Filmmaker Ken Burns Urges Stanford Graduates to Defeat Trump & the Retrograde Forces Threatening the U.S.

This time of year, we see grad­u­a­tion speech­es pop­ping up all over the web. The com­mence­ment address as a genre focus­es on the oppor­tu­ni­ties, chal­lenges, and respon­si­bil­i­ties grad­u­ates will face post-col­lege, and often espous­es time­less life lessons and philoso­phies. But this year, as you may have seen, esteemed doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er Ken Burns took the oppor­tu­ni­ty of his grad­u­a­tion speech, pre­sent­ed to the 2016 class at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, to address the timeli­est of issues: the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and the threat of “an incip­i­ent pro­to-fas­cism.” The grad­u­a­tion just hap­pened to fall on the same day as the dead­liest mass-shoot­ing in recent Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

Vot­ers are angry at the sys­tem, we’re told again and again, and frankly the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of us have every rea­son to be. But anger can be intox­i­cat­ing, and the seg­ment of the elec­torate that car­ried Don­ald Trump to pow­er seems drunk with rage and hos­til­i­ty. The promise of Trump­ism puts me in mind of his­to­ri­an and crit­ic Richard Slotkin’s clas­sic study of U.S. mythol­o­gy, Regen­er­a­tion Through Vio­lence, which describes the nation’s com­pul­sion to purge the coun­try of threat­en­ing oth­ers in order to restore some myth of lost inno­cence. “I will give you every­thing, I’m the only one,” the can­di­date vows, while scape­goat­ing group after group for the coun­try’s prob­lems.

In his Stan­ford com­mence­ment speech on Sun­day, Burns decried “the dic­ta­to­r­i­al ten­den­cies of the can­di­date with zero expe­ri­ence in the much maligned but sub­tle art of gov­er­nance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for any­thing, offer­ing only bom­bas­tic and con­tra­dic­to­ry promis­es and ter­ri­fy­ing Orwellian state­ments.” The Repub­li­can can­di­date for pres­i­dent is “a per­son,” Burns said in his impas­sioned speech, “who eas­i­ly lies, cre­at­ing an envi­ron­ment where truth doesn’t seem to mat­ter.”

As a stu­dent of his­to­ry, I rec­og­nize this type. He emerges every­where and in all eras. We see nur­tured in his cam­paign an incip­i­ent pro­to-fas­cism, a nativist anti-immi­grant Know Noth­ing-ism, a dis­re­spect for the judi­cia­ry, the prospect of women los­ing author­i­ty over their own bod­ies, African-Amer­i­cans again asked to go to the back of the line, vot­er sup­pres­sion glee­ful­ly pro­mot­ed, jin­go­is­tic saber-rat­tling, a total lack of his­tor­i­cal aware­ness, a polit­i­cal para­noia that, pre­dictably, points fin­gers, always mak­ing the oth­er wrong. These are all vir­u­lent strains that have at times infect­ed us in the past. But they now loom in front of us again — all hap­pen­ing at once. We know from our his­to­ry books that these are the dis­eases of ancient and now fall­en empires. The sense of com­mon­wealth, of shared sac­ri­fice, of trust, so much a part of Amer­i­can life, is erod­ing fast, spurred along and ampli­fied by an amoral inter­net that per­mits a lie to cir­cle the globe three times before the truth can get start­ed.

We no longer have the lux­u­ry of neu­tral­i­ty or “bal­ance,” or even of bemused dis­dain. Many of our media insti­tu­tions have large­ly failed to expose this char­la­tan, torn between a nag­ging respon­si­bil­i­ty to good jour­nal­ism and the big rat­ings a media cir­cus always deliv­ers. In fact, they have giv­en him the abun­dant air­time he so des­per­ate­ly craves, so much so that it has actu­al­ly worn down our nat­ur­al human revul­sion to this kind of behav­ior. Hey, he’s rich; he must be doing some­thing right. He is not. Edward R. Mur­row would have exposed this naked emper­or months ago. He is an insult to our his­to­ry. Do not be deceived by his momen­tary “good behav­ior.” It is only a spoiled, mis­be­hav­ing child hop­ing some­how to still have dessert.

And do not think that the tragedy in Orlan­do under­scores his points. It does not. We must “dis­en­thrall our­selves,” as Abra­ham Lin­coln said, from the cul­ture of vio­lence and guns. And then “we shall save our coun­try.”

The words of Lin­coln that Burns quotes come from the president’s annu­al remarks to con­gress in 1862, in which Lin­coln made the case for the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion, one month before sign­ing it. (A doc­u­ment, iron­i­cal­ly, that Slotkin says “rad­i­cal­ly expand­ed the exist­ing pow­ers of the pres­i­den­cy” in its pur­suit of a just cause.) In his address, Lin­coln makes a force­ful moral argu­ment, all the more elo­quent for its char­ac­ter­is­tic brevi­ty.

Fel­low-cit­i­zens, we can­not escape his­to­ry. We of this Con­gress and this admin­is­tra­tion, will be remem­bered in spite of our­selves. No per­son­al sig­nif­i­cance, or insignif­i­cance, can spare one or anoth­er of us.

Like­wise, Burns—addressing future lead­ers at an elite institution—makes his case for heed­ing the lessons of his­to­ry, con­sid­er­ing pos­ter­i­ty, and reject­ing Trump, inde­pen­dent of par­ti­san inter­ests: “This is not a lib­er­al or con­ser­v­a­tive issue, a red state-blue state divide. This is an Amer­i­can issue.” He also implores “those ‘Vichy Repub­li­cans’ who have endorsed him to please, please recon­sid­er.” The hor­rif­ic mass mur­der in Orlan­do has fur­ther inflamed what Burns calls “the trou­bling, unfil­tered Tourette’s of [Trump’s] tribalism”—with renewed calls for bans on all Mus­lims, more inflam­ma­to­ry insin­u­a­tions that the pres­i­dent col­ludes with ter­ror­ists, and bizarre alle­ga­tions that a Clin­ton aide is a Sau­di agent.

Trump did not invent this rhetoric of big­otry, con­spir­a­cy, and para­noia, but he has manip­u­lat­ed and exploit­ed it more effec­tive­ly than any­one else, to poten­tial­ly dis­as­trous effect. “The next few months of your ‘com­mence­ment,’ ” Burns says, “that is to say, your future, will be crit­i­cal to the sur­vival of our repub­lic.” He urges the grad­u­at­ing Stan­ford class to take action: “before you do any­thing with your well-earned degree, you must do every­thing you can to defeat the ret­ro­grade forces that have invad­ed our demo­c­ra­t­ic process.” Those process­es may already be deeply com­pro­mised by mon­eyed inter­ests, but destroy­ing the edi­fice on which they’re built, Burns sug­gests, will hard­ly restore any sup­pos­ed­ly lost “great­ness.” Watch Burns’ full com­mence­ment speech above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ken Burns on the Art of Sto­ry­telling: “It’s Lying Twen­ty-Four Times a Sec­ond”

Noam Chom­sky on Whether the Rise of Trump Resem­bles the Rise of Fas­cism in 1930s Ger­many

Prince­ton His­to­ri­an Sean Wilentz on How Trump May Change (If Not Destroy) the GOP

J.K. Rowl­ing Defends Don­ald Trump’s Right to Be “Offen­sive and Big­ot­ed”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Spiro Ilo says:

    I’m real­ly sor­ry to see that you changed from a nice cul­tur­al web­site that i fol­lowed with plea­sure for years, to anoth­er stu­pid left-wing vuvuzela.Good luck with that but not with me any­more on board. 28 years under a real com­mu­nist regime made me real­ly aller­gic to this left­ies can­dies.

  • Josh Jones says:

    I guess the Nation­al Review is also a “left-wing vuvuzela”? This can­di­date’s own par­ty fears and dis­likes him. He is a dan­ger­ous, unsta­ble per­son with total­i­tar­i­an ten­den­cies. Loads of peo­ple on the right have said just as much and con­tin­ue to say it.

  • Gerald Westerby says:

    I am no Trump fan, but I have to laugh at the hypocrisy of the left. Mr. Burns decries the Repub­li­can can­di­date as one “who eas­i­ly lies, cre­at­ing an envi­ron­ment where truth doesn’t seem to mat­ter.” Do you think, Mr. Burns, that your state­ment might also apply to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date (think Beng­hazi, breach­es of U.S. secu­ri­ty pro­to­col regard­ing elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tions, etc.)?

    For those who bemoan the vot­er anger that man­i­fest­ed itself in a Trump, recall that such dis­sat­is­fac­tion arose dur­ing eight years under the Admin­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent “Hope and Change”.

  • Randy says:

    There are more than two par­ties. The scum cur­rent­ly lead­ing the two major ones should not be reward­ed.

  • Jonathan Collins says:

    What a coura­geous stand! Instead of try­ing to give a real, wel­come speech to grad­u­ates going proud­ly into the world, Ken Burns uses his time to politic for Hillary Clin­ton, who if you lis­ten to him, is as pure as the dri­ven snow! Amaz­ing that with­in a day, a ter­ror­ist attack on Aner­i­can soil claimed 50 lives, but we are sup­posed to beware of Don­ald Trump. I’ll hold my breath and wait for Ken Burns to give a speech denounc­ing rad­i­cal Islam­ic ter­ror­ists.

  • Spiro Ilo says:

    I like your prophet­ic tone. I humbly dis­cuss always about the past and how is it affect­ing the present, nev­er dar­ing to guess about the future events, so i’ll stop here. But sin­cere­ly and again, thanks for all the intel­lec­tu­al plea­sure that you gave me for all this years. I’m just aller­gic to left­ist crap and i did­n’t expect to find it here. But still, it’s your right (or left) bro. Good luck with it.

  • Pensans says:

    Speak­ers at a grad­u­a­tion event should not indulge in par­ti­san pol­i­tics. Trump vot­ers think that the Amer­i­can left does not have any tol­er­ance for those views and val­ues dif­fer­ing for their own.

    Burns proved it with his inap­pro­pri­ate and dis­cour­te­ous speech.

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