Perpetuation and Moderation: Trump’s Lincolnian Rhetoric


In recent days, a series of particularly cogent and well-delivered Donald Trump speeches prompted media speculation about his “change of course” and the new direction of his campaign. Though they seem more like distillation than departure to me, it is true that the seriousness and the clarity of the speeches is striking and a welcome improvement in performance.  Many Trump supporters and skeptics have worried that his inclination to extemporize was too often taking the campaign off in directions it did not need nor want to go. These speeches set forth his political principles and provide the rationale for his candidacy in clear terms, for skeptics and supporters alike.

Trump’s two speeches focus on law and order (August 16 in Milwaukee)  and on foreign policy (August 15 in Youngstown, Ohio), but they get to something even deeper than these issues which are of such magnitude in the current political moment.  They address the question of who we are as a people and, in that, their resemblance to Abraham Lincoln’s own reflections on the matter is noteworthy. Given those themes and the seriousness with which Trump addressed them in these speeches, it is appropriate to compare them with two of Lincoln’s early speeches, the first on the perpetuation of a nation of laws and the second on the need for moderation or “temperance” in politics.

Both speeches apply Trump’s overarching campaign theme of speaking on behalf of the people versus the special interests.It is time for rule by the people, not rule by special interests” Trump tells his large audiences. Rule “by the people” is a way of returning us to consent, or recognizing the sovereignty of the people. They have to consent to the laws that govern them. This is just another way of saying the “rule of law” or, in moments of disorders such as the assassinations of police, law and order. We cannot be said to be living under the rule of law if chaos rather than law governs us.

To be fully understood, Trump’s understanding of the rule of law demands comparison with the greatest American president, Lincoln.  And Lincoln’s greatest law and order speech is his address on the “Perpetuation of our Political Institutions.”   This was his first notable speech, the themes of which were fleshed out a quarter-century later in his Gettysburg Address.  

Briefly, Lincoln bemoaned a national spate of lawlessness that produced lynchings and acts of brutality against various disfavored groups. This collapse of the rule of law, he argued, would ultimately lead to the rise of a tyrant and the destruction of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as our founding resources. America would thereby lose its greatness and with it “the noblest of causes—establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.”

These themes are at the heart of Trump’s argument about law and order and civil rights. The killings of police and violent crimes against blacks have that common root—the lack of respect for life and property and the freedom to enjoy them. That contempt is demanded by Hillary Clinton’s Progressivism and furthered by her corruption:

“We reject the bigotry of Hillary Clinton which panders to and talks down to communities of color and sees them only as votes, not as individual human beings worthy of a better future. She doesn’t care at all about the hurting people of this country, or the suffering she has caused them.”

As just another constituent part of a political coalition, blacks (along with every other group within that coalition, such as union members) have been taken for granted by Democrats. Blacks are not treated as free and equal human beings capable of enjoying full political equality as individuals who think for themselves, but must be content with being patronized as the clients of the Democrats.

Thus, against the twin towers of political corruption in Hillary and Bill Clinton, Trump declares, “I am fighting for REAL change, not just partisan change…. The media-donor-political complex that’s bled this country dry has to be replaced with a new government of, by and for the people.” That is, the Progressive elite has to be replaced by Lincolnian democracy. As citizens, we know there is a real common good not simply a formula for answering the needs and demands of discrete interest groups in sufficient numbers to constitute a majority capable of delivering political victory to the chosen ones. Trump’s rallies, open to all, contrasted with the behavioral science of the micro-targeting and condescension to voters adopted by his failed rivals.

Besides respect for the law and the fundamental principles behind it, citizens and politicians need to display temperance or moderation in persuading fellow citizens. Though the apparent irony of looking to Trump for an example of moderation is not lost on me, moderation need not be reduced to refraining from name-calling as too many conservative critics of Trump would have it. Trump’s apparent lapses in moderation in response to personal attacks, moreover, demonstrate a quality of spiritedness and a will to fight where the absence of such has played to the detriment of Republicans and conservatives confronted by willful Progressives in recent decades.  

Where Trump displays moderation most strikingly, however, is not coincidentally, I think, precisely where it is most needed:  his foreign policy speeches. In parallel ways, Lincoln’s Temperance Address portrayed democratic politics and the political significance of the Temperance Movement.

What both speeches have in common is a condemnation of ideological fanaticism—Lincoln objecting to extremist opponents of alcohol and Trump to the Woodrow Wilson fanaticism of nation-building and surrender of national sovereignty to international bodies. Holding in common a sober view of human nature, both Lincoln and Trump condemn politicians who are drunk on power and the disastrous policies these mad theoreticians have inflicted on peoples abroad and on our own armed forces.

Just as the forces of temperance in Lincoln’s day led people to a kind of mad intemperance, today we something akin to this strange juxtaposition when those who cry the loudest for civility in our politics (moderation as they see it), advocate policies that would lead to outrages against civility. Too often, the loudest cries for civility and moderation are coming from people who are, themselves, most uncivil and immoderate.

Trump’s moderation allows him to unite domestic policy and foreign policy, so both reflect the will of the sovereign American people. Obama, and Clinton following him, attempt to flatter radical Islam to pursue illusory policies abroad, while causing confusion at home. A patriotism of national interest is the best antidote for politically correct discourse that demands open borders and invites terrorists to enter:

“Pride in our institutions, our history and our values should be taught by parents and teachers, and impressed upon all who join our society. Assimilation is not an act of hostility, but an expression of compassion. Our system of government, and our American culture, is the best in the world and will produce the best outcomes for all who adopt it. This approach will not only make us safer, but bring us closer together as a country.”

 For American lives to matter, the American nation itself must truly matter.

“Putting America First” is not some isolationist platitude. Rather, it means looking at America in a different way from the cynicism of the political establishment of both parties. We no longer need their permission to see ourselves as “the best in the world.”

 “Renewing this spirit of Americanism will help heal the divisions in our country. It will do so by emphasizing what we have in common – not what pulls us apart…. I will fight to ensure that every American is treated equally, protected equally, and honored equally.”

The principle of equality is at the heart of the American order.“We will reject bigotry and oppression in all its forms, and seek a new future built on our common culture and values as one American people,” says Trump.

 With Lincoln, right makes might. This is possible because the creed of equality defines us as one people, as Lincoln repeatedly emphasized. That creed in turn produced a “common culture.” But this common culture is under threat of ridicule and condemnation by the elites now governing the universities and it is, at best, abandoned or ignored by the political establishment on the right. Throughout the campaign, Trump has stood for the defense of “our common culture and values as one American people” as no other candidate has, not just in 2016, but for a very long time.

More From American Greatness:

Our Declaration of Independence from the Conservative Movement

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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55 responses to “Perpetuation and Moderation: Trump’s Lincolnian Rhetoric”

  1. What Horseshit … ‘Mr. Lincoln would say.’ There is nothing about Trump, his speeches, or his ideas, that have anything Lincolnian in them. How dare you try and salvage Trump and his ridiculous and losing campaign with mentioning Abraham Lincoln, putting perfume on a fart, lipstick on a pig, and implying that Right Makes Might, has anything to do with Trump’s bigotry, divisiveness, racism, and deflection politics. You may need a brain scan, PET scan, as you perhaps are having a reaction to a medicine as your ideas have no basis, reality,and obviously you know little or nothing about Abraham Lincoln, or even studied his two speeches, The Lyceum Address – The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions and Abraham Lincoln’s Temperance Address of 1842. ‘Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith…’. where is your faith. Mr. Lincoln today would be a Democrat and proudly vote for Hillary Clinton, the first female president of the United States.
    ‘Lincoln warned that mobs or people who disrespected American laws and courts could destroy the United States’ the things Trump and his blind followers are promoting using bigotry, violence, and insanity. In Lincoln’s time around the 1840’s, (1837) a journalist and abolitionist was killed. Ellijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, an abolition editor was killed by a mob supporting slavery in the Union. This could happen again as Trump continues to demonize journalists.

    • real nice. cursing and making wild, lying accusations. despicable.

      • Who’s cursing?? Horseshit is a great analogy to Trump…

    • Saw this article and clicked the link just out of pure curiosity. What utter trash. Trump has nothing in common with Abe Lincoln and neither does Hillary Clinton. Lincoln would be appalled at the size and scope of the federal government today and its oppressive and intrusive treatment of its citizens. Clinton and Trump are both authoritarians and supporters of big government, along the high level of taxation to pay for it. If Lincoln were around today he wouldn’t think of voting for either candidate.

      These are two crooked, self absorbed, lying candidates. America deserves better.

    • Lincoln would not vote for Hillary because she was a woman. Reverse racism, sexism etc. is dying a rapid death, thank God.

      • Spot On!!!!!!! He would recognize her an equal just like his own good friend Senator from New York, Senator William Henry Seward, . Senator Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, was thought of by Mr. Lincoln, to be the best choice for America’s president in 1868, the year Lincoln would have served to, had he not been so brutally and cowardly shot from the rear in the back of his head.Lincoln told Mr. Sward and it was known knowledge, Lincoln wanted to give the nation to Seward’s able and capable hands.

    • Neil is now a certified LIAR. what a disgraceful comment.

      • I would call it “disgusting” (if I were Trump).

    • Mr Garland:

      Clearly YOU know nothing of Lincoln or of Mr. Masugi. Ken has probably forgotten more about Lincoln in the last 10 seconds than you have known in your entire life. And no, Lincoln would not be a Democrat – after all he believed in Free soil, and Free Labor – AND CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED – not rule by Executive Agency fiat.

      But then again, it is quite comforting, I suppose, for the likes of Lefties to be “woefully and willfully historically ignorant.” It means never having to say you are either sorry or wrong.

      • By the way Lincoln stated Executive orders ….. Just because you live in a Facr-Free world, don’t lead others over the clift.

  2. A beautiful article that so clearly describes the promise of a Trump presidency. The stench of Clinton’s corruption needs to be blown away by a strong wind of the Trump vision for America which I would state in those simple words I learned as a child “with Liberty and Justice for ALL.”

    • The stench of Clinton’s corruption is not likely to be blown away by a man who generously contributed to her and her husband’s campaigns (and many other liberal causes) and spoke glowingly about both of them. This is a direct quote:
      “‘Hillary Clinton I think is a terrific woman. I’m a little biased because
      I’ve known her for years. I live in New York. She lives in New York.
      And I’ve known her and her husband for years and I really like them both
      a lot. And I think she really works hard.. And I like her.'”

      Do you seriously believe that Mr. Trump has had some kind of sudden epiphany and suddenly realizes that he was wrong all those years when he was cozy with the Clintons? Would YOU have ever invited Bill and Hillary Clinton to your wedding?

      Stop fooling yourself, you’re doing no one any favors by indulging in this fantasy about a Trump presidency representing conservative values.
      Trump has no values – NONE. He stands for nothing and cares for no one except his own monumentally inflated, narcissistic self – and maybe his kids and his wife. If you haven’t seen the photos of her naked on a bearskin rug chained to a briefcase (presumably belonging to that great Lincolnian statesman) on his private jet, which has 24 karat gold fixtures in the bathroom. you don’t know what you’re missing. Here she is, your future first lady – what a truly great role model for America’s young women.

      This is the beautiful promise of a Trump presidency.

      • Let’s put personality issues aside. Let’s put the serial lying aside. Let’s put the corruption and influence peddling aside.
        Even if both candidates were angels from heaven I would still choose Trump. Clinton is a known progressive/liberal democrat who represents big government, crony capitalism, socialized medicine, liberal supreme court judges, unlimited immigration, more regulation for business, higher taxes, a foreign policy that will empower the enemies of America and punish our allies, a racial policy (think BLM) that further divides our people. There’s more. OK, if you think she is a good role model for young girls and women, that’s fine with me. I think otherwise for the reasons listed above.

      • I said nothing about Hillary being a good role model for young girls and women. What I said was that Trump seems to think it is perfectly acceptable to use his wife’s naked body in an image that is a horrifying example of the degradation of women and that his wife apparently thinks it’s perfectly fine. If this isn’t hypocrisy of the most disgusting (to use Mr.Trump’s favorite word) sort, I don’t know what is.

        And my further point is that Trump has poured tens of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of those very candidates who represent all the things (crony capitalism, influence peddling, etc.) that you claim to abhor, and, worse still, has talked ad nauseam what how well he knows them and wonderful people they are. He has a long and sordid track record of taking advantage of the very influence peddling you decry. It takes two to peddle influence of the kind that has so sullied our democracy – and Trump has engaged in the other side of those transactions with a vengeance.

        In a very recent statement, Trump said: “The Clintons have spent decades as insiders lining their own pockets
        and taking care of donors instead of the American people,” calling the
        foundation “the most corrupt enterprise in political history.” In fact, Mr. Trump has donated over $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation which he calls “the most corrupt enterprise in political history.” This is someone you would trust?

        Whatever Mr. Trump now claims he will do once in office, we will soon see that his commitment to the ideals conservatives hold dear is a complete sham. Mark my words – he will sell conservatives down the river in a heartbeat, and, in fact, as witness his blatant flip-flopping on immigration, he’s already doing it. The spectacle of Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin going apoplectic as Trump backs away from his hard-line positions on undocumented immigrants is both amusing and repellent.

  3. The really big news about Trump is his outreach to the African American comminity. The GOP has been stuck in all white mode for too long. We need to bring the principles of liberty and equal opportunity to every American. Why hadn’t the GOP reached out to blacks before? Are they not citizens of our Republic? The GOP represented the business and investing class. It was Rick Santorum who raised this brilliant question…. If 90% of the American people are employees, why does the GOP create policies that primarily benefit the 10% who are entrepreneurs/investors? Trump is the first GOP leader to take the GOP message to “da peeple” those working stiffs who labor and pay for the elites pipe dreams. Long overdue Trump the imperfect messenger is the disruptor for good that we have long needed.

    • SERIOUSLY saying Trump doing black outreach? FINALLY Conway says he will speak to black audiences “soon”. Wouldn’t that have been a good idea say nine months ago??

      • It would have been better if he had done it 9 months ago. Better if the GOP had started nine years ago. But better late than never. The good news is that for the first time a GOP candidate is reaching out to give them an option. The choice between opportunity for growth or dependency. There is a profound difference between the two.

    • You’re completely delusional apparently. You’re deeply insulting Lincoln by comparing him to the big orange buffoon.

    • Has to be. Must be. Please let it be. Our greatest president compared favorably to the orange muppet….

      • Whose idea of “law and order” is sacrificing “law” and equity on the altar of “order”.. discrediting and disparaging all the legal institutions of the country in the process.

  4. You put Trump and Lincoln in the same sentence and compared them favorably? And it wasn’t satirical? Oy vey. Haha.

  5. This guy is the most ignorant PhD on earth I think. Is this supposed to be satire?!?

    • No. He’s the editor of perhaps the best collection of essays on Tocqueville out there. And there’s much more. I am an anti-Trump conservative(Google for my pieces), and if my state looks like it’s really in play I will vote for HRC–as a stinking, rotting evil, but nonetheless as a lesser evil than Trump. But I do respect a segment of the Trump supporters out there, and Dr. Masugi is at the forefront of these. The mistaken judgments above have nothing to do with ignorance, nor with a lack of core wisdom about American weaknesses and strengths. Nor do they have anything to do with the kind of self-deception and professional corruption you see in a sorry case like Sean Hannity.

      • Your praise of Masugi set against your refusal to support Trump is edifying. Bravo.

  6. I think that most of the people commenting here today know nothing of Lincoln’s executive order to deport ALL Negroes to keep the peace. He certainly wouldn’t have voted for Obama.

  7. Mr. Trump is a well educated man. There is a good chance he has been influenced by Abraham Lincoln’s words. Many of us have.

    • Your Well educated man thinks judges sign bills, and do investigations

      But sure he has read Lincoln

  8. The #realdonaldtrump exposed himself when he brought Stephen Bannon into his campaign leadership. Then having the sexual predator, Roger Ailes, join his campaign as an advisor sealed the deal. Lincoln would be disgusted by Trump’s rhetoric. Ronald Reagan would be disgusted by Trump’s rhetoric. Conservatives like Ken Masugi live in a fantasy world. Most Americans remain disgusted by Trump’s rhetoric.
    We all know that Trump is a pathological liar. He tells casual small lies (the NFL sent me a letter), he makes outrageous big lies (I saw thousands of Muslims celebrating after 9/11). Trump lies as easily as he breathes and never even thinks about the consequences. The fact that the Republican Party has allowed him to become their nominee will go down in history as one of the low points of our democracy.

  9. The only thing we know about the Donald is that he hates the constitution.
    In particular, he hates the 1st and 4th amendments.

    Freedom of the Press: The Donald has said he will use the Justice Department to target publications that say “very bad, bad things”.

    Freedom to petition government for the redress of grievances: The Donald says politicians are bought and sold. He says he has been buying politicians for years. Now he wants to get money out of politics. It takes money to make an impact in DC whether you are Goldman Sachs or Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

    Freedom to Peaceably Assemble: There is always going to be a trouble maker. Law and Order requires suppressing this freedom.

    Freedom of Association: The Donald has insinuated 4th amendment rights should be ignored until we can find out what the hell is going on.

    These are the types of things Putin or Erdogan would say. Meanwhile 60% of Texas Republicans would vote to secede from the Union rather than suffer a Clinton Administration.

  10. The best book on LIncoln is Harry jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided. It’s tough going at the beginning, but absolutely rewarding. Allen Guelzo is another superb Lincoln scholar, with numerous books on Lincoln to his credit. Perhaps you make your accusations of ignorance of Lincoln having read his own writings and the best scholarship on Lincoln.
    Here’s a pdf of Jaffa’s 1959 book, with some more recent prefatory material.

    • Nice mention’s, too many Lincoln books, but the 2 men you mentioned are at the top of the list of capable scholars.

  11. There is nothing in Lincoln to suggest he would be a man of the left today. Nothing at all. One problem is the hijacking of political thought and practice by Progressives. Theodore Roosevelt and FDR both attempted hijackings of Lincoln for their partisan and Progressive purposes. Just as Lincoln attacked a growing consensus spread by Stephen Douglas, so Trump attacks the consensus that accepts the bureaucratic state, open borders, and Wilsonian foreign policy as the accepted norms. No one else comes close to challenging these destructive policies.

  12. Lincoln had as many speeches and positions as he had audiences and days of the week or campaigns in his career

    His position of whatever we call black people these days changed with the fortunes of war and the flow of politics, we know he would have accepted slavery, within the slave states, in exchange for Union
    – –
    I ‘ve read a few bios of POTUS 16, I looked for while at his law career, and the wilderness years before his politics, the two excerpts here are 1830s and 1840s,

    I’d hate for any of us in our 50s/ 60s to be judged by what we write 20 years before
    = =
    He was a careful man and by all appearances a carefully law abiding man

    I think he would despise Hillary over her manifest unapologetic lawlessness, and very little in her politics seems appealing to him, he was a post Whig, those latter wanted to build America/ infrastructure

    i expect him to like Donald the builder

    We know Lincoln only as a war time president, and that is an unfair basis for comparison, I submit that no other president was inaugurated into war, over his election

    I think he would like Donald b/c Donald builds things, and Hillary does not

    • These are sober judgments about Lincoln. The key here is understanding Lincoln as a means of judging his inferiors.

  13. Great article and I agree there are many similarities between the two. For one thing they have narrow minded haters, the slave owners then are like the modern day slave owner democrats today.

  14. Remember when Obama was running and the media couldn’t help but link him to Lincoln during their messiah love cruise?

  15. Thursday morning links

    When It Comes to Sex, Baby Boomers Aren’t Normal World’s largest pearl Ruling Class Madness Obamacare Website No Longer Addresses ‘You Can Keep Your Doctor’ Single Payer Is Totally Inevitable, You Guys! Health Care Is a Business, Not a Righ

  16. .

    Trump has indicated he would order the U.S. military to perpetrate first-degree murder on civilian non-combatants in violation of the Geneva Conventions — a war crime, in other words. He has also expressed support for the idea of trying American citizens with military commissions. Both of these are flagrantly unconstitutional, and would constitute impeachable offenses. That he would even propose them bespeaks not only raging incompetence and ignorance, but an evil mind as well.

    There’s plenty more, but these items are more than sufficient for any sane person to disqualify the man utterly. He does not belong anywhere near the Oval Office.

    Enough with the promotion of this lunatic, already.


  17. All any true conservative needs to know about Donald Trump is that he had this to say about those “twin towers of corruption, Bill and Hillary Clinton”: ‘Hillary Clinton I think is a terrific woman. I’m a little biased because
    I’ve known her for years. I live in New York. She lives in New York.
    And I’ve known her and her husband for years and I really like them both
    a lot. And I think she really works hard. And again, she’s given an
    agenda that’s not all of her. But again, I think she really works hard. I
    think she does a good job. And I like her.’

    Donald Trump is, without question, as two-faced and duplicitous a human being as anyone alive, in or out of politics, including Hillary Clinton. The man who said those words above is the same man who has called Hillary Clinton, whom he has known for years and claims to “like a lot”, a bigot and the devil. He called Hillary Clinton “very talented,” and then recently said she is completely without talent. He said he thought she’d make an excellent secretary of state, and then said she was the worst secretary of state in American history.

    He has claimed he would deport 11 million illegal immigrants, and now is infuriating many his most loyal supporters by backing off and proposing a solution to the immigration problem little different from the rivals he so bitterly derided as “soft on immigration.”

    He claimed that he was the only person in one of the Republican debates to have opposed the war in Iraq, and yet when asked if he supported the war on a radio interview (Don’t take my word for it, you can hear him say it for yourself), replied: ‘Yeah, I guess so.” I guess so? From the man who is asking to be given the support of the American people to lead us in a time of crisis?

    A man who claims to have the greatest respect for woman but had his wife photographed nearly naked and chained to a bearsking rug?

    Take a good long look at Mr. Trump’s long friendship with the Clintons, and then look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself this question and try to answer it honestly, if you dare:
    1: Why did it take him this long to figure out that Hillary Clinton is who he says she is now, and, (2) more importantly, what does it say about Donald Trump as a man and a potential leader that (a ) either his judgement about Hillary Clinton was severely impaired or (b) he knew all along how corrupt she and her husband were but was perfectly willing to “sleep with the devil” for the sake of his business empire?

    Trump is a fraud, a huckster, a liar and a hypocrite. He couldn’t care less about the American people, and the only reason he’s engaging in this so-called “Lincolnian” rhetoric now is because he has been backed into a corner and has finally realized that you can’t win a general election by insulting other human beings, which, if you go back and look at the record, was essentially the entire substance of his campaign up until now.

    Your article is very well-written, and I’m sure quite sincere. It is also a massive exercise in self-delusion and an insult not only to the memory of one of our greatest presidents, but to the intelligence of every thinking patriotici American, conservative or otherwise.

  18. Make American Whites Great Again. The promise of Trump is just that: an empty promise of simple solutions.

  19. I am so sad that our candidate is so truly dangerous. That word is thrown around in politics so carelessly. I am using it with great care. I can’t possibly vote for him. I am not even sure Hillary is worse. She is totally corrupt. The incredible irony is that her good point is that she is in the pocket of wall street bankers. They won’t let her do anything too stupid. Trump is a complete sociopath with tyrannical tendencies. It is easy to see him doing one stupid and damaging thing after another until disaster strikes. Trade war leading to depression anybody? How about a capricious military action leading to war because some foreign leader dissed him. Any serious conservative that thinks that these are not real risks with Trump is. well. actually not all that serious.