Differences between Lincoln and Trump are stark
While Joseph Biden chimes in from a studio in his basement, President Trump has the biggest bully pulpit in the world, including the ability to stage a town hall in the lustrous shadow of the Lincoln Memorial — an effective display of political theater that reminded a weary nation coming out of quarantine that the presidency of the United States still possesses immense power and historical prestige.
Nevertheless, the personal differences between Lincoln and Trump are stark. These differences should not be overlooked because Mr. Trump and his team of advisers had an idea to co-opt a national symbol on live television. The differences matter because they reflect the course of action our country has taken during the pandemic, one of its most trying episodes since the Civil War.
For starters, Lincoln was raised in rural poverty — first at Knob Creek Farm in Kentucky and then in Little Pigeon Creek in Indiana. Trump was born in Queens, New York, the fourth of five children of Frederick C. and Mary MacLeod Trump. He idolized his wealthy real estate developing father and followed dutifully in his footsteps. No one knows for sure how much Fred Trump aided his son’s early career, but that he offered him a silver spoon there is no doubt.
Rather than pride, Lincoln felt shame and embarrassment toward his kin. Historian Steven Oates has captured this dynamic well in his marvelous biography, “With Malice Towards None.” Oates writes, “Lincoln had considerable hostility — all mixed up with love, rivalry, and ambition — for his father’s intellectual limitations.” In later years Lincoln remarked that his father “never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his name.”
Self-taught, no stranger to hard labor, a voracious lover of books — especially the works of Shakespeare — the young rail-splitter with nothing eventually worked his way to mastering the science of law and earning a partnership in a successful practice. As a highly sought-after attorney in Illinois, he was meticulous, passionate and brilliantly persuasive. In both law and politics, Lincoln strove to be great because he believed that someone who works hard is entitled to the fruit of their labor — a principle that he carried with him to the White House in 1860, and fought gallantly to extend to those in bondage, in the North and South.
What is more, Lincoln served in the Black Hawk War and led other soldiers in a combat scenario on at least one occasion. Trump dodged the Vietnam draft and has made a mockery out of the military by degrading prisoners of war, gold-star families, vital relationships with allies and the health care rights of veterans. Whereas Lincoln was never afraid to call out tyranny and oppression whenever and wherever he encountered it, Trump has routinely praised foreign dictators and made allegiances with governments opposed to human rights.
Unsurprisingly, they formed quite different cabinets. Lincoln desired contrasting opinions and open debate. He wanted to be surrounded by former political rivals such as Edward Stanton, Salmon Chase and William Steward because he did not believe that one man could solve every problem. As he put it, “Nearly all men can withstand adversity; the real test of a man’s character is when you give him power.”
In this regard, Trump could not be more different than his predecessor. Rather than open debate, Mr. Trump has a narcissistic compulsion to be perceived as a genius in all matters. As a result, he has surrounded himself with a cadre of sycophants who are utterly afraid of contradicting their supreme boss. The only measure of success for Trump is power. That is why he wanted to be POTUS in the first place.
Most importantly, Lincoln was a man of honesty and warm humor. He had an innate understanding of working people, a deep and everlasting conviction to uphold the vision of the Declaration of Independence, and a rare form of humanitarianism that left its indelible mark on the history of liberty all over the world. He was a real Republican because he believed in the unconquerable strength of a house undivided. As a pragmatic, yet staunch and unwavering unionist, it was his undying mission to preserve it from all enemies, imposters and traitors, which he did faithfully,
How far has Mr. Trump ventured from that noble oath? And why wasn’t that question asked in the town hall?
George Cassidy Payne lives in Rochester and is an instructor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Finger Lakes Community College. He has a master’s degree in the liberal arts from Emory University.