For example, one C-SPAN viewer, identified as Neil, a Republican from Oregon, said that Trump “supersedes” Lincoln.
“Lincoln only freed the slaves,” he said during a call to the network Wednesday. “Yes, that’s a big thing. But what Trump is doing is far greater.”
Yet the poll question’s premise — Was Trump or Lincoln a better Republican president? — belies the underlying truth: Lincoln, elected in 1861, was the first Republican president, but experts say he would not recognize today’s GOP.
The American political system went through an extensive crisis in the 1850s, according to Christian McWhirter, a Lincoln historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. The original two-party system, composed of the Democrats and the Whigs, collapsed over the issue of American expansion westward and the role slavery would play in the territories as they became states. The breaking point, he said, was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
Three decades earlier, Congress had passed the Missouri Compromise, which maintained the balance of power between the North and South. It admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state and barred slavery in any territory north of the Southern border. The Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the legislation, allowing newly admitted states to vote on slavery themselves.
By 1856, a coalition of abolitionists, anti-slavery supporters, former Whigs and former Democrats had formed the Republican Party. Their belief was two-pronged, McWhirter said. The party embraced capitalism and the idea of the self-made man, and by preventing new slave states, slavery would gradually die out where it already existed.
“They believed what made America great was that if a person worked hard, he could rise in society,” McWhirter said. “Slavery — a huge mass of forced labor — went against that notion. It prevented the white man from getting labor jobs in the South because all those jobs went to slaves.”
That year, the party’s first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, lost to Democrat James Buchanan. Tensions escalated during the Buchanan presidency. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court held the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, and two years later, John Brown led a revolt at Harpers Ferry, then part of undivided Virginia. These events set the national stage for the Civil War and the presidential election of 1860.
Lincoln won without a single electoral vote from the South. A month later, Southern states began to secede from the Union.
“White Southerners — or white Democrats — saw the Republican Party as an abolitionist party,” McWhirter said, and although that wasn’t Lincoln’s goal at the outset of the Civil War, by 1865, the party was actively trying to dismantle slavery.
When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, he was at the peak of his power and popularity, and his party had transformed into one of freedom and opportunity.
The Lincoln Republicans viewed America as the land of labor freedom and were devoted to expanding rights, according to Harold Holzer, author and nationally recognized scholar on Lincoln and the Civil War era. For after the war, Lincoln had twin goals: extending rights to African Americans and swiftly reunifying the country by not allowing acrimony to be the guiding force of the government.
“Lincoln devoted his second term to uniting people rather than feeding red meat to a small base of people,” Holzer said. “Today, the party is more devoted to the accumulation of wealth and restrictions on voting rights."
Another obvious difference is the Lincoln-era Republican Party’s support of immigration. In his last State of the Union address, Lincoln featured a proposal to pay foreigners to come to the United States so the workforce would increase.
“Not only was he not for building walls, but he was for breaking down barriers,” Holzer said.
According to Holzer, the only thing Lincoln would recognize is the tariffs.
“Lincoln was a pro-tariff man, and Trump is sporadically in favor of tariffs as a punitive weapon,” he said, adding that tariffs were not punitive for Lincoln. Then, tariffs were the major source of income.
Since the 1860s, the cornerstones of the party ideology have dramatically changed, Holzer said.
“It was not a party of privilege or white supremacy. Those dubious honors belonged to the Democratic Party,” he said, which remained predominantly in the Southern states until the 1960s civil rights movement, when a major political realignment occurred.
One hundred years after Lincoln’s reelection, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson was elected. After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson said to top aide Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come” — an accurate prediction.
Johnson, at the time, understood that Democrats who backed the bill might be rejected by white voters in the South.
Holzer said: “For 50 years now, the solid Democrat South has slowly become the Republican South and transitioned into its new existence opposing civil rights, opportunities for African Americans and acquisition of appropriate power for African Americans.”
Six weeks before his death, Lincoln addressed a crowd outside the Capitol, prepared to begin his second term in office. The country was emerging from the worst crisis in American history — a war that had killed hundreds of thousands and divided the North and South.
He concluded the address, saying: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
In that polarized moment, Holzer said, Lincoln didn’t blame fake news and enemies of the people. He emphasized humility, talked openly about his flaws and used a brilliance of language not to punish and humiliate but to inspire.
“One president was a dreamer, and one is a bad dream,” Holzer continued. “Maybe in the television age, people prefer to be entertained than inspired, but I think Lincoln would have preferred inspiring people.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said President Trump ranked near the bottom of a 2017 survey. He was not included in that survey.