The real Party of Lincoln

09/30/2020

With the Democratic and Republican parties in a vexed battle for the heart, soul and vote of every American, I can’t help but find surprise in how often Donald Trump adamantly and smugly reminds me that he is leading the Party of Lincoln. He’s gone so far as to topple the sacred place Ronald Reagan held as party patriarch, and I know how much Republicans hate to see a monument torn down. 

President Abraham Lincoln, of course, is roundly celebrated as the man who put an end to American slavery. Looking at today’s Republican Party, it’s hard to understand why a party whose base has responded so positively to Trump’s racial fearmongering would choose Lincoln as their standard bearer. Yes, Lincoln was a Republican, but by any measure, he would be cruelly labeled a RINO—Republican in name only—by our current crop of right-wing political pundits. 

A quick look reveals more contradictions that, if Republicans took the time to do their homework, would make a reliable red state voter swoon. Early in his presidency, Lincoln signed the Revenue Act of 1861, America’s first federal income tax, into law. A year later, it was replaced by a progressive tax that penalized those with higher incomes, initiating our first government-imposed redistribution of wealth. The Republican Party passed additional tax increases under Lincoln, including an inheritance tax. All of this was followed by an unholy expansion of government with the establishment of both the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Agriculture. On the societal front, the Republican Party platform from 1860 clearly detailed its opposition to changes in federal or state laws that would infringe the rights of “immigrants from foreign lands,” and further supported giving them the “full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens.”

The recent passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is an opportunity to highlight one last and important difference between the Party of Lincoln and today’s Party of Trump. On Oct. 12, 1864, during an election year and less than one month until the national presidential referendum, Chief Justice Roger Taney of the Supreme Court died. With the election looming on Nov. 8, President Lincoln was faced with a choice. Using his Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, Lincoln certainly could have nominated Taney’s replacement and had him confirmed before the election; however, Lincoln chose to wait until after the election when, on Dec. 6, he nominated Salmon P. Chase.  

The most immediate takeaway from all this is that our two main political parties have radically changed, and that change happened quite quickly. I’m reminded of the Democratic Party’s robust Southern wing, many of whose members were strict adherents to Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. Soon after President Truman integrated the military in 1948, the party splintered, creating the short-lived States’ Rights Democrats. With fiery leadership from the likes of Strom Thurmond and a commitment to upholding segregation, the Dixiecrats, as they were known, went on to win four states in the 1948 presidential election. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the straws that broke the donkey’s back, further alienating traditional Southern Democrats and hastening a great voter migration in which Black voters moved away from the Republican Party and to the Democratic Party while Republicans initiated their own “Southern strategy” by appealing to inherent racial bias in the region. That Strom Thurmond himself switched party affiliation in 1964 is just another proof point in the argument that today’s Republican Party is much less like Lincoln and more like Strom Thurmond and his segregationist Dixiecrats. 

There is very little I can say in praise of Donald Trump, but I will acquiesce that he is a master manipulator, not that it’s something that deserves praise. From his earliest days in the Manhattan real estate market to the thickening political fog that he sows each and every day, it’s simply something that Trump is good at. He understands that people are pawns to be flattered and then sacrificed at the altar of who else but Trump himself. Invoking the Party of Lincoln is part of the flattery. He knows that telling people the truth about his own checkered past or about a party that is steadily moving away from the democratic ideals that they embrace would result in a contradiction. One that would explode both the myth of the man and his party. 

Instead, Trump invokes Lincoln as a salve for his devoted supporters, covering and healing their deepest faults and convincing them that they are the better angels they should be, and not the baser people that they really are. The Party of Lincoln is still around, if slightly different from its genesis. It goes by a different name and they have a presidential nominee on the ballot this November. His name is Joe Biden. On the other hand, I encourage Trump to forsake Lincoln and embrace Strom Thurmond, both for the obvious parallel and because the Dixiecrats’ party emblem was the same Confederate flag that’s already flying at so many of Trump’s rallies.

 

Amos Klausner lives in San Geronimo and is a local school board trustee.