Trump thinks he’s Honest Abe, but Lincoln warned us about demagogues like him

Lincoln warned only “a reverence for the constitution and laws" could stop them.

Donald Trump and his wife Melania at the Lincoln Memorial, January 19, 2017. Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump and his wife Melania at the Lincoln Memorial, January 19, 2017. Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump loves to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe would disagree.

Just last month, at a gathering of GOP lawmakers, Trump placed himself on Mount Rushmore again, asserting that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) “actually once said I’m the greatest president in the history of our country. I said, does that include Lincoln and Washington? He said yes.”

Advertisement

Seriously. Last January, Trump even chose to be sworn in on  the same bible Honest Abe used because he was “inspired by Lincoln’s words.”

On Presidents’ Day, though, it’s worth remembering Lincoln’s words, which make clear that Trump is the anti-Lincoln (and anti-Washington). He is the demagogue that not only the Founding Fathers like Alexander Hamilton warned us about, but that Lincoln himself warned us about as well.

At Gettysburg in 1863, Abraham Lincoln famously asked whether a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … can long endure.”

But Lincoln’s concern about the fate of the Republic  —  and the danger of a demagogue just like Trump  —  dates much earlier. Way back in 1838, a 28-year-old Lincoln gave a talk on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”

Advertisement

He was trying to imagine what danger or threat could destroy this great nation  —  and “by what means shall we fortify against it.” Lincoln argued that “the approach of danger to be expected … if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad.” He warned that “if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”

Lincoln was worried about what “an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon” might do to this country.

“It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them.”

The most ambitious men during the birth of our nation who “sought celebrity and fame, and distinction … expected to find them in the success of that experiment.” But that time has passed. “The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot.”

Such a man “sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others,” but rather “thirsts and burns for distinction.”

“Distinction will be his paramount object, and [with] nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”

Lincoln understood the psychology of those who have great ambition to lead, in part because he was one of them. Fortunately for us, Lincoln directed his enormous talent and ambition toward building up the country and preserving the Union.

Advertisement

Trump, however, is a man who wants to pull down the unity of the nation, vilifying ethnic groups, demeaning women, attacking key institutions like the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) and saving his praise for neo-Nazis and Vladimir Putin, who his own top intelligence and DOJ officials say organized an attack on the integrity of our elections.

Trump is a disuniter — the anti-Lincoln.

During the revolution, Lincoln explained, “the passions of the people” were given focus  —  “establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.” This meant that “the deep-rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation.”

But, he warned “this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it.”

Lincoln was worried about the fading memory of George Washington’s spirit just a few decades after the Revolutionary War. Today, we are over two centuries removed from that war.

Advertisement

Lincoln noted of “that struggle, nearly every adult male had been a participator.” He believed that their “indubitable testimonies … in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related … were a fortress of strength” against any challenge to our liberty, such as a a fame-seeking demagogue.

“They were the pillars of the temple of liberty,” he argued “and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.”

His speech ended with these powerful and prescient words:

Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.  —  Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his [Washington’s] name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our Washington.

The last sentence is a reference to 1 Corinthians in the Bible: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible [imperishable], and we shall be changed.”

The last trump is sounded on the Day of Judgment to raise the dead, including George Washington. Lincoln was figuratively expressing hope, before Judgement Day, that Washington would never be disturbed or awoken by a “hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place.”

Tragically, we now have a Trump that is desecrating everything for which Washington fought and for which the Founders stood. Lincoln’s words are as true today as they were nearly two centuries ago.

This is America’s day of judgment. The only way to stop this desecrating demagogue before he goes too far is through “unimpassioned reason” and “a reverence for the constitution and laws.”

This is an update of a post originally published in February 2017.