Probably like many people, when I heard the president is thinking about delivering his nomination acceptance speech from the Gettsyburg battlefield later this month, my first reaction was bemusement. I joked with colleagues about Trump delivering a fiery tribute to Pickett’s Charge (the failed Confederate attack on Union lines that led to the defeat at Gettsyburg and the demise of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania).
I had forgotten, however, that Trump had delivered a big speech at the same site on October 22, 2016, billed as his “closing argument” to the American people. It was pretty clear that the purpose of the speech (other than to tug on Republican loyalties by association with the first GOP president) was to lay out a very specific agenda for the administration he hoped to lead. But Trump being Trump, he devoted the first part of his remarks to angry whining, as the Washington Post reported at the time:
[I]nstead of laying out his vision for uniting the country, as President Abraham Lincoln once did here, Trump declared that the system is rigged against him, that election results cannot be trusted, that Hillary Clinton should have been barred from running for president, that the media is “corrupt” and that he will sue all of the women who have accused him of sexual assault.
He could repeat a lot of that furious litany this time around, with perhaps a few word changes. But if he does return to Gettysburg, he will also invite comparison of his record to the long list of 28 promises he made for accomplishments he was determined to register in his first 100 days in office.
At the end of Trump’s actual first 100 days as president, Gregory Korte looked at the Gettysburg promises and delivered this judgment:
A USA TODAY analysis of Trump’s first 100 days finds nine promises kept and four promises partially kept. Trump has taken no meaningful action on 12 promises, primarily the bills he said he would get Congress to take up. Two of Trump’s attempts to follow through on immigration promises have been blocked by the courts. And one promise – to rescind all of President Barack Obama’s unconstitutional executive orders – was too vague to evaluate.
Korte may have been too generous on “promises kept” since it included items like renegotiating NAFTA that fell short of the big transformative policy changes he suggested before the election. Similarly, some of the “Drain the Swamp” ethics measures he did promulgate to prevent executive branch corruption do not appear to have been taken seriously in Trump’s lobbyist-ridden administration. And much of the judicial obstruction he has encountered for his nativist immigration agenda is attributable to poor work by Trump’s lawyers.
Yes, after the 100-day mark Trump did finally get Congress to approve one major item on his agenda — a package of tax cuts. But some equally big goals, notably an infrastructure-investment package and a replacement for Obamacare, have become mostly the object of jokes, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile.
It’s likely any Trump return engagement in Gettsyburg will, as the formal opening act of a reelection campaign focused on demonizing Joe Biden and his “radical left” party, contain as much angry posturing as the 2016 speech. This president is simply incapable of passing up any opportunity to respond to his critics, even, perhaps especially, when it’s imprudent. It’s the more substantive part of his “closing argument” that may be difficult for him to emulate. Does he go through the old list of promises and claim credit or make excuses where he can? Or does he unveil a hitherto unknown second-term agenda aimed at swing voters who, for whatever reason, are willing to let themselves be fooled twice?
Whatever he and his advisers decide to do, the latter should try to convince the former not to favorably compare himself to Lincoln when it comes to actions benefiting Black Americans (no, the First Step Act is not equivalent to the Emancipation Proclamation), and by all means, to stay far away from Pickett’s Charge.