Meditating on President Trump’s July 4th Speech at Mt. Rushmore and Roger Kimball’s comments thereupon, what strikes me is that the man has grown in office. This observation will strike many as ridiculous because they regard Trump as flawed in his origins and even more flawed now. Indeed, his seminal flaws dictate his ultimate degeneracy. He was worthless and obnoxious before and, necessarily, no matter what he does or says, he can only be worthless and obnoxious now. Bad trees produce bad fruit, you might say.
A puritanical intolerance for anything that issues from a flawed human character has, over the years, insinuated itself into our post-modern education and politics . None of the Apostle’s “test everything, keep what is good” for post-modernity. Only the totally pure can be tolerated. An imperfection at the origins of an enterprise cannot be overcome and improved; it can only fester and become worse; the whole undertaking must be rejected root and branch.
This is the attitude of President Trump’s critics: because he was a nasty businessman, a corrupt capitalist, he can only be nasty and corrupt. No matter how he behaves in office, no matter how he tries to reign in the administrative state, to challenge America’s autocratic enemies, to preserve free speech and other Constitutional rights, to speak out in defense of American history and tradition, he cannot rise to the occasion. He can only be as nasty and corrupt as he was ab origine. He must be cast out and utterly destroyed. There is no possibility that he could exceed the limitations of his past, that he could grow in knowledge and wisdom, that he could become more and better than he was. In short, from the standpoint of the postmodern Puritan, there is no possibility of redemption.
As it is with Trump, so it is with America herself. The postmodern Puritan ascribes to a historical determinism that declares America irredeemable. Her past dictates her present and her future. Because her origins are less-than-pure, all that America has been or has accomplished must be rejected as hopelessly corrupt. All her symbols, heroes, memories must be rejected without exception. The compromise with slavery implied in the Constitution taints everything American with its hypocrisy for all time. That the nation may have grown to realize more perfectly the virtues implicit in her flawed origins cannot be admitted. Racist then, we must be racist now. Our past defines us; we can only purge ourselves by erasing our past.
Of course, to erase the past, you must erase whatever good it contained. To erase it completely, you must erase those fragments of the past that people carry as integral parts of themselves, what we colloquially call “memory.” But the only way to extirpate memory completely and finally is to exterminate the people who carry it. Such is the bitter, remorseless, puritanical logic that sent French aristocrats to the guillotine, European Jews to the gas chambers, and Russian patriots to the Gulag.
To paraphrase another American president, this is not who we are. Not at all.
The essence of America, of her settlers and her pioneers, is the sense that we can better ourselves. We can go into a new land, better ourselves by toil and sweat, and prosper. In doing so, we need not exterminate our past, because we are not limited by it. We can surpass it. We can choose what is good in our forefathers; cherish their successes; reject their failures; try to live up to their highest aspirations, aspirations which we may discover to reach heights greater than even they guessed.
We are Americans and ours is the American Revolution, not the French. Our revolution is grounded in the flesh and blood of our history, not in the fancies of our intellects. We reach higher than our fathers, but we stand on their foundations. We dare not forget them, because in forgetting them, we divide ourselves from our past, from our memory, from our very selves. And a house divided against itself cannot stand.