Why Trump’s approach is not quite Lincolnesque

Amid the grandeur of an iconic monument, President Trump made a sweeping historical claim that eclipsed anything else he said.

Trump, who has complained about his relentlessly negative coverage, with some justification, for more than four years, took it a step further in a Fox News sitdown.

In the shadow of a towering marble statue, he said: “I am greeted with a hostile press, the likes of which no president has ever seen. The closest would be that gentleman right up there.” That gentleman was Abraham Lincoln.

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“They always said, ‘Lincoln, nobody got treated worse than Lincoln.’ I believe I am treated worse.”

This might be a good time to recall that Lincoln’s election caused the South to secede, that he was eviscerated by newspapers, and that he was ultimately assassinated, the last victim of the Civil War.

 

Now Trump could easily make the case that he’s been treated worse than any president since Richard Nixon, although he’s been more aggressive in denouncing journalists in personal terms than any president since then. But to make the comparison at the Lincoln Memorial, in a virtual town hall with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, just struck the wrong tone.

What was striking was that the question came from a retired nurse who wanted the president to do better, who asked why he was “bullying” the press and not directly answering questions, telling him to “let go of those behaviors that are turning people away from you.”

Trump’s response included his now-standard refrain about White House reporters asking hostile questions: “I feel that if I was kind to them, I’d be walked off the stage. They come at you with the most horrible, horrendous, biased questions.”

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As I’ve said, some of the questions are biased or wrong-headed; Yahoo’s Hunter Walker had to apologize last week for factually inaccurate statements about virus testing. But many are legitimate queries about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.

The Lincoln comparison comes from historian and former speaker Newt Gingrich, who recalled in Newsweek early last year that “I called President Trump and told him no president since Abraham Lincoln had faced the kind of unending bias and hostility that he is living through.” (Even Newt didn’t say Trump’s travails were worse than those of the first Republican president.)

Various authors, some cited by Gingrich, have documented Lincoln’s ordeal. After his election, the Memphis Daily Appeal called him “a weak and inexperienced man” and said “the Republican Party will be utterly ruined and destroyed” within 30 days. The New York Herald said he won the White House in an “evil hour” and urged him to quit, saying that “his election was a rash experiment, his administration is a deplorable failure.”

Some papers openly called for Lincoln to be killed. And his own commanding general, George McClellan, dubbed him “an idiot” and “the original gorilla.”

One biographer, Michael Burlingame, said that “Lincoln would get upset by it, and would say to his wife that it was very painful for him, and she would tell Lincoln that he was too thin-skinned. But he wouldn’t let that reaction affect his conduct toward the press, even though he was personally offended.”

At the same time, Lincoln shut down more than 300 newspapers during the Civil War on grounds of running treasonous material, and once ordered troops to occupy the New York World for something claimed to be “wickedly and traitorously printed and published.” His administration routinely censored war dispatches.

Lincoln, so widely revered today, of course was a wartime president, and not in the sense of battling a pandemic. But Trump, like his predecessor, is now facing the biggest crisis of his presidency.

Another predecessor, George W. Bush, just released a video calling for national unity in the face of the pandemic, recapturing the spirit of 9/11. Trump’s response was to tweet that Bush didn’t defend him during impeachment: “He was nowhere to be found in speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history!”

Trump got to be president, and has governed, by staying on offense against a wide variety of detractors: the press, the Democrats, governors, the establishment, even some Republicans and former aides who have gone rogue. That has provided him with a rock-solid core of support, while arguably also keeping him from approval ratings over 50 percent.

But Trump is deeply invested in this hardline approach, and that’s why he doesn’t conduct his presidency “with malice toward none.”