Trump’s grandiosity often betrays a bitter and pathetic undercurrent of self-pity. Usually, he plays his victimization as a crowd-pleaser at his rallies, appealing to the shared sense of persecution at the hands of assorted demonic elites, the “lamestream media” and the “deep state.” Lincoln occupies an awkward place in this paranoid firmament.
Trump knows that Lincoln is considered “great.” That has always been a besetting problem. Trump explained that his appearance at the Lincoln Memorial was unique, making it truly “great,” and that the “beautiful set” overshadowed Lincoln, who he conceded was still “great,” though for reasons that went unmentioned. “I don’t think it’s ever been done, what we’re doing tonight, here,” Trump said, “and I think it’s great for the American people to see, this is a great work of art, aside from the fact that that was a great man, this is a great work of art.”
But as “great” as Lincoln might have been, Trump, with his martyr envy, has felt a compulsion to diminish him whenever he raises his name. Even murdered, Lincoln was treated better than Trump. Again, Trump wins.
“I’ve always said I can be more presidential than any president in history except for Honest Abe Lincoln, when he’s wearing the hat,” Trump said, free-associating last year at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. “That’s tough, that’s tough. That was tough to beat.” Trump has expressed his idolatry of Robert E. Lee (“Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals”), appreciating both Lee’s towering monument in Charlottesville (“the beauty”) and its white nationalist defenders (“very fine people”). “So, Robert E. Lee was a great general and Abraham Lincoln developed a phobia, he couldn’t beat Robert E. Lee,” Trump told a rally in 2018, adding that Lincoln was “going crazy,” until somehow he discovered Ulysses S. Grant, “and Lincoln said, ‘I don’t care if he’s an alcoholic, frankly, give me six or seven more just like him.’”
Such is the history of the Civil War according to Trump.
Trump has claimed that his poll numbers are higher than Lincoln’s. “Wow, highest Poll Numbers in the history of the Republican Party,” he tweeted. “That includes Honest Abe Lincoln.” There were no polls in the 1860s. But on his 2019 visit to Britain, Trump told the Sun tabloid: “You know, a poll just came out that I am the most popular person in the history of the Republican Party. Beating Lincoln. I beat our Honest Abe.” Trump’s self-celebration has had a persuasive effect on present-day Republicans, who, according to an Economist-YouGov poll that appeared after Trump’s projection, favored Trump over Lincoln 53 percent to 47 percent. Trump told a rally in Dallas, “Here deep in the heart of Texas,” where he believed he was invincible, “Abraham Lincoln could not win Texas. … Honest Abe, couldn’t do it.” Unlike Trump, Lincoln did lose Texas. The state did not allow his name on the ballot and then seceded. Trump was right: Lincoln’s a loser in Texas.
Lincoln’s predecessor James Buchanan might provide the better analog for today. In manner and experience, Buchanan was Trump’s opposite — dignified, polite, abhorring vulgarity. But his White House was a hive of treason, with his trusted Southern cabinet members plotting secession. Confronted with catastrophe, Buchanan blamed the crisis on antislavery “agitation” and declared that neither the president nor the Congress possessed the constitutional authority to oppose the dissolution of the Union.
Trump, echoing Buchanan, similarly abdicates his responsibility in the face of the pandemic. Effectively cutting the states loose, he stated that the federal government is a mere “backup,” infamously declaring, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” While Buchanan’s passivity was feckless, Trump’s is both feckless and cynical. After a lengthy period of inaction, denying the science of the contagious plague, Trump has left the states to fend largely for themselves; in jacked-up markets they madly pursue the necessary masks, personal protective equipment, ventilators and other medical supplies. He has threatened governors of large Northern states that if they do not follow his policies on matters such as immigration he will withhold aid, the same sort of crude blackmailing he tried with the president of Ukraine. “We’d want certain things, also,” he said. In the meantime, Trump has blocked comprehensive national testing, advocated quack remedies, fired and squelched public health officers, refused to authorize the full use of the Defense Production Act and prevented oversight by an inspector general and the Congress to avert corruption. He has substituted incitement to subvert his own federal guidelines and state policies on public health safety with his demagogic encouragement of gun-toting white nationalist demonstrators carrying Confederate flags and anti-Semitic placards. Trump called them “very good people.” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” he tweeted. In another: “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” Yet another: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA.”
“How long, in the government of a God, great enough to make and maintain this Universe, shall there continue knaves to vend, and fools to gulp, so low a piece of demagougeism as this.” So said Lincoln in 1859, arguing against the view that the federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the territories. Federal power, to Lincoln, was never “a backup.” The purpose of the war, he explained in 1864, was “restoring the national authority over the whole national domain.” To that end, he devised every instrument of national mobilization he could to overcome the crisis.
Lincoln summoned into existence virtually from scratch the largest army in the world. He fired incompetent and corrupt officials and replaced them with efficient and honest men such as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs to construct the largest supply chains ever. He nationalized the railroads and the telegraph. He imposed an income tax and built a system of modern financing. He signed “An Act to Encourage Immigration,” which he stated was a “source of national wealth and strength.” He created the Department of Agriculture to foster scientific farming and husbandry — and the land grant colleges. He sponsored the Transcontinental Railroad to the Pacific. He authorized the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the first public health service, a public-private partnership as we would call it today, enlisting the skills of doctors and nurses, and building hospitals. He passed the Homestead Act, providing land to western settlers. And he signed the Emancipation Proclamation and engineered enactment of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the greatest elimination of a category of private property in human history.
Lincoln traced the emergence of the idea enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” the foundation of his political philosophy, to the early diffusion of scientific progress. He was the only president to hold a patent for an invention — a method of lifting boats through locks. Though he did not read Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” he read journal articles about it and was convinced of the validity of evolution. Lincoln, the lawyer, believed above all in facts and evidence. In his first great speech, which brought him out of his political wilderness in 1854, against the extension of slavery into the territories opened by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he said, “Let the facts be the answer to the argument.”
Lincoln’s intense quest for knowledge, his insistence on hard facts and evidence, his respect for science and the scientific method, and his inquisitiveness about how things really worked never faltered. The patent lawyer and the great war leader were one and the same. The man of scientific advancement was responsible for a great leap in the industrial revolution and in technological innovation.
Lincoln chartered the National Academy of Sciences. Throughout the war, he frequently sought the advice of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the nation’s leading scientific center. By May of 1862, Lincoln had built the telegraph office inside the War Department next to the White House and commissioned the U.S. Telegraph Service. It was the first Situation Room and the first branch of the U.S. government based on electronics. Lincoln personally approved the most significant projects down to test firing repeating rifles that would prove decisive on the Gettysburg battlefield, in effect acting as the chief of ordnance. Lincoln’s most fateful intervention into the development of technology with the most far-reaching consequences was his personal approval of the invention of a new type of warship, the Monitor ironclad, which required construction of a novel system of mass production of its prototype. Lincoln maintained oversight of the process that helped spur a new phase of the industrial revolution and laid the basis of the explosive growth in manufacturing that would make the United States into the world leader.
Lincoln, of course, did more than all that. He gave moral purpose to the cause of the nation, elevated by his call to the “better angels of our nature,” and led a people bowed in mourning.
In his curious efforts to measure himself to Lincoln’s greatness, Trump has spoken at the Lincoln Memorial three times. On the eve of his inauguration, at a concert there, he declared, “This hasn’t been done before” and carped about critics of his election, “They didn’t want to give us credit.” (Many presidents, in fact, have appeared at the Lincoln Memorial, including at concerts.) On the Fourth of July last year, Trump recounted that the Continental Army “took over the airports” from the British. On his most recent visit, he placed himself above Lincoln by virtue of his “worse” treatment. “I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no president has ever seen,” he said. “The closest would be that gentleman right up there.” Close, but second. Trump finished first.
Inside the Lincoln Memorial, on the wall beside the statue, are engraved the brief words of the Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of the cemetery there, if Trump could grasp them, now with the edge of a prescient rebuke, that through the greatest American sacrifice the nation “shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth."