Trump has more in common with Lincoln than you might think

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This summer’s Republican National Convention was full of references to Abraham Lincoln, which is no surprise, given that Donald Trump likes to compare himself to the 16th president.

It’s a comparison that aggravates Trump’s critics, who don’t like to see the man they consider the nation’s worst chief executive linked with the man widely regarded as the best.

This may make those critics’ heads explode, but there are some fascinating parallels between the two presidents, as well as some contrasts.

For starters, they share the same political party. Lincoln was the first Republican president. Trump is the 19th.

Both men were long-shot candidates. In 1860, Lincoln, like Trump, defeated a field of better-connected rivals to capture the Republican nomination and win the general election.

Both men came to office with little or no government experience. Lincoln had served only four terms in the Illinois legislature and one term in Congress. Trump had spent zero time in government.

Trump, on the other hand, had far more executive experience. Before his presidency, Lincoln ran a two-man law firm with a reputation for disorganization. He often stored important papers in his hat, and in the corner of his Springfield, Ill., office sat a stack of documents labeled: “When you can’t find it anywhere else, look in this.”

Both men experienced harsh reactions to their elections. In 1860, secessionists wore ribbons with slogans such as “Resistance to Lincoln is Obedience to God.” Resistance — sound familiar?

Lincoln governed during the most divided era in our nation’s history. Trump is governing in perhaps the most acrimonious period since.

Both presidencies have been times of extreme media partisanship. In Lincoln’s day, newspapers were closely aligned with the Democratic or Republican parties, and it showed in their reporting.

In 1863, for example, after the Gettysburg Address, the Democratic Chicago Times proclaimed that “the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances” of Lincoln’s speech. The Springfield Republican, in Massachusetts, called it “a perfect gem, deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression.”

Lincoln, like Trump, was furiously attacked in the media. Newspapers called him a demon, a buffoon, a miserable failure, a disgrace to the nation. “The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor,” one Wisconsin paper asserted when he ran for reelection in 1864. You can imagine what Southern newspapers wrote.

Trump returns the media’s fire almost daily, but his assaults have been a war of words. Lincoln’s counterattacks could be more aggressive. His administration believed some opposition newspapers fueled treason.

During the Civil War, federal authorities sometimes harassed or closed antiwar newspapers, and even arrested editors. Lincoln did not order the suppressions, but he rarely objected.

Lincoln, like Trump, developed ingenious end runs around the press to communicate directly with the people. He managed to get letters and speeches widely published so voters would know his thoughts and words. Trump has done the same with rallies, 90-minute press conferences, and his tweets.

The Washington political establishment viewed Lincoln, like Trump, with wariness and outright hostility. He was considered a rube from the prairies, clearly out of his depth. Mary Lincoln, like Melania Trump, was snubbed by many in the nation’s capital.

Trump is somewhat of a street fighter. His instinct, when hit, is to hit back twice as hard. In his younger days, Lincoln also was a scrapper. He once defended a colleague from an unruly audience by threatening to break heads with a stone pitcher. On another occasion, he came close to dueling a political rival with broadswords.

With age, he became more conciliatory. As president, he sometimes cooled off by writing blistering letters and then filing them away without mailing them. No tweeting for Lincoln.

Lincoln, of course, was a wartime president. Trump and his allies consider themselves engaged in a kind of soft war on at least two fronts: first, against “the swamp,” an entrenched Washington elite, and second, against a hard-left insurgency that aims to radically transform the country.

In both cases, Trump’s supporters believe he is defending the nation’s founding principles. His opponents strenuously disagree.

That, perhaps, is the area of comparison with Lincoln that matters most.

Lincoln was fiercely dedicated to our founding principles, especially those in the Declaration of Independence, his favorite founding document — that we are all created equal, and we all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He knew that as long as we stick to our founding principles, America can be a great nation.

In the end, history judges presidents largely on the defense of those principles. That is one reason we admire Lincoln so much. He defended them to the end.

If any president, from any party, wants to be compared to Lincoln, let it be for that.

John Cribb is an author who has written about subjects ranging from history to education. During the Reagan administration, he served at the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A Lincoln scholar, his latest novel, “Old Abe,” was released in September.

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