The real point of Trump's Gettysburg speech

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Donald Trump appears to be trying to present himself as a Lincoln for today's voters
  • The trouble for Trump is that he's not seeing how his message is playing with the broader public, Zelizer writes

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Everyone has been scratching their heads trying to make sense of Donald Trump's speech at Gettysburg on Saturday.

As has been the case so many times before, the event seemed like a million contradictions. Trump went to one of the most famous battlefields of the Civil War, a symbol to many Americans of a moment of great leadership as President Abraham Lincoln fought to heal the nation.
    People watched to see if Trump would echo those themes. But it seems he didn't see Gettysburg the same way.
    Julian Zelizer
    For him, Gettysburg appeared to be a symbol of a pugnacious leader, and of the Civil War itself. Indeed, this idea of a nation divided has been the heart of Trump's campaign since he announced his candidacy, coupled with promises that he would stop the "rapists" and "murderers" who were coming across our borders.
    Beneath all the bluster and bombast, Trump is offering Americans someone who will fight and who will keep on fighting regardless of what his opponents throw at him or what the "experts" say he should do. In fact, Trump has been running a campaign that promised to fulfill what Obama administration guru David Axelrod, wrote in The New York Times back in January.
    "Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent," Axelrod noted. "Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the department executive."
    Obama was calm, restrained, and cerebral; Trump is combative, explosive and passionate.
    And this has been the theme of the entire final month of the campaign. Trump has lashed out against a "Crooked Hillary," promising his supporters that he is fighting to prevent a criminal from taking over the American presidency. He has warned of a rigged system in which the media and political establishment are working together to prevent him from winning and skew the results toward the person who will preserve the status quo. Trump has even attacked the women who have accused him of sexual assault and harassment, warning that he will take them down as well.
    Trump appears to be trying to present himself as the Lincoln for today's voters, suggesting he is fighting their civil war. And for all the Americans who feel left behind in a society that insists on a certain kind of social and cultural pluralism, Trump really is fighting their war.
    He has promised to build walls and reject any rules and regulations that prohibit him from speaking his mind. He has warned working- and middle-class Americans that they are losing their jobs and that the country is losing its industry to dark "global forces" connected to both political parties. There are many Trump supporters who don't subscribe to these views, but this has been an overriding theme of his campaign from the start.
    This is presumably why Trump chose Gettysburg to lay out the closing argument of his campaign -- not with a view to healing the divisive atmosphere that has emerged, but to continue the fight.
    The problem is that for more and more Americans, Trump sounds more like Robert E. Lee than Abraham Lincoln. While the 2016 electorate clearly is receptive to someone who will take on the status quo, there has been very serious pushback against a candidate who has been closely associated during this campaign with dangerous, reactionary and extremist elements.
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    Too many times, Trump has used sexist and nativist rhetoric when speaking before the cameras. Too often he has invoked (perhaps unintentionally, but we simply don't know) rhetoric that is usually associated with anti-Semitic political discourse. Too often, Trump has resisted disassociating himself and his supporters from the so-called "Alt-Right," which has been extraordinarily enthusiastic about his candidacy.
    So when Trump stepped in front of the microphones at Gettysburg, much of the media got the intended symbolism of the moment all wrong.
    The trouble for Trump, and his campaign, is that he is not really seeing how this entire message is playing with the broader public. With one new ABC poll showing that Clinton has a stunning 12-point lead, and with most polls confirming that Trump losing in a large number of battleground states while turning traditionally red states like Arizona into competitive territory, it is hard to see this as a winning political strategy.
    All this raises several important and related questions about America's future: If Trump loses, how powerful are the forces within the GOP that propelled him this far? Would a loss signal to the nation, and specifically to Republicans, that his issues are not the ones that a majority of Americans want anyone to fight for?
    Or is it possible that someone with a little more polish and a little more restraint can take this strategy all the way to the White House in the coming years?