Does anyone remember Richard Nixon’s campaign slogan, in the bitter and unhappy summer of 1968? It was a cheerless time of assassinations and riots, of a Vietnam War which killed 17,000 Americans that year, more than in any other year. It was the year when Lyndon Johnson proved that he understood the shall-will distinction (“I shall not seek and will not accept”) in announcing that he would not run for the presidency, and in which the insincerity of Hubert Humphrey’s forced jollity, amidst the whiff of tear gas at the Chicago Democratic Convention, was apparent to everyone. It was in short a time in which Americans were just as divided as we are today.
And then, in the middle of it all, Vicki Lynn Cole attended a Nixon whistle-stop rally in Deshler, Ohio. The eight-grader was given time off by her principal to attend the rally, and did so with a sign that said “Vote Republican.” In the press of the crowd she dropped the sign, but then she picked up another one from the ground, with its message “Bring Us Together.” Nixon didn’t see it, but someone in his entourage did, and the slogan began appearing in Nixon’s speeches. It featured again in his Inauguration Address.
In 2016 we aren’t riven by the turmoil of 1968. There are conflicts, but they’re very much on the back burner. We have a different set of issues, corruption and the decline of economic mobility, but they’re not ones that pit one class of American against the other. And yet we are divided, and yearn to be brought together again.
It was the same desire for unity to which Lincoln appealed at his 1861 Inauguration, speaking to an even more divided country:
We are not enemies, but friends.… Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
That appeal fell on deaf ears, but after the reconciliation that followed the Civil War, and after America began to come to terms with a legacy of racism and bigotry, Americans harkened to Lincoln’s appeal for unity and proved themselves worthy of it, in the bocage of Normandy, in the jungle of Guadalcanal.
Here’s a memo to the Republican establishment, courtesy of Whittaker Chambers. Would you storm the beaches of Tarawa for entitlement reform? Neither would I.
But if there’s a desire for unity, from which side might we seek it? Not from the Democrats, a Party whose m.o. is to divide us, women against men, gays against straights, blacks against whites. If the Party abandoned its divisive appeals to the grievances of women, gays, and minorities, what would be left of it? It would have entirely imploded, enfolded within itself till nothing was left but scraps, like the cats of Kilkenny.
Nor would we find a call for unity in the Party of Mitt Romney, of country clubs and three addresses, of a 53 percent of productive givers ranged against the 47 percent of parasitic schnorrers. Nor from the NeverTrumpers who rail against the “invertebrate” Trump supporters, the Oxycontin snorters whom National Review thinks should hurry up and die already.
If the message of unity is to come from anywhere, it will be from Donald Trump, who in his reflection on the Orlando massacre reached out specifically to the LGBT community. “When I am president,” he said, “I pledge to protect and defend all Americans who live inside of our borders. Wherever they come from, wherever they were born, all Americans living here and following our laws will be protected.”
You can’t speak about uniting people when you try to divide Americans, when you ask one group to hate another. And you aren’t dividing Americans when you distinguish between Americans and the non-Americans who are living here, or who wish to come here. That’s why only Trump can pick up Vicki Lynn Cole’s sign.