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The American Revolution 250th and Joe Biden: An Historic Opportunity

Graphic by America 250.

Joe Biden campaigned as the unity President, the President of all Americans. The words sound good and are in marked contrast to his predecessor who thrived on divisiveness. Nonetheless, while it is easy to talk the talk of national unity, it is hard to walk the walk of it. The challenge is especially strong given the narrow election victory. For the past four years we have heard how if only a few voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had switched votes (or stayed home), the election results would have been reversed.  We can anticipate hearing a similar claim about the votes in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania from the losing side over the next four years. We remain a people divided or perhaps a country divided into two peoples. What is our story? Do we have one?

THE AMERICAN STORY: FROM WASHINGTON TO ROOSEVELT, REAGAN AND BEYOND

Dr. Cynthia Koch spoke at the FDR Foundation’s Telling Our Story conference on November 10, 2015, with this lecture title. She began with:

Defining the identity of the new United States, what we might call the “master narrative,” was one of the many tasks facing our founding fathers and mothers in the 1790s. The new nation lacked all the usual markers for nationhood: no established religion, no dominant ethnicity, no monarchy or aristocracy. No folklore and—most important—no shared history.

It’s easy to overlook how important having a shared history is to having a shared community.

Koch surveyed the storytelling that defined the shared national narrative for centuries noting that it tended to be a white-people based one that ignored certain less savory aspects of the shining city on hill vision. The story worked for centuries and then it didn’t.

In my history blogs, I have consistently stated we are a storytelling species. Koch cites two very effective presidential storytellers from the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Of Roosevelt, she wrote:

He used them to tell stories that would unite people and provide comfort, courage, reassurance, and inspiration to Americans facing fear, hardship, uncertainty, and war.

We need Joe Biden as President to do the same for America today in the wake of our wartime President not even trying to during this pandemic. Historians of the future will contrast “nothing to fear but fear itself” with “rounding the curve.

Koch also cited Reagan using “John Winthrop’s ‘shining city on a hill’ to inspire a return to greatness for an America battered by the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggles, Watergate, inflation, gasoline shortages, and the Iran hostage crisis.15 Reagan ‘repeatedly [told] his audiences that if they choose to participate in the story’ of American exceptionalism, it will return, and they will become part of America’s greatness.”

She referred to Reagan’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1980:

Three hundred and sixty years ago, in 1620, a group of families dared to cross a mighty ocean to build a future for themselves in a new world. When they arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, they formed what they called a “compact”; an agreement among themselves to build a community and abide by its laws. . . .

 Isn’t it once again time to renew our compact of freedom; to pledge to each other all that is best in our lives; all that gives meaning to them—for the sake of this, our beloved and blessed land?

The quadricentennial of this event in 1620 was delayed due to the coronavirus that did not disappear like a miracle in 2020. When it is observed in 2021, President Joe Biden will have the opportunity to create a 21st century version of Reagan’s vision to inspire us.

Koch asked in the time since Reagan: Do we still have a recognizable national narrative sufficient to support a cohesive national identity? She noted that “It could be said that no, we no longer need a national narrative, that the old verities are hopelessly corrupted, proven false by the revealed truth of a hypocritical history.” She answered that we did have one but only noted that it needed to acknowledge America’s failings. She neglected to specify that it should include America’s successes as well. Perhaps she simply took for granted that it would.

IT’S TIME TO CULTIVATE A NEW GRAND NARRATIVE

This was the title for an article published June 30, 2016, by Harvey J. Kaye, Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He wrote that already in 2016, the time had come (if it was not past due!) for a new American narrative.

We [meaning historians and intellectuals] have long aspired to craft a grand new narrative, one that articulates the tragic, ironic, and yet progressive, indeed radical story of the making of American democracy. {Bold added]

He cited labor historian Herbert Gutman writing in The Nation in 1981, challenging the history profession to fashion a narrative that would connect more effectively with our fellow citizens. He noted the failure to achieve that goal referencing Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob who wrote in 2004 in Telling the Truth about History: “[We] now confront the task of creating a new narrative framework.” In his own article in 2016, Kaye, acknowledged that the challenge still had not been met…and that was four years ago. He felt that however divided Americans were, they still wanted to redeem the nation’s promise.

Kaye concluded optimistically with a call to cultivate a narrative that affirms the best in us. He did not say “better angels of our nature” although he might just as well have.

Indeed, a narrative that, without making promises of victory, shows that truly has made America great and American history exceptional is that when we have confronted crises, mortal crises…we did not, contrary to conservative urgings and historical expectations give up or suspend our finest ideals but made American freer, more equal, and more democratic. We must cultivate a narrative that will help us remember not only that we did all of that in the past, but also that we might do just that once again. [Bold added].

PRE-1619 NEW YORK TIMES

In an interview on PBS from December 29, 2017, op-ed columnist David Brooks said:

The second thing I would do is try to discover something we actually do have in common, which is a national story. I was raised — my grandfather had a big immigrant mentality. He was an exodus story.

Our people, like all Americans of all different types, left oppression, crossed the wilderness, came to the Promised Land. And that was the national story that a lot of different people could buy into it.

And for people under 40, that’s just not their story. They just don’t buy it. They don’t think there’s a promised land. Too much oppression. Too many historical sins. So we have to come up with a new historical story. And that’s a challenge for us right now. [Bold added]

Earlier that year in his own column, he had suggested a basis for a national narrative by drawing on a traditional one in a column entitled “The Unifying American Story” (March 21, 2017):

For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem….

The Exodus narrative has pretty much been dropped from our civic culture. Schools cast off the Puritans as a bunch of religious fundamentalists.…Today’s students get steeped in American tales of genocide, slavery, oppression and segregation. American history is taught less as a progressively realized grand narrative and more as a series of power conflicts between oppressor and oppressed.

At that time, Brooks had no idea that in a two and half years, his own newspaper would champion a reframing of American history that completely negated the Exodus narrative that he had touted.

Just a month earlier, fellow op-ed columnist Russ Douthat had raised the issue in his column entitled “Who Are We?” (February 4, 2017). He didn’t seem very optimistic that a new national narrative could be created.

But so far we haven’t found a way to correct the story while honoring its full sweep — including all the white-male-Protestant-European protagonists to whom, for all their sins, we owe so much of our inheritance….

 Maybe no unifying story is really possible. Maybe the gap between a heroic founders-and-settlers narrative and the truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others cannot be adequately bridged.

 But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.

Meanwhile, his own newspaper promotes a highly divisive view of America with the express purpose of exploiting the division in America just as our incumbent President does.

THE NATION NEEDS A NATIONAL STORY

Historian Jill Lepore authored These Truths: A History of the United States (2018) in part to write such a narrative. In the article A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story (February 5, 2019), in Foreign Affairs, Lepore began by telling an anecdote about Stanford historian Carl Degler’s surprising talk at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in 1986. He chastised his colleagues for a dereliction of duty: appalled by nationalism, they had abandoned the study of the nation, he said:

“If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

Lepore referred to historian Thomas Bender’s observation that “Nations are, among other things, a collective agreement, partly coerced, to affirm a common history as the basis for a shared future.” Speaking of the Exodus narrative as Brooks had, Moses in the wilderness was probably the first person in history to realize Bender’s insight when he created the people Israel with a holiday in history that is still celebrated to this very day. Lepore concluded that not writing a national history creates more problems and worse problems than writing one.

JOE BIDEN AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION 250TH

The 250th anniversary of July 4, 1776, will not occur in the upcoming term but what President Biden does will shape what happens. Just because everything is on hold now as it is for the Pilgrim quadricentennial doesn’t mean anniversaries aren’t already occurring (Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770). Biden will have choices to make about how to proceed. It may not seem like the most pressing issue for him to address right now, but I would say given the divisions further exposed in the election, now is the time for him to seize the moment and put his stamp on his vision of America. May I recommend the following:

1. Appoint Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama to co-chair the existing commission for the American Revolution 250th.

2. Also appoint them to cochair and revise the existing 1776 Commission to a broader call to develop a new national narrative for the 21st century.

Our shared story is one that

1. celebrates that the world is a better place because of the existence of the United States of America

2. confronts the ugly actions which have occurred in American history

3. calls for continuing the journey to fulfill the vision and ideals expressed at our creation.

Biden has only one opportunity to make a first impression as the unity President of the United States who can talk the talk and walk the walk. Let it be an historic one.

 

What Will Never-Trump Republicans Do After the Elections?

Lincoln Has Fallen: What Will Never-Trump Republicans Do?

Over four years ago, on March 2016, I wrote a blog entitled R.I.P. Party of Lincoln (1856-2016). At that time, I did not know the Republican Party would become the Trumpican Party. I did know that the Republican Party was no longer the party of Lincoln. His name was rarely invoked. Even today it rarely is by the President of Malice except when he favorably compares himself to America’s greatest President.

Still, the legacy of Lincoln lives on among the few Republicans left who have not succumbed to becoming Trumpicans. Within the Party, their resistance is futile. They have made themselves known through ads which effectively exposes the shortcomings and dangers of the current President. However those ads will not reclaim the Republicans who have become Trumpicans. Any deprogramming efforts will require substantially more resources, time, and effort than a mere commercial provides…including the desire of the Trumpican in the first place to become a Republican once again.

Ironically, the showcase for the Never-Trump Republicans was the Democratic National Convention. On that virtual stage, these Republicans were welcomed. However in a time when all the Republican presidential nominees in the 21st century are persona non grata in the Trumpican Party, it is difficult to know where these Never-Trump Republicans will align themselves after the elections. Will they continue to support Joe Biden and the Democrats for the next four years? Will they start a third party?

Back on February 29, 2020, I wrote

Rick Wilson, Richard Conway, John Kasich, and Bill Weld can struggle all they want to regain control of the Republican Party but it is not going to happen. At present Lincoln Republicans have no political party. Neither do admirers of Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, or even the Bushes. So how will they vote? What will they do now that the Republican Party despises them? (The Socialist versus the Trumpican Smackdown: What Are Democrats and Republicans to Do?)

Now we know how they will vote. Bu we don’t know what the plans are for the future.

In a well-meaning op-ed column, David Brooks wrote:

My guess is that if Trump gets crushed in the election, millions of Republicans will decide they never liked that loser and jerk anyway. He’ll get relegated to whatever bargain basement they are using to hold Sarah Palin (Where Do Republicans Go From Here?, August 9, print).

There is a lot of wishful thinking in those guesses. Think of what has happened in the short interval since those words were first printed. Now think of the impact all those events have had on his popularity. Try “unchanged” since last year at this time.

The one possible glimmer of hope for Brooks is the idea of “loser.” If, and it is an “if,” Trumpicans lose the White House and the Senate and fail to retake the House and if there isn’t a national melt down and Joe Biden does become President, then Trumpicans will be faced with the prospects of Democratic control. Will Trumpicans be content to remain loyal to the loser through 2024 even while he is being prosecuted and perhaps jailed? In my last blog, I asked the question of what Sean Hannity will do if confronted with a Democratic sweep and only a loser to oppose them. At that point will Hannity’s desire to stop the Democrats trump his loyalty to a loser? No one knows now but it is possible to support some Trumpican ideas without supporting the person who has no power future political future.

If, and only if, he is pushed off the stage or is confined to OAN broadcasting from Rikers, who, then, will fill the leadership void? Will the Never-Trump Republicans then be able to regain the support of the former Republicans? Such a prospect seems unlikely. More wishful thinking. One should keep in the mind that none of the multitude of Republican candidates in 2016 assuaged the angst the Republicans felt. All those candidates fell by the wayside. Nothing that has happened in the last four years indicates that Never-Trump Republicans can wrest the leadership position from the defeated and criminal loser or that the party members will follow them.  Everyone now is jockeying for position to be the successor who will save the party from ruin< Meanwhile he is not leaving the stage and still could win.  You don’t hear much talk about 350 Electoral College votes for Biden now do you?

To return to the Brooks column, in it he dutifully identifies four possible prospects for the future leadership of the Republican Party:

The post-2020, post-Trump Republican future is … is embodied by a small group of Republican senators in their 40s, including Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse. They all came of age when Reaganism was already in the rearview mirror. Though populist, three of them have advanced degrees from Harvard or Yale. They are not particularly close to one another. They may be joined by a common experience, but they are divided by ambition.

Brooks then proceeds to examine the strengths and weaknesses of each of them. This analysis would be perfectly legitimate in normal times, but the one critical lesson of the last four years is that these are not normal times. It is not possible to develop a modified Trumpism to reach out to a larger share of the electorate when the main actor still hogs all the attention. No Trumpican can stand up to him. Besides, one should keep in mind that the Republican presidential popular vote electoral record in the baby-boom era is abysmal. If the boomer candidates leave the stage, there is no inherent reason to believe that next generation will do any better. Remember THEY ALL WILL CARRY TRUMP TAINT. They will have to explain their support as even more and even corruption and criminality is revealed in the ongoing investigations.

Strange at it may seem, there are some Republicans left in the White House. Consider the following excerpts from the acceptance speech at the Trumpican National Convention.

Because we understand that America is NOT a land cloaked in darkness, America is the torch that enlightens the entire world.

 Gathered here at our beautiful and majestic White House – known all over the world as the People’s House – we cannot help but marvel at the miracle that is our Great American Story. This has been the home of larger-than-life figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson who rallied Americans to bold visions of a bigger and brighter future. Within these walls lived tenacious generals like Presidents Grant and Eisenhower who led our soldiers in the cause of freedom. From these grounds, Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on a daring expedition to cross a wild and uncharted continent. In the depths of a bloody Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln looked out these very windows upon a half-completed Washington Monument – and asked God, in His Providence, to save our union. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt welcomed Winston Churchill, and just inside, they set our people on a course to victory in the Second World War.

 What united generations past was an unshakable confidence in America’s destiny, and an unbreakable faith in the American People. They knew that our country is blessed by God, and has a special purpose in this world. It is that conviction that inspired the formation of our union, our westward expansion, the abolition of slavery, the passage of civil rights, the space program, and the overthrow of fascism, tyranny and communism.

 In the left’s backward view, they do not see America as the most free, just, and exceptional nation on earth. Instead, they see a wicked nation that must be punished for its sins.

 We must reclaim our independence from the left’s repressive mandates. Americans are exhausted trying to keep up with the latest list of approved words and phrases, and the ever-more restrictive political decrees. Many things have a different name now, and the rules are constantly changing. The goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated, and driven from society as we know it. The far-left wants to coerce you into saying what you know to be FALSE, and scare you out of saying what you know to be TRUE.

 Our country wasn’t built by cancel culture, speech codes, and soul-crushing conformity. We are NOT a nation of timid spirits. We are a nation of fierce, proud, and independent American Patriots.

 We are a nation of pilgrims, pioneers, adventurers, explorers and trailblazers who refused to be tied down, held back, or reined in. Americans have steel in their spines, grit in their souls, and fire in their hearts. There is no one like us on earth.

 I want every child in America to know that you are part of the most exciting and incredible adventure in human history. No matter where your family comes from, no matter your background, in America, ANYONE CAN RISE. With hard work, devotion, and drive, you can reach any goal and achieve every ambition.

 Our American Ancestors sailed across the perilous ocean to build a new life on a new continent. They braved the freezing winters, crossed the raging rivers, scaled the rocky peaks, trekked the dangerous forests, and worked from dawn till dusk. These pioneers didn’t have money, they didn’t have fame– but they had each other. They loved their families, they loved their country, and they loved their God!

 When opportunity beckoned, they picked up their Bibles, packed up their belongings, climbed into covered wagons, and set out West for the next adventure. Ranchers and miners, cowboys and sheriffs, farmers and settlers – they pressed on past the Mississippi to stake a claim in the Wild Frontier.

 Legends were born – Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill.

 Americans built their beautiful homesteads on the Open Range. Soon they had churches and communities, then towns, and with time, great centers of industry and commerce. That is who they were. Americans build the future, we don’t tear down the past!

 We are the nation that won a revolution, toppled tyranny and fascism, and delivered millions into freedom. We laid down the railroads, built the great ships, raised up the skyscrapers, revolutionized industry, and sparked a new age of scientific discovery. We set the trends in art and music, radio and film, sport and literature – and we did it all with style, confidence and flair. Because THAT is who we are.

 Whenever our way of life was threatened, our heroes answered the call.

 From Yorktown to Gettysburg, from Normandy to Iwo Jima, American Patriots raced into cannon blasts, bullets and bayonets to rescue American Liberty.

These are not the words of a Trumpican, they are the words of an anonymous Republican in the White House. That writer shows Never-Trump Republicans a way forward. It is not possible to regain leadership in the Republican Party by replacing Trumpicans. It is not possible to expand the electoral reach by being Trump-lite. It is not possible to be a positive force for America’s future simply by stopping the malice. To regain control of the Republican following an electoral ruin, a Lincoln for the 21st century is needed or else the country will remain divided into two houses that can’t live together.