Last week, President Trump, in a rambling stump speech in Montana, bizarrely compared his oratory to that of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, arguing (incorrectly) that Lincoln was “ridiculed” for the speech.
“He was excoriated by the fake news. … Fifty years after his death, they said it may have been the greatest speech ever made in America,” Trump noted. “I have a feeling that’s going to happen with us.”
Don’t hold your breath, Donald. Nothing could be a farther remove from Lincoln’s austere, measured eloquence than Trump’s often incoherent mutterings. And nothing could be farther removed from the Republican Party of Lincoln than the right-wing politicians who today carry the Republican label.
The Republican Party emerged in 1854 in the fight against the extension of slavery to the new territories opening up in the West. Republicans opposed the extension, with its strategists arguing that slavery would die out if it were contained in the South.
Under Lincoln, the Republican Party stayed true to the nation in the civil war that ended with the abolition of slavery. Democrats were the party of Jefferson Davis, the leader of the rebelling states of the South.
As the party of the Union, Republicans dominated American politics from the Civil War to the 1930s. They believed in free labor, free soil, free men. They favored what Lincoln called “domestic improvements,” building the railroads, and investing in public infrastructure. They favored spending more money to improve public education, with Lincoln founding the land grant colleges across the country.
They believed in science, supporting sophisticated research in agricultural techniques and production. The party of business, they supported protective tariffs and liberal immigration policy. They passed the first income tax, the homestead laws that distributed lands to settlers, and the national banking system. Under Teddy Roosevelt, they pushed anti-trust laws, sought to clean up government and favored protective measures for workers — from the eight-hour day to environmental protection to worker safety laws.
In the 1960s, Republican senators helped pass the civil rights laws over the implacable opposition of Southern Democrats. As late as the 1970s under Gerald Ford, Republican leaders were pro-choice, pro-equal rights, pro-civil rights and leading environmentalists.
Just as Donald Trump is no Abraham Lincoln, today’s Republican Party stands in stark contradiction to the Republican Party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Gerald Ford. This Republican Party is now the party of Jefferson Davis, the party of states’ rights. It waves the Confederate flag and glorifies Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee.
When LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he told Bill Moyers that he feared he had lost the South for a generation. Turns out he was too optimistic.
Adopting a cynical “Southern strategy,” Republicans turned themselves into a party grounded in white Southerners still resisting equal rights for all. Dixiecrats such as Strom Thurmond led Southern Democrats into the Republican Party. The party aligned with the conservative evangelical church movement that rose through the South. And, of course remained the party of big business and conservative money.
Today’s Republican Party tramples every principle of the party of Lincoln.
Under Trump, they are systematically rolling back enforcement of equal protection for minorities and women. Instead of tax increases and public investment, they tout tax cuts for the rich and privatization. Instead of environmental protection, they open the door to corporate polluters, while denying even the existence of catastrophic climate change.
Instead of investing in education, they seek to slash public education and privatize schools. They are anti-choice, anti-women’s rights, and anti-worker rights. Instead of offering the poor a hand up as Lincoln did with the homestead acts and the land grant public colleges, they seek to cut aid to the vulnerable, working to roll back Medicaid, food stamps, Pell grants for students and more.
Trump’s manic stump performances pose a stark contrast to Lincoln’s eloquence. But it’s the contrast in substance that is telling. Trump rails against immigrants, embraces neo-Nazis, assails the free press and seeks, with his Republican allies, to dismantle effective governance.
Lincoln understood the importance of the public sphere. As he put it in his message to Congress in 1861, it is important to maintain “in the world, that form and substance of government, whose leading object is to elevate the condition of man, to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
For that fundamental principle, Lincoln would be vilified in Trump’s Republican Party.