By Andrew Feinberg
President Teddy Roosevelt put a portrait of Lincoln in the oval office and, when confronted with a problem, would ask, “What would Lincoln do?”
Today, the answer, I’m afraid, would be roll over in his grave. There are ten reasons for this and only some contain the words Donald Trump.
1. Donald Trump—In Lincoln’s day, the best people often ran for office. Today, well, maybe not. Being a lying, narcissistic, racist, misogynistic know-nothing does not seem to be an impediment to seeking the highest office in the land. Not yet, anyway. If the sixteenth president heard Trump say he was proud to belong to the party of Lincoln, he would wonder if his name had become a joke while he was away.
2. The new social civil war—Lincoln would be thrilled that we elected a black president but dismayed this milestone has enraged and emboldened racists. When Fox News ran an online story about Malia Obama deciding to attend Harvard, the piece drew so many racist responses—some with full names attached—that Fox had to shut down its Comments section.
3. Voter cynicism—In Lincoln’s day, citizens were passionate about politics. They flocked to political speeches as if they were sporting events. In 1860, the year Lincoln was first elected president, 81.2% of eligible voters cast ballots. In 2012, the number was a pathetic 57.5%. Lincoln considered politics a noble pursuit and he would be horrified to find that only 11% of Americans hold a favorable view of Congress.
4. The Internet—Lincoln would love the Internet—in theory. After all, it could spread detailed knowledge to every corner of the nation and create a more enlightened electorate. In theory. Alas, Lincoln would find it has become a wondrous mechanism for spreading lies. It has Balkanized the country at least as much as it has informed it.
5. Science denial—Lincoln was extraordinarily rational and curious. The only president to receive a patent, he signed legislation creating the National Academy of Sciences in 1863. If he came back and learned that, as the French ambassador to the U.S. put it, the only group of people in the world who do not believe in human-caused climate change are the Republicans in the U.S. Congress, he would not be amused.
6. Income inequality—Lincoln believed in a strong and growing middle class. He hated slavery partly because he believed it depressed wages for the average worker. He was a capitalist, but a somewhat unusual one by today’s standards. “Labor is the superior of capital,” he declared. If he learned that real wages for the middle-class had been falling in recent decades and that CEOs now out-earned the average employees in their companies by over 300 to one, he would be heartsick.
7. Crumbling infrastructure—Both the left and right agree that we have “third world” infrastructure. Lincoln wouldn’t know what “third world” meant—unless he landed at LaGuardia—but he would recognize underspending when he saw it. From his days as a state legislator in Illinois, he was passionate about government spending on “internal improvements,” as infrastructure was known back then.
8. Political purity—An irony of history is that Lincoln—the Great Emancipator—spent much of his political life battling abolitionists. He thought abolishing slavery was unconstitutional and believed that whites would never support a war whose primary objective was to end slavery. (The Emancipation Proclamation was permissible because it was enacted as a wartime measure.) Seldom an absolutist, Lincoln said the issue with a law “was not whether it has any evil in it; but whether it has more of evil than of good.” Our current inability to reach compromise solutions would dismay him.
9. Return of nativism—Donald Trump is stirring up, and profiting from, anti-immigrant feelings—much as the Know-Nothing party did in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Lincoln, who saw America as a haven of opportunity for everyone, would deplore such prejudice and might remind us that many male immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s joined the army and helped preserve the union.
10. Belief in government incompetence—Lincoln thought part of the federal government’s job was to do things for people they could not do themselves. He was an activist president. Under his leadership, the government established land-grant colleges (the forerunners of today’s great state universities) and passed the Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres of federal land for a small filing fee. He knew from experience that government could do some things more effectively than the private sector. But times were different then. Oh, were they different.
Andrew Feinberg is the author of Four Score and Seven, a novel that imagines that Abe Lincoln comes back to life for two weeks during the 2016 campaign and encounters a candidate who resembles Donald Trump. Learn more about the book and author at www.MissingLincoln.com.
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Cover Photo Credit: Jennifer Morrow/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)