Trump: a house divided against itself cannot stand

November 10, 2016

In 1858, in accepting the party’s nomination as candidate for the Senate, Abraham Lincoln told the Illinois Republican Convention, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This was a reference to a country deeply divided over the question of slavery. It took a bloody civil war to heal that divide, but eventually, Lincoln’s efforts succeeded in bringing the country back together again.

The presidential election brings to mind this image of a house divided. A house that Mr Trump has set on fire. His victory reveals just how deeply the US is divided along racial and economic lines. It also shows how much the political elite has become alienated from ordinary people who are insecure about their future and anxious about their children’s future.

News of the victory of the politically inexperienced Trump over the tried and tested Clinton was a bombshell in Europe as well. People are justifiably concerned about Trump’s foreign policy. Little is known about what he plans to do, but his campaign rhetoric is not very promising. He has alluded to using nuclear weapons; he wouldn’t mind if Japan and South Korea obtained nuclear weapons; he would not consider an attack on a European NATO country as an attack on the United States; he wants to improve relations with Vladimir Putin and cooperate with Bashar al-Assad in combating ISIS; he wants to bomb ISIS to smithereens; he wants to get out of the Paris climate treaty and the nuclear deal with Iran; he says he likes war.

Of course, we shouldn’t confuse candidate Trump’s rhetoric with President Trump’s policy. But the signs are ominous. The somewhat reserved congratulations on his victory hardly conceal the anxiousness among US allies. And sympathetic reactions are coming in from Moscow and Damascus.

European trembling in reaction to Trump’s victory is actually caused by something else.  Mr Trump has connected with an existing undercurrent of dissatisfaction and insecurity, a sentiment found not only in the US but also in Europe. A number of elections are coming in 2017, here in the Netherlands, as well as in Germany and France. What else is going to happen? And will Europe also become a house divided against itself?

Populist parties see in Trump’s victory proof that they can attract voters by sowing fear, division and hatred. The policial elite has yet to find an adequate answer to this phenomenon. Established parties, just 5 months after Brexit, have been once again been stunned by an election outcome. They are reacting for the most part fearfully.

Mr Trump may be convinced that sowing fear and division paid off with an election victory and will smooth the way for a great America. But that is an illusion. Lincoln was right – a house divided against itself will not stand. A society divided against itself will desintegrate.

It is striking that German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Mr. Trump by listing the values she finds must form the basis for international cooperation, with the US as well. And she’s right. The immense challenges on climate, war, poverty, inequality, refugees and migrants require a foreign policy driven by values; policy based on human dignity instead of blind self-interest; a policy which brings together rather than divides; a policy which builds bridges rather than walls.

Bringing about such a values-driven foreign policy is of course primarily the task of an elected government. However, without support from the people, nothing will get off the ground. A values-driven policy begins, after all, with a society that refuses to live in a divided house any longer; a society in which people seek out linkages; a society which appeals to its political leaders to be open, to overcome division and seek cooperation in order to tackle the immense challenges of our time, both domestic and global. And naturally political leaders need to listen and formulate solutions for all the people anxiously questioning what the future has in store for them.

Trump’s election is a wake-up call for everyone who understands that a house divided cannot stand. And who doesn’t understand that? But watch out: it is not just the politicians who must assume their responsibility in order to overcome division – society must do so as well. That is where civil society organizations such as PAX can also contribute.

Lincoln called for overcoming the internal divisions in the American house. Although it took a civil war which cost 620,000 people their lives, including that of Lincoln himself, his argument eventually won the day: “We shall not fail – if we stand firm, we shall not fail.” Overcoming division is necessary once again. In the US, but also in Europe and in the Netherlands. It is possible, even without bloodshed: but only if everyone, on all sides of the dividing lines, truly want it.

Get involved with our peace work.
Subscribe to the PAX Action Alert.