A Plea for Cease Fire in the New American Civil War, Part II—The Case for Civility and a Changed Tone of Debate

2 January 2017, 0810 EST

Consider these two presidential statements:

“Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”—President-Elect Donald Trump’s New Year’s Twitter greeting

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of our affection.”—President Abraham Lincoln, from his first inaugural address

Both Lincoln and Trump wrote their words after heated and divisive elections. Both won their elections though they lost the popular vote.  Lincoln spoke to a nation that had been violently divided over slavery and was on the brink of civil war following the secession of several states. And as that war came and took the lives of half a million Americans, Lincoln stayed true to the virtue of civility. His language reflected his goal of uniting the nation after the fighting ended, culminating with his elegiac second inaugural speech where he urged the nation to heal “with malice towards none and charity for all.”

In this second of three essays on our contemporary American divisions, I’ll explain why Trump (and all of us) would do well to emulate Lincoln’s graceful example of public discourse. It’s important to be realistic—Trump has succeeded by being brash and confrontational his entire life, and Lincoln sets a standard for honorable public discourse that few can reach.  That said, the nation will be far better off if Trump, and all of us, address each other with respect and civility.

The most important reason to be restrained in language is that words are deeds that can lead to deadly violence. We saw this at Trump’s rallies and in some events since such as the nearly tragic episode in Washington where an armed man came to a restaurant incited by false, anti-Clinton reports spread on the internet. The nerves of the nation have been rubbed raw by the election and as President Trump would be wise to sooth rather than stoke. Reckless, divisive and insulting talk from a President could also trigger disastrous consequences in a world full of adversaries eager to paint a picture of the U.S. that inflames passion against our citizens and our interests.

A second reason Trump should be civil is illustrated by Lincoln’s success—he won reelection, ended slavery and preserved the Union.  A reservoir of goodwill and affection is necessary for a President to govern through difficulties, and treating fellow citizens and political opponents with generosity is one way to cultivate that goodwill. The opposite is also true—those who Trump belittles and bullies won’t want to support him.  Much has been said and written on how Trump’s win has ushered in a new era in which his combative and often offensive language, along with his casual disregard for facts, is the new political normal. I don’t agree. It seems more likely that the successful Trump candidacy was a historical one-off resulting from a unique array of circumstance which won’t transfer to his presidency much less future campaigns.

For starters, President Trump, unlike Candidate Trump, will be publicly accountable for policy successes and failures.  And he will be accountable to a public in which a majority disapproves of him, a disapproval which he aggravates and deepens with every statement like the New Year’s tweet. If he is overwhelmingly successful as President this might work, but if he encounters setbacks it is hard to imagine that brash taunts will preserve or enlarge his support. Trump will not be able to bully or be “post-truth” if unemployment rises, the stock market drops, a recession occurs, Republican health care reform leaves millions uninsured, a disaster response is inhumane, a war turns badly, or Americans are more frequently injured or killed by terrorists. And he will need the support of a majority of Americans and political opponents to effectively lead through any of these events.

Looking to Lincoln, he assembled a “team of rivals” in his cabinet, and was able to appeal to political opponents and the public for support in ending slavery, winning the civil war, and preserving the Union. Trump would be wise to try as best he can to follow this example of generosity in word and deed. He will need the good will when times get tough.

Finally, a return to forceful civil discourse is part of what we Democrats need to do to reclaim a greater role in government. This is not an argument for diluting differences or ignoring hard truths—or for the necessity of calling out Trump when his words and actions harm people or important interests. Rather, being Lincolnian is an admonition that we should avoid the temptation of sinking into the swamp of petty debate. Lincoln again is a role model here—much of his second inaugural address that closed with a call for compassion was a reflection on whether the carnage of the civil war was God’s punishment to both sides for slavery. And progressives such as Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were not afraid to combine calls for social justice with sharp language describing the suffering created by injustice.

What this means, in my view, is that if we progressives are to promote a more humanitarian agenda we must do so in a way that demonstrates that genuine humanitarian concern for the well being of the country and our fellow citizens, and that includes a measure of respect and civility towards those with whom we disagree that begins by listening to their concerns and responding to them. We should focus on policies and the real impact of those policies on the human beings at the other end of the policy decisions. And hope that reality and relentless consequentialism of governing will convince the new President to do the same.