Abraham Lincoln on the “Mobocratic” Spirit: Lessons Learned, Post-Trump
First in an ongoing series, Lessons Learned Post-Trump
After four years of the calamitous presidency of Donald J. Trump, a presidency that has knocked off every institutional and cultural guardrail of American Democracy, America needs to glean lessons learned. Of course, the challenge is gleaning the right lessons — which debate, in as varied and choleric a country as ours is now, will be hotly contested. This series will endeavor to sift the evidence and find those right lessons, on the premise that America is at a hinge moment, when our next steps must be wisely put. Adam Smith, surveying History, said, “There’s a lot of ruin in a nation”; this writer assumes America is running out of room for ruin.
Our Scripture this week — this week when former President Donald Trump is on trial for a historic second impeachment, this time for the “high crime and misdemeanor” of inciting a violent insurrection — might appropriately be Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, in which Lincoln pointed to and warned against the “mobocratic” spirit abroad in the land.
That Trump’s second impeachment is for a far more serious charge than the first (which alleged he urged a foreign power to “dig up dirt” on a political foe), and that this second impeachment, like the first, carries vanishingly small odds of ending in conviction (thanks to his Republican abettors in the Senate), makes Lincoln’s warning to us, all these years later, all the more important.
Lincoln delivered his Address in 1838, well before the national blood-letting of the Civil War. Aged 28 and a member of the Illinois state legislature, he turned his attention to an “ill omen amongst us,” hoping he wasn’t being “over-wary”: “I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” Sensing mortal danger in “mob law,” should it continue unchecked, he titled his speech “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”
Lincoln pointed to a multitude of incidents — “Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times,” in both slave-holding and non-slave-holding states — citing “horrors” committed against negroes, white men “supposed in league with the negroes,” and abolitionists. The “most highly tragic” to Lincoln was a St. Louis case: “A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.” (Francis McIntosh had earlier been charged with murdering a constable.)
Anticipating the question, “What has this to do with the perpetuation of our political institutions,” Lincoln lays it out: With “such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become absolutely unrestrained.” The implication? “Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of the population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.” That bears repeating: “depend on it, this Government cannot last.”
As if channeling events of 21st-century America, Lincoln captured the shocking violence manifested in the mob insurrection on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol — with vows heard to “Hang Mike” (Vice-president Pence) and “Kill Nancy” (House speaker Pelosi) and “Stop the steal,” to stop both the counting of the electoral college vote and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power; that is, the very operation of our political institutions, Lincoln’s imperative. As Lincoln said at a later time and place, it is thus “altogether fitting and proper” that, to establish accountability and deter this mob law, an impeachment trial be conducted of the “Inciter-in-Chief,” to quote lead House impeachment manager Jamie Raskin’s term. In their argument, the House team is citing other unsettling mob incidents — militant-right actions at state capitals, a Trump caravan menacing a Joe Biden campaign bus, the mobster Trump disavowing the election he lost and pressuring state officials to reverse the result.
But, as much as he feared the mob’s damage to political institutions, Lincoln feared its alienating effect on the people: “[B]y the operation of this mobocratic spirit…the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed — I mean the attachment of the People” [italics Lincoln’s]. He goes on: “[T]he feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it; and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak, to make their friendship effectual.” This attachment of the American People to their Government [capitalization Lincoln’s] goes far: “I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another.” Yet: “[I]f the laws be continually despised and disregarded…the alienation of their affections…is the natural consequence.”
It is in these circumstances — a generalized lawlessness, an alienated people — that real peril lies, warns Lincoln: when “men of sufficient talent and ambition,” but motivated by ill intent, will “seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric.” Lincoln points to History’s lesson: that such men of ambition and ill intent always spring among us. “And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion…. 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.” That “edifice erected by others” — a system of government created by our ancestors to “display before an admiring world” the “truth of a proposition” hitherto deemed “problematical,” namely, “the capability of a people to govern themselves”: Such a project, says Lincoln, cannot satisfy unfettered ambition like that of Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon. “Towering genius disdains a beaten path”; 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.” Is it then unreasonable to expect, Lincoln asks, that such a 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?”
Donald Trump was, most emphatically, no genius, and he had not a clue about governing. But he did possess a genius for manipulating an angry and discontented public, spinning it to an even angrier and more discontented pitch, and this genius was coupled with a fathomless ambition. The even greater peril lying ahead for us, as we must now see: that such evil genius springs among us again — coupled with greater competence and ability.
Regarding this greater peril of a tyrant’s tyranny, “How shall we fortify against it?” Lincoln believes the answer is “simple”: Generally, “Let every American, every lover of liberty…swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.” He urges that this “reverence for the laws” become “the political religion of the nation.” And how, further, to resist the rise to power of that tyrant? “[I]t will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”
Immediately, we can see our post-Trump problem: in the dis-unity of the American people one from another, in polarization not seen, historians tell us, since the Civil War; in the alienation of the American people from their government, their “attachment” to it; in a “Breaking Bad” pop culture that scorns norms and the very idea of law-abiding, while exalting the outlaw and disrupter — ilk like Donald Trump; and in the destruction this ilk can wreak — on truth and fact, on reality itself, on the proper exercise of power. This latest holder of the world’s most powerful office abused his power to a near-Nero degree and assaulted American Democracy itself, indeed the very idea of self-governance.
Summoning the clarity of vision Lincoln possessed, we must see that, at present, America is at a very lower point, in peril of being unable to, per his sine qua non, “perpetuate our political institutions.” Lincoln saw, in the rise of the “mobocratic,” the Civil War to come 23 years hence. If we project 23 years hence ourselves, what kind of America will we have? And, importantly: If the Senate now fails to convict Donald Trump for inciting the violent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol — I am watching the trial as I write, reliving via harrowing video that infamous day, meanwhile it’s reported that many Republican senators are making a show of not listening or watching — then the mob will take heart, and plan, and metastasize. Trump’s lawyers cite the “emotionalism” of the Democrats’ presentation, but, in truth, it is documentary. Republicans, “the party of Lincoln,” might heed his indictment of those abetting lawlessness: “Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operation, and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.”
Perhaps our guide going forward is to be found in a theme in Lincoln’s speech I’d passed by before: that of stewardship, specifically of political institutions. Lincoln spends extensive time looking back, in admiration, at our ancestors, who for him were the Revolutionary generation, fifty years prior, “now lamented and departed.” In describing that generation’s ambition to “uprear…a political edifice of liberty and equal rights,” he uses the terminology of the hunt: If they succeeded they’d be immortalized; if they failed they’d be called “fanatics for a fleeting hour.” This time my eye fell on this sentence: “But the game is caught.” Lincoln speculates that, with “the catching, and the pleasures of the chase” then gone past, along with the passing of the powerful influence that the “scenes of the revolution had upon the passions of the people,” it can seem as if Democracy’s main work is done. But: As Lincoln came to know in his presidency, and we now know in our low hour, Democracy’s work now becomes one of stewardship — of our precious legacy.
Invoking our ancestors, Lincoln says: “They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” As if speaking to this inflamed hour, Lincoln adds: “Passion has helped us, but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let those materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the Constitution and laws.” In our time, we can look to the generation that got us through the Great Depression and World War II and rededicate ourselves to the legacy they left us.
In sum: Democracy, aspiring to self-governing, must be self-correcting, as Lincoln knew. Danger to American Democracy comes not from without, but from within: There was/is no world power that could “step the Ocean” and quell us; only we can quell ourselves. “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln writes, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
I am wagering that, out of this political crisis, and the suffering endured in this pandemic, Americans’ attachment to American Democracy, almost lost to us in these four years, is being restored, along with a new sobriety. But: Will it be enough to raise those new pillars…?