By: Richard Oxenberg
Abraham Lincoln, quoting the Bible, once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
This quote is often read as referring to the divide between slave states and free states in the country at the time. But I believe Lincoln was referring to a more fundamental schism, a schism in the very foundations of our nation, an ideological schism that first made possible the divide between slavery and freedom.
We see this schism at play in the Declaration of Independence, in the fact that a substantial number of signees to the statement “all men are created equal” owned slaves at the very moment that they signed it.
The schism is between two opposing beliefs. The one is the belief that all human beings, regardless of circumstance, have a right to be treated with an equal degree of dignity and respect. The other is the belief that some have a right to dominate others.
We might call the first ‘egalitarianism’ and the second, ‘supremacism’.
Supremacist ideology was integral to the class-based, aristocratic, society from which America was declaring its independence, in the name of the egalitarian ideal. But this egalitarian ideal was still nascent and untried at the founding of our nation, and, of course, overtly contradicted by the institution of slavery.
Lincoln understood that the Civil War was not merely, or even primarily, a battle between the states. Nor was it, in essence, a battle over the specific institution of slavery, other than by implication. Much more fundamentally, it was a battle of ideals, a battle over which ideal would prevail as the governing ideal of our nation, as the ‘hope’ of our nation.
We were a nation, said Lincoln, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal’.” He went on: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
I believe that with the presidency of Donald Trump, we are once again engaged in this great civil war. What distinguishes Trump from every other president in my lifetime is that he appears to be a supremacist, not only in action, but in ideological commitment. It is just in this sense that Trump is anti-American.
Do all of his followers understand this? Are they all supremacist at heart? I don’t believe so. Trump has been made possible by a long supremacist campaign of deceit and misdirection that, in its essence, is not racial but economic, led by the Koch brothers and other forces of economic plutocracy and oligarchy.
This campaign began well before Trump appeared on the scene – furthered by the demagoguery of Rush Limbaugh and other manipulators of mass resentment, propagated by Fox News and similar media outlets.
But Trump has taken it to a new level, to a tipping point. We are again testing whether a society “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure.
The United States has always been a house divided against itself. The egalitarian ideal proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence was just being born at the founding of our nation. The campaigns against slavery, against racism, against sexism, against homophobia, have all been moments in its maturation. And it has always been resisted by those loath to give up their prejudices and privileges.
The truth is that the human character is itself “a house divided against itself,” divided between tendencies toward love and justice, and tendencies toward selfishness and animus.
Which of these tendencies will prevail in our society? By which of these tendencies will we be governed? That was the question of Lincoln, and this is the question of our moment.
This is what is at stake.
At this writing, it’s not at all clear what the outcome will be. But the battle lines have been drawn, a battle of fundamental commitments. And, depending upon the outcome – to express it again in the words of Lincoln – “We shall either nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
Richard Oxenberg received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Emory University in 2002, with a concentration in Ethics and Philosophy of Religion. He currently teaches at Endicott College, in Beverly MA.
He is the author of the book, On the Meaning of Human Being: Heidegger and the Bible in Dialogue, published by Political Animal Press.
Image: PAM illustration based on a chromolithograph, Battle of Antietam, by Thure de Thulstrup (1887) and a photo from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally taken on August 12, 2017 by Anthony Crider via flickr (CC BY 2.0)