This week marked the 154th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and it reminds us that the liberty we enjoy has purposes that transcend the things we desire for ourselves. Biblical, philosophic, and political yearnings join in American public life. Our sacrifices, our duties today, unite us as Americans to the heroes of 1776, four score and seven years before Lincoln immortalized the purpose of the Civil War.
Trapped as we are by the partisan and petty outbursts from politicians and media alike, we today often forget the enduring duty of Americans to safeguard and perpetuate the “new birth of freedom” that is our sacred inheritance.
One stalwart guardian of this legacy is the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University, Ohio, where I taught full-time 1994-1996 and where I have continued intermittently to teach. Ashbrook achieves this honor by providing a rigorously selected group of undergraduates a liberal arts education which emphasizes a serious attention to politics. Graduates go on to careers in public service, education, law, media and a variety of important fields where this kind of knowledge is indispensable. One of these graduates is even Senior Editor for this publication.
In addition to a superb faculty of teacher-scholars, the students engage with leading academic and political figures who come to campus to share their insights. Past speakers have ranged from luminaries such as President Reagan, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to state and local government and business figures.
And these are just the undergraduate student-focused programs; other Ashbrook programs aim at high school history and government teachers, high school students, and at civic-spirited citizens in general.
All of this came into focus for me when I recently visited the Center, engaging with senior Ashbrook students on their theses and studies. When I gave my Colloquium talk on “Trump’s Coarse Correction of American Politics,” I knew they would test me, and I was not wrong.
Moreover, I was startled to discover that I was following one of the leading authors and teachers in American higher education, Eva Brann, a long-time favorite of mine, whom I had invited decades ago to speak at the Claremont Institute. She is the author of numerous books on Greek philosophy and the theory and practice of teaching college students. The former dean of the “great books college,” St. John’s, Annapolis, she is still going strong at 88. It is well worth your time to listen or to watch the talk at this link.
It is incongruous to pair the German immigrant classicist who grew up in Brooklyn with the bombastic billionaire President from Queens. But Brann’s beguiling presentation, “On Compromise,” in fact illuminated many features of Trump’s political aims, not the least as author of The Art of the Deal.
Brann proposes to clarify the meaning of a compromise—or “com”- “promise”— mutual promising. She asks us to consider the different compromises over slavery that preserved the Union but eventually failed to halt the Civil War. In returning to a political career, Lincoln denounced the compromises in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 by emphasizing the moral compromises these policies produced.
It seems that beneath their ordinary, easy-going, live-and-let-live ways, Americans have depths of being, which discerning statesmen like Lincoln are able to call upon at crucial moments. By appealing to the deeper wellsprings of the American soul, in their Christianity and in their enlightened political principles, such statesmen are able to recall to Americans their capacity to realize when they are being compromised and, upon realizing this, to choose a more uncompromising, if terrifying course.
In concluding her elaborate labyrinth of dilemmas and dead-ends, Brann surprises: “[O]ur compromises of convenience practically always compromise us in our principles—a condition best described as a secular original sin.” She sees a contradiction that, by contrast, liberal education must press: “Now is the time to go deep….” For “We are shallow. I think it’s an American blessing. We are un-mired.” She concludes, “Now is the time to descend—or maybe ascend—to those realms where the very compromises that make life livable leave the soul compromised.”
Is Brann, following a Southern trope, saying to Americans, “Bless your heart”? Or, more coarsely, “You can’t handle the (deep) truth?” (Not to suggest that other nations could, either.) But, we might ask, what was the Civil War then? Transcending the Democrats’ appeals to group interests, the first Republican President appealed to individual consciences, which alerted citizens to the ugly side of compromise. America could not forever avoid a civil war over its founding principles when they were so compromised.
align=”right” American greatness requires energizing an inert America. Men and women need to feel like citizens again, having both rights and duties. We need to exercise rights to fight lethargy, government excesses, and the debilitating effects of political correctness.
Donald Trump makes for a good test case of Miss Brann’s meditation on compromise and her conclusions about the American surface and the deeper realms of the uncompromised soul. Consider this 30-year-old appreciation: “Trump, who believes that excess can be a virtue, is as American as Manhattan’s skyline, which expresses the Republic’s erupting energies. He says the skyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary.” This is now Never-Trumper George Will, as quoted in The Art of the Deal (1987). Never known as a deep person, Trump prizes the realm of what strikes the senses, but he “goes deep” as well.
As the most casual observer should realize, at the core of Trump’s ambition is the desire to “make America great again.” Greatness is not always visible, and as Aristotle remarked, “it is not so easy to see the beauty of the soul as it is with that of the body.”
American greatness requires energizing an inert America. Men and women need to feel like citizens again, having both rights and duties. We need to exercise rights to fight lethargy, government excesses, and the debilitating effects of political correctness.
Indeed Trump became a politician to fight the compromises produced by bad deals and a “rigged system.” He denounced the compromises of both parties that excluded a great swath of Americans: open borders , trade deals that benefited one sector of the economy over others, and futile wars enjoying a bipartisan consensus (or, compromise). These bad compromises produced what the American founding generation knew as “majority faction”—a trampling of rights and an attack on the common good, in the name of the majority.
Such a majority is a kind of tyranny and it defeats the purpose of American government. An unjust majority would subvert individual liberty and the institutions of the government and all other authoritative institutions of American life—religious ones, businesses, unions, universities, and the media.
Just as Lincoln saw a growing “slave power” that would destroy America’s heart and soul so Trump denounces a “rigged system” that would make one part of the nation serve the other—signaling the overthrow of republican government. His inaugural address stated this injustice most frankly in a series of contrasts:
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost…. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country…. What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.
All his brash behavior (his conduct at the annual Al Smith dinner) and name-calling (“Crooked Hillary”) have the purpose of restoring this republicanism, even if in a crude Andrew Jackson sort of manner. Our constitutional separation of powers is not based upon compromise but on the transcendent political principle that ambition should be “made to counteract ambition.” Trump looks upon the Capital has a city filled with shrunken souls, who have nothing left to compromise. They no longer have any proper ambition, in other words. They all serve the same interest.
With the House and Senate in control of those who served “the Establishment,” Trump speaks directly to the people about football players and their unpatriotic gestures, about the preposterous “Rocket Man,” and about the duplicity of the media. In horror, many people have retreated to the more comfortable compromises called out by Brann. But in attacking the political compromises compromising America is Trump not engaged in Socratic civic education, albeit at a different level than that of Brann?
Whether President Trump has anything like Lincoln’s ability to draw out the greatness of the American soul still remains to be seen. The idea that he has depths in his own soul seems so shocking as to be repugnant, to many observers of politics. But it is absolutely clear that for many other Americans there is no return to those earlier quack nostrums of living within a compromised nation.
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