Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

2 Visions Of America: Examining President Trump And Joe Biden's View

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two candidates contending over the future of the United States offer competing visions of its past. They refer often to history. President Trump does every time he says make America great again. Former Vice President Biden recalls less partisan times. The president defends Confederate statues, while Biden says Trump is one of the most racist presidents in modern history. The candidates revealed their differences when each spoke this year at a historic site. Trump spoke July Fourth at Mount Rushmore.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN PHILIP SOUSA'S "THE WASHINGTON POST")

INSKEEP: A band played John Philip Sousa, and the president stood before a tightly packed crowd with the mountain sculpture behind him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There could be no better place to celebrate America's independence than beneath this magnificent, incredible, majestic mountain monument to the greatest Americans who have ever lived.

INSKEEP: In the fading light, spotlights illuminated the giant stone faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: This monument will never be desecrated.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: These heroes will never be defaced.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: Their legacy will never, ever be destroyed.

JILL LEPORE: Well, the monument at Mount Rushmore is a monument that is a celebration of the greatness of the American presidency.

INSKEEP: We asked historian Jill Lepore about both speeches.

LEPORE: Trump was using this as an occasion to argue that American history is under siege, that the vision of the United States and its past that he wants his followers to believe his presidency represents is under attack by a group that he refers to kind of first as kind of the radical far left or left-wing fascists, angry mobs. And then somehow this devolves into simply liberal Democrats.

INSKEEP: Some cities and states have torn down statues of Confederate leaders who took up arms against the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: They are determined to tear down every statue, symbol and memory of our national heritage.

INSKEEP: Heritage can just mean heritage, but it's also a common euphemism for Confederate relics. Some protesters this year have also targeted statues of presidents linked with slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Make no mistake - this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence and hunger and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery and progress.

INSKEEP: Trump's defiance differs from Biden's speech at a historic site. He stepped before a small crowd and removed his mask to speak at Gettysburg, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: Thank you. I appreciate you being here on this gorgeous day in a magnificent, magnificent setting, til you think about all the lives that were lost here.

INSKEEP: A cemetery holds thousands killed on Gettysburg's green hills in 1863. It's a semicircle of white headstones.

LEPORE: So if Trump chose, you know, a monument to the American presidency, Biden chose a graveyard - right? - a prayerful place, a site of grief and loss and devastation and suffering.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: All this in a time not just of ferocious division but of widespread death, structural inequity and fear of the future.

INSKEEP: Biden used that site to warn against the cost of political division today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Instead of treating each other's party as the opposition, we treat them as the enemy. This must end. We need to revive the spirit of bipartisanship in this country, a spirit of being able to work with one another. When I say that, and I've been saying it for two years now, I'm accused of being naive. I'm told maybe that's the way things used to work, Joe, but they can't work that way anymore. Well, I'm here to tell you they can.

INSKEEP: Trump's speech also mentioned unity, but Jill Lepore says he spoke more of his followers' unity against opponents.

LEPORE: You know, Trump's speech is, frankly, quite militaristic. I mean, it actually is very hawkish in a way - in the same way that Biden's speech at Gettysburg was quite dovish. It's just that they're not talking about a U.S. foreign policy intervention. They're not hawks and doves about Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan. They're sort of hawks and doves about civil war. I mean, Trump's sort of saying bring it on and Biden saying, please, dear God, you know, let's stop this madness.

INSKEEP: Different though they are, both speeches quote the most famous line in American history. Trump spoke of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: They enshrined a divine truth that changed the world forever when they said all men are created equal.

INSKEEP: In 1863, Abraham Lincoln quoted the declaration's words when he dedicated the cemetery at Gettysburg. And at that cemetery, Joe Biden quoted Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

INSKEEP: Something important is happening in those lines. Trump refers to the nation's founding when Jefferson wrote the nation's creed of equality. Biden refers to what historians call the second founding, when Lincoln and others redefined the United States. An explicitly white republic changed itself by law to be multiracial. Today, Jill Lepore says two presidential candidates are invoking that past as America changes again.

LEPORE: Trump's speech is very kind of Old Testament. There's an angry God here. There's a lot of wrath coming upon us. And Biden's seeking out the place where Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, you know, not long before he was himself assassinated is very much of a New Testament speech about suffering and redemption.

INSKEEP: They spoke of the same country, the same history from different angles. One thing Americans decide this election season is which idea of America they most endorse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Because we will never forget that the American freedom exists for American greatness. And that's what we have, American greatness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We can end this era of division. We can end the hate and the fear. We can be what we are at our best, the United States of America. God bless you all, and may God protect our troops. Thank you. We can do this.

(CHEERING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.