Donald Trump almost never utters the words “liberty” or “equality.” With little fanfare, he has abandoned perhaps the two most traditional and aspirational touchstones of American political life. By way of contrast, Barack Obama, in his final address, reminded us that previous American presidents routinely used public occasions to draw straight lines, as he himself did, to those key words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Obama even went the distance on this occasion to link these phrases back to the Enlightenment and forward to the struggle for civil rights and African-American freedom. But in his short time in office, Trump has thrown out this entire script, right along with the conventional history lesson behind it.
With Trump at the lectern, what we get instead are references to deal-making, money, and a temporally unspecific kind of national greatness associated with being “tremendous” and, always, “a winner.” This entrepreneurial jargon is then mixed with words and images intended to stoke anger and fear. Trump has a taste for terms like “stupid,” “dangerous,” “carnage,” and “swamp,” which he mainly uses to emphasize the distance between our former strength and the dilapidated America of today. It is not that the new president has exactly given up on the power of words as forms of action. He has, however, introduced us to a startlingly different vocabulary with which to take stock of the world around us. This is surely a revolutionary idiom—just not the one we’ve been living with most of the time since 1776.
So what does the new Trumpian language mean for our political future? And, more pointedly, what are its implications for our long-term investment in the story of liberty, equality, and the founding of the nation? Those who study history for a living generally make lousy prognosticators. But three new books on the era of the founders provide an answer to that second question. Richard D. Brown’s Self-Evident Truths, Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration, and Luke Mayville’s John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy explore the critical, if endlessly fraught, role of equality and inequality in shaping the American political imagination. And though this might seem a dated concern given how thoroughly the ground has shifted since these books were completed, in fact, all three seem newly relevant. For collectively, if not necessarily intentionally, they make a strong case for keeping our old-time—and freshly counter-hegemonic—political idiom alive in these strange new times.
In Self-Evident Truths, Richard D. Brown gives us a clear, albeit conventional, account of the first nine decades of American history after 1776 as a series of struggles over the promise and limits of equality. The tensions within the Declaration itself are given relatively short shrift in this story. So are the framers’ motives. Brown’s focus is on the gap between the rhetoric—the “aspirations,” as he calls them, laid out in the text’s most famous lines—and lived reality in the new United States.