We need to talk about duties as well as rights

For the last fortnight I’ve been doing jury service. The case I was assigned was an unpleasant one, but overall I found the experience surprisingly rewarding. My fellow jurors were an engaged, intelligent bunch. As we sat in the courtroom listening to evidence, we were reminded repeatedly that what we were doing was our ‘civic duty’.  Unquestioningly, we took it upon ourselves to fulfil that duty to the best of our collective ability. Doing so brought out the best in people and, at the end of it all, I left with a deep sense of satisfaction at a duty well done and a renewed faith in the reasonableness of my fellow citizens – notwithstanding the (guilty) man in the dock.

The trial finished on Friday afternoon and I got home just in time to switch on the telly and watch Trump’s inauguration speech. Perhaps because of where I’d just come from, I was particularly struck by the total absence of any mention of the duties of citizenship in Trump’s address.


‘Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighbourhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves,’ he intoned, unable to lift his gaze from the teleprompter even for a second. ‘These are just and reasonable demands.’

And then came the coup de grâce. ‘At the centre of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.’ It may sound innocuous compared to ‘America First’ or ‘American carnage’ but, for my money, this is the most dangerous sentence in the whole speech. It is symptomatic of an exclusively rights-based discourse and an ugly culture of entitlement, in which ideals of service and self-sacrifice have gone conspicuously missing.

There was nothing unusual per se about Trump’s invocation of nation and people. All Presidents do that. What makes Trump’s brand of populist nationalism different – and scary – is the absence of any appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature’ (to borrow a phrase from one of his more eloquent predecessors). Instead, Trump appeals deliberately and exclusively to his listeners’ basest, most narrow-minded and self-interested instincts.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most iconic inauguration speeches in American history. Trump’s is its antithesis in almost every way imaginable.

Where Kennedy was internationalist – ‘Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty’ – Trump is isolationist –  ‘For many decades … we’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.’

Where Kennedy’s rhetoric soars – ‘Now the trumpet summons us again; not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle’ – Trump’s nosedives – ‘America will start winning again, winning like never before.’

But, above all, where Kennedy stressed a patriotism that was about duty and service – ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ – Trump stresses a patriotism that is about rights and entitlements – ‘a nation exists to serve its citizens.’

I know there are many who will use the language of rights to oppose Trump – and rightly so. But we need to do more than this. We need to re-learn how to think and talk about duties too. JFK’s inaugural is as good a place as any to start.

Watch JFK’s 1961 inauguration speech (full version)

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