Minority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had a thankless job at the inauguration Friday. He was not there to re-litigate the election, although dozens of House Democrats stayed away in protest. He was not there to give a partisan speech. And yet the majority of the country who did not vote for President Trump wanted some sliver of hope and to show defiance. Schumer, we think, threaded the needle as effectively as one could have done. In doing so he wound up giving a much more “conservative” speech.
He began with a grownup view of the world as it is, not as a dystopian horror show (“we live in a challenging and tumultuous time, a quickly evolving, ever-more interconnected world, a rapidly changing economy that benefits too few while leaving too many behind, a fractured media, a politics frequently consumed by rancor. We face threats foreign and domestic”). He gave a nod to popular cynicism and alienation, but, unlike Trump, he urged his fellow Americans to raise their gaze and retain their very American optimism. “I stand here today confident in this great country for one reason: you, the American people,” he said. “We Americans have always been a forward-looking, problem-solving, optimistic, patriotic and decent people.”
To those that felt Trump ran and would govern only on behalf of his white working-class base, Schumer provided an inclusive portrait of America, but one that require we sacrifice to improve the country. In that regard he was less utopian, more realistic and, yes, more conservative in spirit than Trump. (“Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live with disabilities or do not, in wealth or in poverty, we are all exceptional in our commonly held yet fierce devotion to our country, and in our willingness to sacrifice our time, energy, and even our lives to making it a more perfect union.”) The phrase “more perfect union” acknowledges that we strive ever closer to an ideal, but with no guarantee of attaining nirvana.
Unlike Trump — who somehow believes he took an oath to the country (he should reread his oath — it is to the Constitution), Schumer sounded Madisonian by comparison. “We stand up for core democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution — the rule of law, equal protection for all under the law, the freedom of speech, press and religion — the things that make America, America.” That is how principled conservatives used to sound.
He chose, unlike Trump, to reach back into American history to read part of the famous letter of Union Maj. Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sara. (“I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.”) From that he drew a lesson that seems to have eluded Trump. “It is because Sullivan Ballou and countless others believed in something bigger than themselves and were willing to sacrifice for it that we stand here today in the full blessings of liberty, in the greatest country on Earth,” Schumer said. “And that spirit lives on in each of us, Americans whose families have been here for generations and those who have just arrived. And I know that our best days are yet to come.” Schumer understands that America is not frozen in time (the 1950s) but grounded in history. (For Trump, America seems to have started the day he ran for president — hence, everything is record-setting, the biggest, the best, etc.)
A significant group in the audience was having none of it. Attendance was spotty but what Trumpkins lacked in numbers they made up for in rudeness and volume, booing, hooting and whistling throughout Schumer’s speech. Was it the “rule of law” or the sacrifice of Sullivan Ballou they objected to? They, like Trump, were unthinking and unkind, unmannerly and unapologetic in their outbursts. Like the left-wing vandals in the streets the obnoxious Trumpkins care little for democracy — which necessitates respect for others, reasoned discourse, civility and self-restraint. One finds it increasingly difficult to empathize with the “forgotten men and women” who loudly proclaim their own victimhood while attacking America’s foundational values.
Trump’s speech was dark, foreboding, hostile and divisive, casting himself as the beneficent strongman who can deliver to the American people a time machine in which the rest of the world lies prostrate (as it did at the end of World War II) and white males needed nothing beyond a high school education. He wants to take back from one group (elites, the establishment, politicians, whoever) and give it to another (his voters). (In fact, his tax plan would do the opposite).
Schumer’s remarks were optimistic, hopeful and unifying, recognizing that Americans through sacrifice and idealism make the country as a whole better. Schumer is a committed progressive, but his speech was closer in tone to Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush than Trump’s was.
That, in turn, should remind Americans from the center-left to the center-right that they have more in common with one another — respect for the rule of law, historical perspective, idealism, tolerance and belief in American greatness (right here and now) — than either does with the extremes on the right and left. If we are to preserve “core democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution — the rule of law, equal protection for all under the law, the freedom of speech, press, and religion — the things that make America, America,” it will be the result of bipartisan fidelity to democratic norms and the courage to call out corruption, illegality, incompetence and meanness. Those who believe in the better angels of our nature will need to join forces to protect that which they hold dear from a president whose narcissism makes him incapable of understanding “the things that make America, America.”