Donald Trump: The anti-Lincoln
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Throughout this general election campaign, Americans got to see two very different candidates, both of whom have repeatedly claimed that they wish to follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln.

Unfortunately, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE has demonstrated an utter ignorance of who Lincoln was as a president, and an incurable misunderstanding of the legacy he left the nation he saved.


One need only look at Trump’s inability to apologize, and his occasional non-apology apologies, to determine that he is not in the mold of Lincoln, who set an extraordinary example as a self-effacing commander in chief. In a letter to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in July 1863 to congratulate him on the capture of Vicksburg, Lincoln wrote: “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.” Compare this to Trump’s assertion, “I know more ... than the generals.” 

But in the final presidential debate Trump went even further, calling into question the democratic process Lincoln fought to save. When asked by moderator Chris Wallace if he would accept the outcome of the election, the GOP nominee made history by being the first presidential candidate to intimate that he may not. Trump hedged as he stated, “I will tell you at the time, I’ll keep you in suspense.”

Since then, he has continued to signal that he will not accept the outcome unless he wins. 

To put this in perspective: Lincoln’s most famous opponent, Sen. Stephen Douglas, spent the final phase of his presidential campaign against Lincoln and two other contenders barnstorming the south and promoting the need for unity after telling his secretary, “Mr. Lincoln is the next president. We must try to save the Union. I will go south.”

Douglas even held Honest Abe’s hat at the inauguration. 

Four years later, Lincoln not only insisted that the election would go on in the midst of the Civil War — when he had the authority to postpone them — but he set out a course for a smooth transition. Facing an uncertain outcome in his reelection, he drafted a memorandum that declared he would cooperate with the president-elect should he lose. The document was signed in secrecy by his Cabinet in an incredible display of his willingness to ensure that the will of the voters would be accepted.

Yet Trump made clear that he hasn’t made a decision, lending credence to the belief that his escalating rhetoric about the election being rigged may indicate he will not concede should he lose. Pundits were aghast at this pseudo declaration, but sadly it isn’t a surprise after three debates and well over a year of a total breakdown of presidential campaign decorum.

Trump had three opportunities in front of tens of millions of Americans to participate in an exchange of policy ideas and differing worldviews. Instead he continued the trademarks of his historically boorish campaign, including name-calling, repeatedly telling boldfaced lies, and statements grounded in misogyny, racial prejudice and religious intolerance.

At one point, he even leaned into the microphone to call Clinton a “nasty woman.”

Clinton, on the other hand, stayed calm as she showed how immersed she is in a broad range of policy issues. And this campaign, and indeed her career, has shown that she is not only a policy wonk but is also an admirer of Lincoln. 

On the trail she seamlessly weaves studied elements of Lincoln’s legacy into her policy proposals and speeches. She quoted Lincoln when she rolled out her economic plan in New York, noting it was about “clearing the path of laudable pursuit for all — to give all a fair chance in the race of life.” 

And as we have seen Trump descend further into the gutter, Clinton has harkened back to Lincoln for a way through the division. In July she spoke in Lincoln’s Springfield home in Illinois, the town where he gave his House Divided speech and — after noting that we are not as torn as we were 160 years ago — she declared: “If we do the work, we will ‘cease to be divided.’ We, in fact, will be indivisible — with liberty and justice for all. And we will remain — in President Lincoln’s words — the last, best hope of earth.” 

Whereas the first Republican president was flexible, humble and tolerant, the current Republican presidential nominee is noted for his bullying, bragging and bigotry. No one can be Lincoln, but one of the 2016 candidates isn’t even trying.


Harold Holzer is the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York and is the author, co-author or editor of 52 books on Lincoln and the Civil War era. Rabbi Menachem Genack is the rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, NJ. He is the author of “Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership”, a collection of 100 letters that he wrote and curated to the former president over a 20 year period.

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