President Donald J. Trump’s response to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia demonstrates that he is unable to fulfill the president’s role to articulate and defend our national values.
At a moment of national crisis, the president is called upon to lead the nation by helping us to understand how we got to this troubling moment, what it means in the long history of the nation, how the crisis proves that we are or are not living up to our national values, and how we can move forward to enact our national mission, despite the difficulties caused by the crisis.
Mr. Trump’s speech on the evening of the tragic end to the violent “Unite the Right” rally did none of those things. It’s a tall order and few presidents have truly excelled at the genre. Yet, some have done so with remarkable aplomb.
We remember President Ronald Reagan’s January 28, 1986 “Challenger Disaster” speech, for example, for its ability to frame the crisis of the space shuttle exploding while millions of schoolchildren watched in classrooms across the nation in a way that helped the nation to grieve and to move forward. Reagan’s short speech on the evening of the explosion framed the Challenger disaster as a tragic and regrettable loss, but “all part of the process of exploration and discovery.”
Reagan linked the disaster to national values, urging the nation to understand that “the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.” He reassured the nation that the space program would continue to operate in “freedom” and with transparency and that through space exploration we would fulfill our national mission as pioneers, exploring new frontiers.
Unlike Reagan’s comforting and uplifting response to the crisis, steeped in the nation’s mission and values, Mr. Trump appears to be baffled himself, unable to find the words to speak of national values or national mission.
While Mr. Trump’s charge in the speech that the violence occurred “on many sides” has drawn much-deserved attention, his feeble attempt at expressing national unity has not received the notice that it deserves. This is the first time that Mr. Trump has been called upon to enact the “priestly” role of the president, the first chance that he has had to show us that he can call us together, comfort us, and urge us forward toward the best version of ourselves.
Mr. Trump doesn’t have those words. He doesn’t know how to speak the language of national transcendence. His is the language of division and he has not been able to find the language of unification.
In his speech he says “unity” and he says we are all “America first,” but he doesn’t provide us with any examples of what that means. Without examples, the words are mere artifice, platitudes that do not provide understanding. What would it mean, in the context of the racial violence in Charlottesville, to put “America first”? Whose “America”?
Mr. Trump’s speech is shockingly bad at explanation. Mr. Trump attempts to explain the racial violence with economic boosterism: “our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record — just absolute record employment. We have unemployment the lowest it’s been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country.” In short, Mr. Trump seems to say: ‘business is good, why are you fighting?’ But, he doesn’t answer that question. He doesn’t link the current racial crisis to American ideals like economic opportunity, but instead says the crisis is “very, very sad.”
Mr. Trump simply urged the nation to recognize that “America first” is the answer to our racial crisis. “We love our country. We love our god,” Mr. Trump declared. “We love our flag. We’re proud of our country. We’re proud of who we are.” America First is apparently nothing more than loving our country, god, and flag and being proud of who we are. Those things are unquestioned, unexplained.
But, who are “we?” Mr. Trump doesn’t say and that’s at the heart of the racial crisis in Charlottesville. Ultimately, Mr. Trump’s speech fails to speak the language of national transcendence. During this crisis of division, what unites us?
We need leaders to lead a conversation about what America means, about what we have in common. What is the best vision of us, what is our mission? If we prefer nationalism to cosmopolitanism (do we?), then what does America mean? How would we know if something is “American?” How do we move forward as a nation, what are our goals? By what values will we come together to achieve those goals?
Mr. Trump fails to speak of our national values, of what we have in common. Maybe he doesn’t know or maybe he’d rather not say. Either way, this is a speech without a soul. There is no compelling vision of America articulated, and no national mission. Without a vision of national transcendence, this speech fails to speak to the moment of crisis and Mr. Trump fails to fulfill his priestly role as president.