By Jill Frank
President Trump’s speeches whiplash between calls for national togetherness and exploiting ethnic divisions. When he reads prepared text from a teleprompter, as he did two days after the Charlottesville terrorism and in his August 21 speech on Afghanistan, he focuses on themes of unity. These speeches are generally attributed to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. When Trump goes off-script, as he did at a press conference three days after Charlottesville and at his rally in Phoenix on August 22, he slashes and divides. These words are generally believed, per his Twitter thoughts, to be the “real Donald Trump.”
A closer look reveals that there are fewer differences between scripted and unscripted Trump than it appears on the surface. Trump’s McMaster voice is no more effective at bringing the nation together than when he speaks from the heart. This is not only because Trump is reading someone else’s script and he is a bad actor but because the words he reads evoke a military model for national unity. As the Greeks saw long ago, that kind of unity, in which difference is disloyalty, may be important in the military. It is inimical to politics.
“By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God,” Trump said, faithful to the script, on August 21. In the military, he continued, men and women “operate as one team, with one shared mission, and one shared sense of purpose.” They do so, he explained, by transcending “every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and color to serve together … in absolutely perfect cohesion.” Soldiers are “part of the same family.”
Leaving to one side that “the same family” does not apparently include transgendered people, we might ask whether the “absolutely perfect cohesion” characteristic of the military should be an aspirational model for our nation as a whole.
This way of thinking about unity recalls what Socrates said in Plato’s Republic about inhabitants of a political community who are most united when they feel “the greatest community of pain and pleasure.” That kind of unity, Socrates tells us, guarantees that everyone will have “a single opinion about what belongs to them [and] the same goal to aim at.”
Trump has called for this brand of unity before, as in his Inaugural Address, for example, when he announced that “We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”
This kind of unity may be valuable when it comes to fighting wars, where generals sitting atop chains of command ensure sameness of goal and opinion. And it may be a feature of some families. However, a single opinion produces orthodoxy (from orthos and doxa signifying “right opinion” in ancient Greek). Why would we want orthodoxy in politics, a “single opinion” that ensures the same goal for everyone? And whose opinion would that be? Do we all want to be made to subscribe, say, to Trump’s opinion, offered on August 22, that those who want to remove symbols of the slave-keeping Confederacy are “trying to take away our history and our heritage”?
The cohesion characteristic of the military pits Trump’s “our” against a “they” to exclude the very differences — of opinion, identity, and aspiration — upon which democracies depend.
In Politics, Aristotle criticizes the military and family as models for politics, explaining that “As the polity becomes more of a unity, it will become first like a household instead of a polity, then like a man instead of a household. […] Even if we could attain this unity, we should not do it. For it would be the destruction of the polity.” Drawing an analogy instead to music, Aristotle maintains that politics depends not on unison but on harmony, on rhythm, not a single beat.
Reading from the teleprompter at Fort Myer, Trump said: “there is no room [in America] for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.” We may wish for the truth of these words. For them to become true, however, depends not on cohesion around a single opinion, but on making room in America for the plurality of often incommensurable opinions, aspirations, and identities of citizens whose different hearts, homes, and destinies are the lifeblood of democracies.