Trump’s Tangle of Rhetorical Inadequacy
A gifted leader might make the case for building more statues rather than tearing down the ones we have.
By Peggy Noonan
The political aspect of the president’s failures this week is to reveal him as increasingly isolated. He is not without supporters, but it’s down to roughly a third of the country and one senses soft around the edges. That is not a base, it’s a core. A core can have an impact, but a president cannot govern if that’s all he has. You need something bigger behind you to scare your foes and stiffen your friends. The nation’s CEOs, feeling personal dismay and external pressure, ran for the exits. The president has further embarrassed and frustrated his party on Capitol Hill. That puts in further doubt needed legislation on such popular issues as tax reform and infrastructure, which might fare better if he were not associated with them.
Other fallout the past week is as consequential. Donald Trump is binding himself down with thick cords of rhetorical inadequacy. People felt let down, angry and in some cases frightened by his inability to make clear moral distinctions when he addressed the events in Charlottesville, Va. There were neo-Nazis, anti-Semitic chants, white supremacists; a woman was killed and many people injured. It’s not hard to figure out who and what needed to be castigated—clearly, unambiguously, immediately.
Here is a cliché but only because it is true: In times of stress and fracture, people want a president who’s calm in the storm, who speaks to the nation’s moral conscience, recalls first principles, evokes what unites us, honestly defines the contours of an event, and softly instructs. Mr. Trump did not do any of that. If a leader is particularly gifted he could, in a moment of historical stress, succeed in speaking to the nation’s soul and moving its heart by addressing its brain. This kind of thing comes from love—of the country, our people, what we’ve been. It struck me this week as he spoke that his speeches and statements are peculiarly loveless. The public Mr. Trump is not without sentiment and occasional sentimentality, but the deeper wells of a broader love seem not there to draw from. Seven months in, people know they can look to him for a reaction, a statement, an announcement, but not for comfort, inspiration, higher meaning.
For leadership we turn, as we always do anyway, to each other—to thinkers and respected colleagues, religious figures and neighbors. After the church shootings in Charleston, S.C., two years ago, the great and immediate moral leaders were the victims’ families, whose words at the shooter’s bond hearing spread throughout the country within 24 hours. “I forgive you.” “We are praying for you.” It was the authentic voice of American Christianity, of Wednesday night Bible study, of mercy and self-sacrifice. It quieted the soul of a nation: We’ll be OK. This is who we really are.
Those bereaved relatives never quite got the recognition and thanks they deserved. Their love saved the day.
Which gets me, belatedly and now hurriedly, to what was meant to be the subject of this column.
In June in London, with time on my hands, I walked by Parliament to stare at it. I like the color of its stones. There I noticed for the first time a fierce-looking statue on a towering pedestal. It is a heroic rendering of Oliver Cromwell. He helped lead a revolution that toppled the government. He rose in the military ranks through a brutal civil war and signed the death warrant of an English king, who was beheaded. He brutalized Catholic Ireland and went on to function, arguably, as a military dictator.
He also helped implant the idea that monarchs had best not ride roughshod over Parliament, created England’s first national (and more democratic) army, and widened religious tolerance, at least among Protestants. He died of natural causes, and when the royalists returned, they dug him up and, in a piquant touch, beheaded his corpse.
Some fella. And yet there he is, put forth as one of the towering figures of his nation. He is not there because the British mean to endorse regicide or genocide. He is there because he is England. He is part of the warp and woof of that great nation’s story. He is there because the English still appear to love and respect their own history, which they know is one of struggle, not sinlessness. So he’s on a pedestal below which members of Parliament and tourists pass. This is what that statue says: I am Oliver Cromwell and I am here.
There is a movement now to take down our nation’s statues, at the moment primarily those of Confederate soldiers and generals. The reason is that they fought on behalf of a region that sought to maintain a cruel and immoral system, chattel slavery, which they did. But slavery was not only a Southern sin, it was an American one.
The Tear It Down movement is driven by the left and is acceded to by some on the right. This is the sophisticated stance. I do not share it. We should not tear down but build.
When a nation tears down its statues, it’s toppling more than brass and marble. It is in a way toppling itself—tearing down all the things, good, bad and inadequate, that made it. Or, rather, everyone. Not all of what made America is good—does anyone even think this?—but why try to hide from that?
When you tear down statues, you tear down avenues of communication between generations. Statues teach. You walk by a statue of Robert E. Lee with your 7-year-old, and he asks who that is. You say he was a great general. When he’s 8, on the same walk, you explain the Civil War. When he’s 10 you explain what was at issue, and how Lee was not only on the losing side but the wrong side. This is part of how history is communicated. We’re not doing it so well in our schools. It will be sad to lose another venue.
Condi Rice said it well, before the current controversy. She did not agree with the impulse to tear down. “Keep your history before you,” she said. Keep it in your line of sight.
And once the tearing down starts, there’s no knowing where it will end. On this the president is right. Once the local statues are purged the Tear-Downers will look to Statuary Hall, and the names of military bases, and then on to the Founders, to the slave-holding Washington and Jefferson. Then, perhaps, to their words and ideas. In what way will that help us?
Edmund Burke famously said we have a duty to the past, the present and the future. In the minds of the Tear-Downers only the present is important, and only their higher morality. But they are not the first ever to recognize the truth about slavery. Hundreds of thousands of dead Union soldiers did it before them. There are statues of them, too.
Here is a better way. Leave what is, alone. Be a noble people who inspire—and build—more statues. I’d like one that honors the families of the victims in the Charleston shooting.
More statues, not fewer; more honor, not more debris. More debris is the last thing we need.