This week, Donald Trump will arrive in the Memphis area to hold a rally in northern Mississippi, just another indication that the former president has no intention of taking a low profile as he seeks to resurrect his political legacy even in the midst of House hearings on the January 6th 2021 riot at the Capitol, which Trump largely instigated and then ignored as a threat to our electoral and Constitutional processes.
No telling what Trump has in store for our part of the world, a Democratic stronghold (in a mostly Republican state) whose most visible Congressional member, Rep. Stephen Cohen, railed against the Trump presidency seemingly on a daily basis and voted twice for Trump’s impeachment. But one can pretty much bet the house that it will be about Trump and how grand he is and how anyone who does not share that opinion is a political lowlife and a terrible person and anti-American, etc.
It happens that I am reading these days a book by the late Lincoln historian Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided. It is a study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and a precursor to Jaffa’s better known and more recent work, A New Birth of Freedom. About 200 pages in or so Jaffa digresses into an interesting though somewhat arcane analysis of Lincoln’s theories of democracy and leadership, based on the speech he made in 1838 at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois.
That speech is chillingly relevant to the Trump persona and the dangers facing what is left of the Republican Party as force for liberty and ordered change. Lincoln warned of ambitious leaders who could put at risk the entire American experiment in self-governance and the rule of law, not men. It is worth quoting at some length because it is so prescient about the challenges posed by those with an untempered appetite for personal glory or enhanced power. He cites the purpose of the founders and then the risks to what they founded – the notion that people were capable of governing themselves under the rule of law and against the worst instincts of the mob and/or the tyrant.
They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.
Here we have a warning, one that Liz Cheney most prominently these days has tried valiantly to sound to a largely unreceptive Republican audience lost in the fields of glory promised by a man who seeks to rule at all costs, no matter the damage he may do or the shame he might engender. A genius in the vein of those cited by Lincoln? Perhaps not but certainly Trump has a genius for self-promotion and cheap political theatrics. I might be one of the few conservatives in Memphis who finds a Trump visit not only unwanted, but downright obnoxious. Had I a chance to speak to him at the airport upon his arrival, I might be tempted to paraphrase another statesman from another time: Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go back to where you came from.
But of course he has the right to speak. And citizens in these parts have a right to hear him. They also have the right to ignore him. I hope they do.
But sadly, the Republican Party has mostly lost its way, consumed with fears or resentments toward a Democratic Party that seems equally lost at times, though they have of late rediscovered the importance of Constitutional principles and the rule of law. How any self respecting conservative Constitutionalist can look the other way and march in step with Trump is a mystery to me.
Perhaps some thoughtful thinker will make the case. But in doing so, they will have to not only overcome my concerns, but those of Lincoln. I choose Lincoln.