Published 8:00 p.m. UTC Sep 4, 2018
Newt Gingrich recently told Sean Hannity: "I think the person whose situation is the most like President Trump's was Abraham Lincoln." A poster for a new pro-Trump documentary includes a facial portrait with Lincoln’s features on one side, Trump’s on the other. And the 45th president has suggested more than once that his popularity exceeds that of the 16th: “Beating Lincoln. I beat our Honest Abe.”
These comparisons to the Great Emancipator are bizarre. Whereas Lincoln was honest and eloquent, the incumbent is, well, not those things. More important, he repudiates what Lincoln stood for.
In 1861, Lincoln said: "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." At Gettysburg, he said that the declaration dedicated the nation "to the proposition that all men are created equal."
What Trump thinks of equality
Trump’s staffers have sometimes put references to equality into his public addresses, and he has recited them with all the sincerity that he brought to his marital vows. Speaking off the cuff, he let slip his real views. "The world is not fair," he said in a 2006 video. "You know they come with this statement 'all men are created equal.' Well, it sounds beautiful, and it was written by some very wonderful people and brilliant people, but it's not true because all people and all men aren't created (equal). You have to be born and blessed with something up here (pointing to his head)."
Trump has been specific about the origins of inequality. "I'm a gene believer. ... Hey, when you connect two race horses you get usually end up with a fast horse,” he told CNN in 2010. In a 2014 documentary, he said that his ethnic pedigree had made him strong and reliable: "I'm proud to have that German blood. ... Great stuff."
More: Trump and Russia used race to divide America. Now it's a national security problem.
On racial diversity, schools should heed Obama and courts, ignore Trump scare tactic
One year after Charlottesville, Trump has normalized racism in America
Lincoln believed in a morality that transcended public opinion. In his famous debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas, he condemned Douglas for disregarding the evils of slavery. “When he invites any people, willing to have slavery, to establish it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us. ... He is, in my judgment, penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people.”
Trump’s kindred spirit would have been Douglas, not Lincoln. He shows little interest in moral questions but is obsessed with polls and ratings. After he pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, a reporter asked Trump how he’d respond to those who thought that it was the wrong thing to do. He answered: "Well, a lot of people think it was the right thing to do. ... And actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally."
American exceptionalism is not Trump's thing
Lincoln saw the United States as an exceptional nation, an example to the world. He called our country "the last best hope of earth." He closed the Gettysburg Address by stressing the global stakes of the Civil War: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Trump rejects the whole idea of American exceptionalism. "Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or if I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term," he said in 2015. "We’re exceptional; you’re not. First of all, Germany is eating our lunch. So they say, 'Why are you exceptional? We’re doing a lot better than you.' I never liked the term."
After Russian dictator Vladimir Putin published an article attacking American exceptionalism, Trump went on Fox News and stood up for ... Putin: "But other nations and other countries don't want to hear about American exceptionalism. They're insulted by it. And that's what Putin was saying."
Trump is infamous for his animosity toward immigrants. Some writers have likened him to the "Know-Nothings" of the mid-19th century, who spread conspiracy theories and said that newcomers were polluting American culture. In a letter to a friend, Lincoln damned the Know-Nothings, linking them to a country that Trump holds dear. If the Know-Nothings took over, Lincoln wrote, the Declaration would read " 'All men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
John J. Pitney Jr. is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Follow him on Twitter: @jpitney