“American Carnage:” President Trump’s Inaugural Address

Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox
The Surrender at Appomattox

The phrase “American carnage,” until now, would have evoked for me the Civil War, the great contest between the North and the South that led to the deaths of more than 750,000 Americans, Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites. Near the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln, by then aged almost beyond recognition by the stress of leadership during the crisis, delivered his great second inaugural address. It was clear by March 1865 that the war was won—Lee surrendered to Grant a month later. And the mood in the Union was triumphant: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” and all that.

Lincoln, contrary maybe to the public sentiment at the time, didn’t give a triumphal speech. He gave a speech that called out the evil of slavery but that was tinged with sadness and expressing the unknowableness of God’s will in human history. Here is the whole speech:

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.


At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

In 1865, the people were in a triumphal, vindictive mood, but Lincoln gave a speech that appealed to what Lincoln, in his first inaugural, had called “the better angels of our nature.” That’s leadership in a republic. Last week, the people wanted an appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” and instead got a triumphal, vindictive speech:

Trump inauguration
Credit: Wikimedia

For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.

Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth.

Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed.

The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.

Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

That all changes – starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.

It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America.

This is your day. This is your celebration.

And this, the United States of America, is your country.

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.

January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

Everyone is listening to you now.

You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.

Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.

These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

We are one nation – and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.

The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.

For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry;

Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military;

We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own;

And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.

We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.

One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind.

The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.

But that is the past. And now we are looking only to the future.

We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power.

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land.

From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.

There is nothing gracious, nothing hopeful, about this speech. The message is: the country is an apocalyptic wasteland; things are going to get better right away because of me; we will leave our friends and allies in the dust by the side of the road. And I am going to resurrect a slogan that symbolizes our worst, inward-looking, xenophobic instincts.

Should a president put America’s interest first? Of course! But our interests are in peace and stability and access to markets for what we produce, which means working with allies, addressing their concerns, trading with the world, and showing the world a welcoming face. All of this costs money, but it is money well spent. It’s hard to imagine that we’re on the brink of squandering our global hegemony because Donald Trump feels that the country is being played for a sucker. “America First” suggests a zero-sum world of mutual hostility and miserly weighing of immediate costs against longer-term, perhaps intangible, but nonetheless critical benefits like peace in Europe and American global leadership that none of us should want to live in.

President Trump writing his inaugural address
President Trump writing his inaugural address. Credit: Donald Trump

When you are elected President and you give an inaugural address, you really only have a few jobs. Acknowledge our wise and pious ancestors, who came to America to be free. Mention the wisdom of the Founders and the Constitution. Quote an apt verse from the bible.1 Reach out to those who didn’t vote for you. If you can’t write a speech like that, it’s okay. We can’t all be Lincolns, or even Obamas. A speechwriter will do it for you. But if you crave legitimacy, as President Trump so clearly does—and I mean the legitimacy that our unwritten constitution bestows on those who follow it—you have to honor the conventions of this most characteristic of American civic events.

Am I worried about policy? Of course I’m worried about policy. We’re going to have some bad policy, from my perspective at least, for the next two years at least. I’m worried about climate change policy, policy on illegal immigrants, tax and fiscal policy, treatment of Muslim Americans, NATO, international trade, you name it. But I can live with bad policy. What I can’t live with is undermining of the unwritten customs and conventions that make the Republic work.

For a good look from an outsider about what an inaugural address should be—a look published before Trump’s speech, which gets almost all its predictions wrong—I recommend this video by one of our generation’s great moral voices, Jonathan Sacks.

  1. Trump actually managed this one. I sense the influence of his Jewish daughter, since he chose a well-loved and often-sung verse in Jewish communities, Ps. 133:1. I wonder if he knew that he was being “politically correct” by saying “How good and how pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity” instead of “brothers live together.”

2 responses to ““American Carnage:” President Trump’s Inaugural Address”

  1. Aaron

    Now here’s some passion. Great stuff.

    One overlap with Lincoln’s second inaugural: “all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war…”

    1. A good illustration of the difference between writing about something where I’m a participant—a citizen—and writing about something as an outside observer!

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