws, not only the Constitution and the laws of the land but the natural law upon which America is based.
In that spirit, Trump posed to Congress an unanswerable question that reflected these principles: “To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, I would ask you this question: What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or a loved one, because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?” In unity with the Declaration of Independence, Trump maintains that securing “safety and happiness” are the great purposes of legitimate government.
To recover this common-sense moral horizon, the president began his speech with a reference to Black History Month and attacks on Jewish houses of worship and cemeteries. The Jewish Bible is the beginning-point of Western Civilization, and slavery was the original sin of America. How we deal with our origins and our flaws and apply these to our current crises is the challenge Trump poses to Congress.
Slaves in Egypt, slaves in America. We are now free, but our liberty remains threatened. Moreover, all citizens are threatened by the new slavery of the administrative state. Throughout his improbable campaign and into his presidency Trump’s speeches showed he understood that the contemporary threat to freedom is this new Slave Power, abetted by political correctness and shilled for by privileged elites.
It’s no wonder that the lines that stirred the most audible boos were these: “I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims. The office is called VOICE—Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.” Trump is a full-throated abolitionist for our times.
This continued his campaign themes. In his October 22, 2016 Contract with the American Voter speech at Gettysburg, Trump reiterated his campaign themes of limiting government to legitimate purposes and restoring the bedrock principle of rule by the consent of the governed. He cast a spotlight on inner city ills early on, in for example his May 26, 2016 speech on energy.
His speech to Congress reiterated his America First foreign policy that would protect America and its interests and reject progressive global diplomacy. “My job is not to represent the world,” he said. “My job is to represent the United States of America.” Earlier, Trump had even quoted then Congressman Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the benefits of tariffs.
I believe strongly in free trade but it also has to be fair trade. It’s been a long time since we had fair trade. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned that the “abandonment of the protective policy by the American government… will produce want and ruin among our people.” Lincoln was right—and it’s time we heeded his advice and his words. (Applause.) I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken advantage of us any longer. They have taken advantage of our country. No longer. (Applause.)
The final section of the speech tied these issues together and returned to the theme of his opening lines. They soared to a height in the president’s recognition of the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, killed in action in Yemen.
Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom—we will never forget him.
We hear strains of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with its recollection of memory, sacrifice, national identity, rebirth, and world destiny. Trump’s speech brought together devotion to law and the grand themes of western civilization.
Our relationships as citizens are largely those of commerce and utility, but they can flourish and grow into something higher, such as the friendship of virtue that the President and Congress celebrated with Owens’ widow. But politically the higher friendship and its patriotism are dependent on the success of the lower, the prosperity of the country. America cannot project power around the world unless we have a robust economy. Our higher purposes can be realized only if our basic needs are satisfied.
In concluding his address he speculated on what the United States would be like in America’s sestercentennial year of 2026. He recalled the now familiar inventions celebrated on the centenary of the Declaration, such as the telephone. What advances would we see in less than a decade?
The arts and sciences will advance in astonishing ways. But progress in the human condition, the president implies, will always remain dubious. The inner cities might improve, or they might not. Congress may accept its constitutional responsibilities, or it might not. The moral dilemmas and choices abide, as we are always in danger of backsliding into slavery. But the possibility for “a new chapter of American Greatness” is the strongest it has been since Lincoln.