The irony of the Republican establishment, denouncing the egotism and vulgarity of Donald Trump, is that the Republicans’ most famous and revered President, Mr. Lincoln, was the most base, vulgar, egotistical, and criminal occupant of high office in the history of our perpetually strange political culture.
He never hesitated to tell a coarse or even outright nasty story, if it served his purpose. All his personal friends could bear testimony on this point. It was a notorious fact that this fondness for low talk clung to him even in the White House. More than once I heard him “with malice and aforethought” get off purposely some repulsive fiction in order to rid himself of an uncomfortable caller. Again and again I felt disgust and humiliation that such a person should have been called upon to direct the destinies of a great nation…(Henry Villard quoted)
As late as 1864, George Templeton Strong protested “I do wish Abraham would tell fewer dirty stories.”
Ward Lamon explained it this way. “His humor was not of a delicate quality; it was chiefly exercised in hearing and telling stories of the grosser sort. In this tendency he was restrained by no presence and no occasion.
West Virginia’s Sherrard Clemens [a unionist] described the Illinoisian as…”vain, weak, puerile, hypocritical, without manners…In every particular, morally and mentally, I have lost all respect for him. He is surrounded by a set of toad eaters and bottle holders.”
In the meantime, he took unto himself the powers of a dictator:
On the evening of April 21, Lincoln held a meeting of the cabinet in one of the Navy offices — away from any White House spies — where he asked for and received free hand to use illegal means if they became necessary in an emergency…Seward said that Lincoln and his advisors “put in force the war power of the government, and issued papers and did acts that might have brought them all to the scaffold.”
On April 27, Baltimore Sun declared that, under Lincoln, the government had “become a vast consolidated despotism.”
“Genial and jovial, he is wholly inaccessible to Christian appeals, and his egotism will forever prevent his comprehending what patriotism means.” (Reverend R. Fuller of Baltimore)
Lincoln’s calculating cleverness, combined with his offensive vulgarity and his galling sense of intellectual superiority, equals contempt. This is contempt at a truly professional level. Trump’s spontaneous, amateur contempt does not begin to measure up. Real contempt is never so open-faced. A careful review of Lincoln suggests that even his openness may have been a clever lid.
Trump seems much more innocent, much safer than Abraham Lincoln. With Trump, what you see is what you get. Lincoln’s behavior is somehow enigmatic for its calculated overtness, making us suspicious of something hidden and truly corrupt — perhaps just venal politics as usual. Trump may be offensive, but he is not a politician. He is not as offensive as an inoffensive politician. And if Lincoln, our greatest Republican, was anything, he was surely a politician.
In our own time, the Lincoln cult has romanticized (mythologized) the “rail splitter” as the anti-prig who was needed to pop over-inflated conservative balloons. Lincoln’s fresh recklessness, the cult suggests, was required to save the stodgy constitutionalists from their concerns about the rule of law and their boring, if not evil sense of propriety. He was America’s Rousseau, completely natural, relatively uncorrupted by its existing institutions (the constitution as a deal with the southern devil), saving deprived traditionalists, north and south, from their sober, responsible, straitjacketed minds and hearts. In America we now have a long tradition of secular skeptics, like Lincoln, operating as moralists. Their secular eccentricity — moralizing without foundation — is recommended to us as salvific while the common man’s religion is positioned as a lack of fortunate mutation. The Lincoln myth is the source of this idea that presidents, politicians, are potential and sometimes actual moral heroes.
Trump, the pragmatist, seems to know better. He does not moralize, he talks about winning. In the meantime, even if he does not actually understand evangelicals, I do not believe his public respect for them is feigned. That would not be good business. Whereas Lincoln was a great politician, Trump is less viperian as a hard core business man. I would rather see the United States managed like a business, as reductionist as this may be, than mismanaged as the church of compassionate conservatism and liberalism, which always makes of government much more than it can possibly be. The minimum requirement of all good government is not to gag us.
The irony of Lincoln is that he is presented to us by the adoring historians as the common man who taught us how to use power wisely — which is to say arbitrarily and tyrannically, relieving the world of aristocracy and inequality by establishing an autocracy. They tell us Lincoln was indescribably deep, a paradox, not the disaster almost everyone, north and south, thought he was right up until his martyrdom. Before the circumstances of his death made the apotheosis possible, Lincoln was an utterly eccentric departure from the recent American past. Trump is not actually the Republican eccentric. Although I love Ted Cruz, many of the voters needed to make America post-liberal this fall find him more eccentric than Trump. Neither Trump nor Cruz holds a candle to Abe-centricity.
Lincoln was an eccentric beyond any measure Trump has or could live up to. It is Trump who, paradoxically, is the common man. Non-ideological, unburdened by any attempt to sophisticate himself in political terms, comfortable in his own skin, bereft of enigmatic darkness. Trump is in no need of fabricated gravitas. He has cajones.
Lincoln was a kite in a hurricane to common men both north and south. Trump is the hurricane, threatening to tear the roof off of the establishment. Lincoln created the liberal Republican establishment, making government atrocious in theory and practice. Trump is threatening to destroy it by ridicule.
Eccentricity, as many of Lincoln’s contemporary observers surmised, is not genius. Lincoln was the first American instance of the liberal declaration that eccentricity is superiority. This moral theory is required to justify the moral chaos induced by oblivious eccentrics, repositioning it as true order. Trump’s eccentricity becomes quotidian when we compare it to the eccentricity of the man who, like a nineteenth century Inspector Clouseau, stripped of all good luck but still convinced of his superiority, stumbled into the presidency, knocked over the constitution, accidentally started a war, dismissed civil liberty, induced 1.2 million casualties (the same percentage of the population today would amount to more than 6 million dead, 4 million wounded), arrested almost 15,000 political prisoners (the same percentage of the population today would be approximately 150,000 dissidents) and precipitately took the support out from under four million slaves with no plan except deportation, making emancipation the first part of an ethnic purity pogrom.
Many historians, apparently eccentrics themselves, have tried to redeem Lincoln’s illiberal offensiveness as the exterior of a surprisingly noble, generous heart. If this can be accomplished for Lincoln, it can, in principle, be accomplished for Trump. The cult will tell us, of course, that they know Mr. Lincoln, and they know Mr. Trump, and Mr. Trump is no Lincoln. I should hope not. Only a man who forced an all-powerful central government on us, radically altering our revolutionary tradition, could make such a good impression on liberals and progressives despite his overt racism, political flexing, lack of vision, accidental and often evil accomplishments, and legendary vulgarity. If Lincoln was okay, Trump is okay.
I say, give Trump a chance. It cannot possibly turn out worse than the chance we gave Lincoln whose enlarged government took over the slaves as its political property.