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The Commander-in-Chief of [cultural] wars

by Dan W. Holst

Much contention has followed presidential involvement in social and cultural movements. Yet, and most notably, the U.S. Constitution neither permits nor prohibits such involvement. Article 2, to be specific, is quite sparse about any ancillary responsibilities outside of executing laws, commanding our military, appointing judges and officials and granting pardons. However, the greatest power of the president is found in its exacting but legally ambiguous opening sentence.

When Gouverneur Morris penned Article 2 he did not include any of the implied limitations for Congress in Article 1 and for the Supreme Court in Article 3. But the first line of the second article of the U.S. Constitution states that “The executive Power shall be vested in a President . . .” That statement has confounded political theorists and remains a contentious subject – and one often biased by political affiliation. What is the role, purpose, and most importantly, the scope of executive power?

The incident of July 16, 2009 between Officer Crowley and Professor Gates that culminated into the now infamous Beer Summit was President Obama’s first foray into our social and cultural wars. And a sixth “chief” title was added to the president’s repertoire. Presidential roles of chief legislature, chief administrator, chief magistrate, chief diplomat, commander-in-chief have never been disputed, but the new role of counselor-in-chief creates a dangerous cusp where the president must walk carefully (or not) among placation and incitation. Even Obama’s seemingly innocuous effort to resolve the Crowley and Gates incident incited backlash from the law enforcement community. Yet any move to prompt presidential involvement in social affairs always assumes a tyrannical form.

President Lincoln was no stranger to tyranny. History shows this quite clearly, and no rehash is necessary. But Lincoln’s tyranny was necessary for the betterment of the country. We know this because of how he balanced the placation and incitation dichotomy.

American philosopher Martha Nussbaum tells how he cloaked his speeches in religious language and emulated classical Greek funeral oration of epitaphios to refound an America from a past of slavery to one dedicated to human equality seeded by the Declaration’s inimitable belief of liberty and equality. Close to his soul (and close to mine) Nussbaum describes a Lincoln who sought to exemplify and lead a patriotism that rises above narrow self-interest. He used a conciliatory rhetoric to placate and not enrage a war-ravaged nation.

Most unfortunately, that era has long passed; America remains a war-ravaged nation. Patriotism has now become the tool to incite narrow self-interests. I previously wrote about West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) that protects students from forced patriotism, but today on Facebook people are calling for the band dismissal and school suspension for band members who fail to reverence American idolatry.

Not willing to soothe our national and personal predilection to hatred, we have a president who emboldens himself through the incitation of hatred and division towards trivial matters. Ignorant of the historic presidential role in social and cultural conflicts, President Trump fuels himself on incitation. Does it give him more power to divide than to heal? I would hope to believe that President Trump someday accepts his historical and ontological role as president. He must understand that president of one is president of all, and if he must intervene in cultural divisions, he must follow Lincoln’s example to placate and unify. If not, then what happens when hatred, division, and incitation overpower unity, positive liberty, and compassion?

Walt Whitman rightly believed that “America is only you and me.” Without that simple but powerful relationship, America is truly lost.

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