Photograph by Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images
GETTYSBURG, Pa. — There’s a lot of America to see here, even at night, as we roll south toward two political conventions, both of which will be held in the states of the old Confederacy, and one of which will meet for the purpose of renominating a black man, which probably will shake the shadows.
A red, hot sliver of a moon had slipped behind the ridges, and night completely enfolded the landscape. Standing on the old battlefield here at midnight, in the dark with the fog starting to roll in around the rail fences and the monuments scattered in the field that loomed shadowy all around, this is an interesting activity for anyone with an active imagination. I stood for a long time under the statue of General John Buford, the old horse cavalryman who got here first on that weekend in July almost a 150 years ago, the man who surveyed the hills and the long, sloping ridges of this place and thought to himself, This is a place to put an army; this is a place to fight a battle. So he and his men stood right here, stacking up the Confederates for long hours on that first day, hanging on until infantry support arrived. (The infantry was led by General John Reynolds, the Pennsylvanian who would be killed during the initial engagement. His statue is behind Buford’s, black and looming in the night.) By the end of it, even having had to abandon the town, the Union line had formed its “fish hook” on the high ground south of where I was standing until, eventually, out of high hubris or molten ambition, Robert E. Lee threw his army at it on the third day and watched it smash itself into a bloody spray like waves against rocks. All of that happened here, somewhere out there in the dark and the mist, the gray marble statues now moving like ghosts whenever the lights of a car come pouring down Route 30.
The trip through Pennsylvania and Virginia along Route 81 is a sojourn down a long strip of heavily memorialized scar tissue. You pass not far from Antietam and Harper’s Ferry. You go directly through Winchester, which changed hands more than practically any other town in the war, the place that Phil Sheridan finally used it as a base from which he could burn the Shenandoah Valley down. You get to see all of this because a guy who retired to live just down Route 30 from Buford’s statue, a former general from another war named Dwight Eisenhower, decided that America needed to buy itself an interstate highway system, and that’s what he had the country do, because it was one country and that’s what it needed.
But at midnight, with everything in shadows and fog, on a night suddenly gone moonless, this is a good place to count the cost of the argument that comes from the other direction. In this campaign, for the very first time in my lifetime, in a dozen different ways, we are re-litigating in an election the issues that were decided in these shrouded hills. It began with Rick Perry, talking about secession and not laughing at all about it. It continued with Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, the latter of which has gotten rich writing meretricious potboilers about the events that took place in these fields, talking quite proudly about their devotion to state sovereignty and the 10th Amendment. (And you fans of his make no mistake about it. Crazy Uncle Liberty Ron Paul — ! — would have been rooting the other way here 150 years ago.) This impassioned rhetoric, and the deeply held belief in a philosophy so steeped in blood and disunion, has its present manifestation in the fact that the Republican ticket is committed to the notion that there simply is no such thing as a political commonwealth. We are a universe of individual entrepreneurs, revolving in our own orbits, our every success a small bit of revolution against the dead hand of The Government, a fundamental disavowal of the basic fact that The Government is, in fact, us. Of all the obtuse denialism that is marbled through Republican politics these days — denial of science, denial of the empirical, denial of simple economics — this is the denialism that has the longest and most poisonous history.
American conservatism has been playing footsie with polite sedition for going on four decades now. In the south, prominent politicians enjoyed the company of the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens until Trent Lott got caught enjoying it too much one night and (very briefly) had to leave the U.S. Senate. Republican congresscritters regularly showed up at meeting of the various militia movements out west. The Republican Party is shot through now with an impulse to disunion that is almost an autonomic reflex at this point. Every solution they can offer has behind it the iron certainty that we are better off as individuals, that the nation best operates as a simple, loose framework within which those individuals can operate, and not as something we create together so that our individual achievements can be rooted in something greater than ourselves. Somewhere out there in the dark, far beyond Buford’s statue, Abraham Lincoln came to this town, the blood still staining the rocks of the Devil’s Den and the long fields over which Pickett charged, and he tried to make that point to a country engaged in the solemn act of disemboweling itself with musket balls and grapeshot. This is what he said:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Over three days next week, the Republican party, because it can do nothing else anymore, will rise as one in rebuttal. Tuesday night is going to be We Built This night, as though poor old Ike and his highways had nothing to do with your ability to get your widgets to market. They will talk about “freedom” a lot, but not in the sense that Lincoln spoke about it here — as something protected by the willed act of a people to govern themselves. As I said, the old battlefield is an interesting place to be at midnight, with the moon gone down behind the hills and the fog rolling in and the imagination active and roaming through the dark and echoing fields. This, you think, is a place to put an army. This, you think, is a ground to fight on.