Abraham Lincoln argued that what the Union had achieved at Gettysburg would resonate throughout American history and that no flesh-and-blood mortal had the power to diminish it. “In a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground,” he told the assembled crowd during his 1863 address at the battlefield. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
It would be inaccurate, then, to say that President Donald Trump would be desecrating the site by delivering his renomination speech there later this month. In a Twitter post on Monday, he claimed that he would formally accept the Republican presidential nomination at either the historic battlefield or at the White House. His original plan to accept the Republican nomination and deliver a self-coronating speech in front of worshipful crowds in Charlotte, North Carolina—and later Jacksonville, Florida—fell apart some time ago, another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
Gettysburg would be an odd choice for the president, to say the least. Though the small Pennsylvania town is the site of a major Union victory in the Civil War, Trump is far from the best avatar of the principles for which that army fought. He is an enthusiastic apologist for Robert E. Lee, who lost at Gettysburg, and a staunch defender of Confederate monuments in public spaces and Confederate names on military bases. Trump also relishes sectional divisions more than perhaps any other American president before him. Over the summer, he stoked fears about unrest in Democratic-led cities to energize his largely rural and suburban base and reportedly favored red states over blue states in his administration’s pandemic response.
Other political figures might hesitate to draw comparisons between their rhetorical skills and those of Lincoln at the site of the Gettysburg Address. That Trump lacks the humility and the self-awareness to restrain himself from such self-aggrandizement comes as no surprise. And the move is certainly in keeping with the president’s nationalist bent: These sorts of political figures often try to adopt national symbols and sites as their own in order to bolster their claims of legitimacy. There is, nevertheless, something particularly crass about Trump’s apparent interest in holding a campaign rally on a battlefield where tens of thousands of Americans fought and died. In his case, however, the co-opting of the site is more akin to stolen valor.
Holding a campaign event at Gettysburg is fundamentally different from how past presidents have treated the site. Trump’s predecessors have occasionally visited the battlefield to commemorate the Americans who died during the Civil War. Most of them drew some distinction between their partisan role as the head of a major political party and their ceremonial role as the nation’s head of state. A recurring theme in Trump’s presidency, however, is that he rarely sees a distinction between his public role, his private interests, and his civic responsibilities. It is simply all Donald Trump, all the time.
In past remarks about the Civil War in general, Trump has not shown much depth of understanding. His outdated view of the conflict’s origins led him to once muse that Andrew Jackson, who died a generation before Fort Sumter, may have been able to prevent it. When asked about the potential visit to the battlefield last week, Trump spoke about its role in American history in vague and superficial terms. “It’s a national historic site,” he recently noted of Gettysburg. “It’s incredible. It’s the history, it’s incredible, actually, to me. And it was [a] very important place and is a very important place in our country.”
Trump may not know much American history, but he grasps its symbolic potency all the same and clearly hopes to channel it to his own benefit. In May, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued a special order to reopen the Lincoln Memorial so Trump could use it as the setting for, of all things, a prime-time interview on Fox News. “I don’t think it’s ever been done, what we’re doing tonight, here, and I think it’s great for the American people to see, this is a great work of art, aside from the fact that that was a great man, this is a great work of art,” he told the Fox anchors when asked about his choice of the setting during that interview.
The casual reappropriation of the Lincoln Memorial flows from his apparent belief that the federal government’s resources are at his personal disposal. Last summer, he hosted a large-scale military parade in Washington, D.C., complete with a speech by him at the Lincoln Memorial, in a remarkable display of self-aggrandizement. For Trump, who never served in the military, the parade was mainly an opportunity to adopt some of their martial aesthetic (and their place in public esteem) for himself. The hollow show of strength took a darker turn one year later as Trump threatened to deploy the military to major U.S. cities to violently put down civil unrest after the George Floyd protests.
The street for Trump’s co-opting of public resources runs both ways. Last summer, Trump floated the idea of hosting this year’s G-7 summit at his golf resort in Florida, a move that would have provided a healthy financial windfall for his family business. (He eventually announced it would be held at Camp David, though the pandemic has upended those plans.) Later that fall, Vice President Mike Pence and his entourage stayed at the Trump Organization’s golf resort in Doonbeg, Ireland, even though it is on the opposite side of the island from the Irish capital, where most of Pence’s high-level meetings were later held. The takeaway, especially for foreign governments, is that Trump’s for-profit businesses are informal diplomatic outposts for the United States.
If Trump ultimately decides against Gettysburg or a third site, he appears set to accept the Republican nomination at the White House. For Trump’s subordinates in the executive branch, using the mansion may run afoul of the Hatch Act, which forbids members of the federal government who do not have explicitly political roles from engaging in political activity. Of course, it would hardly be the first time he’s violated the government’s ethics guidelines or used the property for campaign purposes or partisan tirades. But the White House is also, for better or worse, his current residence and workplace. If he’s going to give a major speech during a pandemic, it might as well be at the White House instead of somewhere that would have to host his staff and security entourage.
Trump’s unseemly appropriation of American civic memory isn’t ideal on an ethical level, but his opponents may welcome it on a strategic one. Trump’s nomination speech four years ago described an America in ruins: hobbled by economic mismanagement, beset by civil unrest, disrespected around the world, and undermined by hostile foreign powers. “I alone can fix it,” he proclaimed. Standing in front of the White House, the foremost symbol of presidential authority, or Gettysburg, the most famous site of American fratricide, he will argue for another four years in power. Against those backdrops, how can anyone argue with a straight face that he’s earned it?