After Trump announced his decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu joined American evangelicals in declaring Trump a 21st century version of Persian King Cyrus, who 2,500 years earlier “proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon can come back and rebuild our temple in Jerusalem.” And no Republican president can last long without the inevitable comparison to Ronald Reagan. In Trump’s case, the task was perhaps best performed by the Rev. Robert Jeffress. Having previously accused Barack Obama of “paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist,” Jeffress explained last week that evangelicals knew that the thrice-married, serial adulterer Trump was “no altar boy.”
“The reason we supported President Reagan was not because we were supporting womanizing or divorce. We supported his policies.”
But no conservative hagiography of the current Republican president can ever be complete without the invention of parallels to the first one. (After all, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Fox News anchor Bret Baier and Dubya himself equated President George W. Bush with President Abraham Lincoln.) Within days of Donald Trump’s inauguration, The Federalist offered “5 Ways Donald Trump Is Abraham Lincoln’s True Successor.” Fellow thrice-married, serial adulterer Newt Gingrich agreed, telling Sean Hannity on July 23, “I think the person whose situation is most like President Trump's was Abraham Lincoln, adding, “Lincoln is fighting to preserve the Constitution. He's fighting to preserve the union and he's having to do a lot of different things that are very bold and in some cases very radical.” Dishonest Donald himself went a step further, boasting “Wow, highest Poll Numbers in the history of the Republican Party. That includes Honest Abe Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.”
At the head of the “45=16” pack is pardoned campaign finance fraudster Dinesh D’Souza.
But D’Souza’s paeans portraying Trump as the new Lincoln aren’t merely an expression of gratitude for the man who voided his conviction. Donald Trump plays a vital role in D’Souza’s ongoing project to whitewash history by falsely claiming Democrats were, are, and forever will be the party of slavery, the Klan, Jim Crow and racism. (That history didn’t end in 1965 when the parties’ role-reversals on civil rights began in earnest is well-documented. Despite his repeated historical bludgeonings by Princeton’s Kevin M. Kruse, D’Souza has continued to advance his bogus claims.) In D’Souza’s Bizarro World in which Democrats are still the “party of slave plantations,” Donald Trump by necessity must be the Second Coming of Abraham Lincoln:
Lincoln united his party and saved America from the Democrats for the first time. Can Trump—and we—come together and save America for the second time?
That is the premise of D’Souza’s new book and ersatz documentary, Death of a Nation. But reality, as Stephen Colbert famously told George W. Bush to his face in 2006, “has a well-known liberal bias.” Republicans are now the party of states’ rights, nullification, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and white rage. The Democrats are the party of civil rights, equal protection of the laws, Dr. King and John Lewis. In 2018, Donald Trump is the Divider, not the Uniter. And that means the shoes Trump now fills would be more likely to fit Jefferson Davis than Abraham Lincoln.
For starters, consider the xenophobia and nativism at the heart of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” appeal. His diatribes against “thugs” and Mexican “rapists and drug dealers,” his disdain for those from “shithole countries” and fondness for (obviously white) immigrants from places like Norway are just the latest updates to Nixon’s 50-year old “Southern Strategy.” In stark contrast, Abraham Lincoln had little use for the “America Firsters” of his day, the Know-Nothings. As he wrote to Joshua Speed in 1855:
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will 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 pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].
The obvious problems with the myth of Abraham Lincoln Trump hardly end there. Trump, after all, has repeatedly come to the defense of Confederate monuments and statues. In the wake of the violence triggered by white supremacists last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump tweeted that it was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” But those supposedly “beautiful” monuments were primarily erected in the early 1900s and again during the Civil Rights era precisely to glorify the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and to act as powerful symbols of white supremacy. In 1855, Lincoln proclaimed that “the slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you.” In 2017, Donald Trump defended those who would celebrate the leaders, fighting men and the cause of that “odious and detested class” by applying the “both sides do it” argument to the alt-right instigation in Charlottesville:
“You’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people – and I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally – but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats – you had a lot of bad people in the other group too… The other group didn't have a permit. So I only tell you this: there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country.”
The Great Emancipator didn’t have much patience for the “both sides do it” sham. As Lincoln reflected in September 1862:
In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.
This was a central theme of President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865. As he so eloquently put it just six weeks before his assassination, slavery was the national tragedy and the Civil War the inevitable and necessary price America had to pay for its extirpation.
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." [Emphasis mine.]
If Lincoln was quick to admonish both North and South for believing they each enjoyed God’s providence, the 16th president was also able to show understanding and compassion for those on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. Even as seven states has already seceded from the Union, Lincoln closed his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861 this way:
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it." I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
With the war nearly won four years later, Abraham Lincoln nevertheless extended the hand of brotherhood to those who sought to destroy the country he had fought so hard to preserve:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
It is inconceivable that Donald Trump could ever imagine, let alone utter, words like these. (That goes for his son Donald Jr. as well, who co-hosted the opening of D’Souza’s fictional film.) His speeches, rallies, and tweets are designed only for the consumption of his base. On July 1, Trump told Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business, “I hope the other side realizes that they better just take it easy," he said. "They better just take it easy because some of the languages, some of the words you —even some of the radical ideas, I really think they’re very bad for the country." Asked what he would do to bring the country together, Abraham Lincoln Trump responded:
" Our people are so incredible. Do you know, there's probably never been a base in the history of politics in this country like my base."
Not, at least, since Jefferson Davis’s backers in 1861.
If Trump’s base wants anything, it is to keep things the way they are. Or, rather, were. “Make American Great Again” is by definition a backward-looking worldview to a time when a white, post-war America was militarily and economically unchallenged. “Our ancestors tamed a continent,” Trump proclaimed in May, adding “We’re are not going to apologize for America.” But in the second decade of the 21st century, the United States is at a crossroads. The rise of China as a military and economic superpower, the transformation of the worldwide economy, and global challenges like climate change, international terrorism, and transnational criminal enterprises mean the United States cannot withdraw into itself. More than ever, the U.S. needs allies in Europe and the Pacific along with strong global institutions led by America. From trade policy, the withdrawals from the Paris Climate Accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the threats to NATO and North American allies, Trump is doing the reverse.
In his time, Abraham Lincoln faced even more difficult choices for a nation literally at a life-and-death crossroads. Certainly no firebrand of abolitionism, he soon understood there was simply no going back to the United States of America as it had been. As President Lincoln said in his message to Congress on December 1, 1862, just one month before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect:
The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. [Emphasis mine.]
In the Gettysburg Address in November 1863, Lincoln explained to his countrymen not just the meaning of thinking and acting anew, but of the Civil War itself. America wasn’t merely being saved, but reborn. And the definition of “American” would necessarily and rightly include the four million slaves still held in bondage by the rebels.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
(Abraham Lincoln was successful; government of the people, by the people, for the people, did not perish from the earth. It’s no wonder that Frederick Douglass said of him in 1876, “Infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.” Such words will never be spoken about Donald Trump, even if he believes Frederick Douglass is “an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.”)
If Abraham Lincoln’s project extended the notion of the American family to include black citizens, Donald Trump’s has been its restriction. His Muslim ban, draconian immigration crackdown, his wink and a nod to foes of equal rights for LGBTQ Americans, and his campaign to limit women’s reproductive rights constitute a mockery of the 14th Amendment’s guarantees that “all persons” shall enjoy due process and equal protection of the laws. Trump’s ban on transgender troops in the U.S. military and his executive order ending protections for the 700,000 immigrants brought as children (the “Dreamers”) to the United States represent promises broken by the federal government.
While Donald Trump has double-crossed tens of thousands of people for political gain, Abraham Lincoln kept his promises to a group despised by most in both the North and the South even as America’s national survival was in doubt. In August 1863, months before he used the Gettysburg Address to declare America "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," Abraham Lincoln defended his Emancipation Proclamation as inextricably linked to the preservation of the Union. Noting reports from some of his commanders that "the emancipation policy, and use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion," Lincoln reminded his critics:
"You say you will not fight to free the negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you."
Lincoln did not waiver in his commitment to a "new birth of freedom" even as he endured the darkest days of the Civil War in the summer of 1864. With Grant stalemated in front of Petersburg after the brutal fighting that spring and summer, Lincoln's re-election seemed an impossibility. But when Northern War Democrats and some in his own party were urging him to abandon the emancipation of the slaves, Lincoln was having none of it.
"I am sure you will not, on due reflection, say the promise being made must be broken at the first opportunity...As a matter of morals, could such treachery escape the curses of Heaven or any good man? As a matter of policy, to announce such a purpose would ruin the Union cause itself. All recruiting of colored men would cease and all colored men now in our service would instantly desert us. And rightfully too. Why should they give their lives for us, with our full notice of our purpose to betray them?"
Were he to return black soldiers to slavery, Lincoln declared:
"I should be damned in time and eternity."
Donald Trump would do well to heed Lincoln’s warning. So, too, would Dinesh D’Souza.
Given his mugging by the reality above, D’Souza is feebly left to assert of his “provocative analogy between Lincoln and Trump” only that “not that they’re the same people, but that they’ve fallen into the same situation.” Lincoln detested slavery because, D’Souza explains, of his belief in free labor. “As each man has one mouth to be fed, and one pair of hands to furnish food,” Lincoln said, “It was probably intended that that particular pair of hands should feed that particular mouth.” Et voila, Lincoln is a modern-day free-market Republican who hates big government and handouts for the undeserving just like … wait for it … Donald Trump. Unfortunately, President Abraham Lincoln also said this in his First Annual Message to Congress:
Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.
That view was doubtless one factor in the correspondence between Karl Marx and President Lincoln in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect on January 1, 1863.
But in the bigger picture, Lincoln dramatically expanded the scope of the government in Washington. He not only introduced the first national income tax to help pay for the war, but signed the Homestead Act in 1862. Those federal land grants to western settlers constituted one of the biggest—and most effective—handouts in American history. As Kruse put it in one his many D’Souza beat-downs:
Yes, Republicans in the 1860s *did* end slavery and promote civil rights. They also significantly expanded the federal government, built up the income tax, funded a huge system of public colleges, embraced reparations for slavery and, um, impeached an incompetent president.
Which brings up another point in the demolition of the Trump-as-Lincoln comedy. Donald Trump has, after all, threatened to arbitrarily fire cabinet officials and given aid and comfort to white supremacists all while embracing an American adversary in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As Manisha Sinha, the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, recently detailed, once before in our history the president of the United States behaved this way. He wasn’t Abraham Lincoln, but his successor Andrew Johnson. And back then, Republicans in Congress impeached him for it.
In any event, some Trump defenders will continue to peddle the jaw-droppingly ridiculous notion that Donald Trump is the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln. Some, like Dinesh D’Souza, will profit from propagating that pathetic falsehood. (Apparently, you can fool some of the people all of the time, and that’s his target market.) Mercifully, even some conservatives are red in the face over this butchery of American history for the red party. As an incredulous Rod Dreher said of D’Souza’s “right-wing porn” in the American Conservative:
What kind of crackhead do you have to be to take that seriously? I would say that Dinesh D’Souza ought to be ashamed of himself, but you can’t shame the shameless.
Now that sounds a lot like Donald Trump.
NOTE: There is a modern American president one could more plausibly argue is Abraham Lincoln’s heir.