Editor’s Note: Fred Kaplan is the author of biographies of Lincoln, Dickens, Henry James, Thomas Carlyle, Gore Vidal, & Mark Twain. He’s currently working on “A Masterly Pen: a Biography of Jefferson the Writer.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
An Economist/YouGov poll conducted just before Thanksgiving found that a majority of Republicans (53%) think Donald Trump is a better president than the first Republican elected to that position, Abraham Lincoln.
I doubt that any of the 53% of Republicans who gave the nod to Trump over Lincoln did so because of what they thought or felt about Lincoln, who they might know a lot about or very little. Rather, their poll response was all about Trump and themselves. “He’s my guy, and I hope to have him for another four years,” you might imagine them saying. “When I look in a mirror, I see a man wearing the same red hat that I’m wearing.”
The poll results demonstrate one of the historical givens of American politics: facts, evidence, expert opinion, rational analysis, and historical consensus don’t matter when it comes to political preference. Perhaps they also demonstrate a given of human nature: feelings, self-image, self-interest, life-long influences, birth and parentage, group affiliation and economic and social status are all powerful forces that often determine what we think and how we vote.
Mark Twain was quite bitterly certain about this: “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.” Lincoln did his best as often as he could to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” Twain had some doubt about there being “better angels” within ourselves or anyplace else. Trump? No angels at all.
A comparison between Lincoln and Trump on matters physical or metaphysical, personal or political is illuminating. Lincoln rarely looked into a physical mirror; Trump is obsessed with self-image, with clothes, style, hair, complexion, with his own self-aggrandizement.
Lincoln had the advantage of being born poor and having had to make his own way in the world. He was the archetype of the best sort of Republican self-made man. Trump is a child of wealth who pretends he’s a master businessman, a parody of the American values associated with Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger.
And though Lincoln and Trump are both nominally Republicans, the party of 1860 and the party of 2019 have nothing in common but the name. Lincoln was pro-immigration; he favored a balanced budget; he abhorred dealmaking other than as constructive compromise; he believed that it was the job of the president to implement, not to make or to disregard, the law.
A student of American history and a lawyer by profession, he knew the Constitution by heart. He believed in and acted as if Congress was a co-equal branch of government. He knew how government worked at its best: he had been a member of Congress and his state’s legislature. Trump knows only one thing: the values of upper-class New York City real estate deals.
Lincoln believed in speaking truth to power which meant creating a cabinet of estimable rivals who spoke their minds to him. Like Trump, he was elected by a minority of the popular vote. But, once elected, he favored inclusiveness and reconciliation. No American was an enemy; every American deserved the respect and the rights of American citizenship, the appeal to reason and to the “better angels of our nature.”
Lincoln was not perfect, but his imperfection was encased in a personality that was both compassionate and kind, including to people who disagreed with him. He abhorred slavery, but not slaveholders.
As a president, he was a realistic humanist. Unlike Trump, he was never self-serving or simplistic about the complications of the human situation, both personal and political. He had a gift for the English language, from grammar to oratory. He used words to inspire and heal. There’s no record of Lincoln ever being nasty in word, gesture, or act.
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Trump’s words hurt the ears and the heart. Trump has made a career of being nasty. Lincoln would find it hard to understand how that alone would not disqualify him, independent of public policies, for the presidency.
Lincoln was a moral man in a world in which being moral meant a total commitment to truth and justice. The 47% of Republicans who thought Lincoln the better Republican president command our respect.