One of the most prominent clichés that passes for wisdom among the GOP Establishment and conservative intellectual elite is that the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln. But Donald Trump, as we are told ad nauseam, is doing his best to sever the electric cord that ties the Republican Party to Lincoln’s political principles.
Former U.S. Senator John Danforth wrote recently in the Washington Post that the Republican Party is “the party of Abraham Lincoln.” “Now comes Trump,” Danforth argued, “who is exactly what Republicans are not, who is exactly what we have opposed in our 160-year history.” Mona Charen, a contributor to National Review who now apparently enjoys echoing the Left, claims, “The Republican party under Donald Trump has regressed from the party of Lincoln to the party of Lee.”
The glaring problem with this overheated analysis is that it has been quite some time since the GOP was, in any discernable way, the party of Lincoln. And Trump had nothing whatsoever to do with it. In fact, Trump is trying to drag the party back kicking and screaming to its Lincolnian roots.
An obvious example of the modern GOP’s dismissal of Lincoln’s politics is the free trade absolutism it has embraced. While theoretically sound, in practice this slavish devotion to free trade has hollowed out the middle class and benefited hedge fund managers and other professional elites who stand unequally to gain from our knowledge-based economy.
Lincoln, by contrast, was for high protective tariffs throughout his career. For instance, after his election to Congress in 1847, Lincoln noted that the
abandonment of the protective policy by the American Government, must result in the increase of both useless labour, and idleness; and so, in proportion, must produce want and ruin among our people.
In his support of tariffs and other measures designed to help Americans citizens over those of other countries, Lincoln was well within the mainstream of the American political tradition. From Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 “Report on Manufactures,” which outlined the nation’s first industrial policy to support America’s burgeoning manufacturing sector, to Ronald Reagan’s imposition of a 100 percent tariff on certain Japanese electronics in 1987, tariffs have served as a traditional tool of American statecraft.
Lincoln understood that an American isn’t simply what the philosopher Roger Scruton has termed a homo economicus—an individual “who acts always to maximize his own utility.” Instead, Americans are members of families, churches, communities, and their nation, whose good includes but ultimately transcends economic considerations.
Lincoln also wouldn’t recognize the Republican Party’s foreign policy of the past few decades. Republicans are largely beholden to a neoconservative foreign policy whereby the United States spends its blood and treasure on making the rest of the world safe for democracy, while very often neglecting our own. In practice, this has translated into nation building abroad. To overstate for the sake of clarity, the question before GOP hawks is which countries we should invade next—not whether it is just to think in such terms in the first place.
Lincoln would have been appalled at such a foreign policy. In early 1852, he helped draft a resolution praising Lajos Kossuth and the Hungarian revolutionaries of 1848, which contained principles diametrically opposite of those the modern Republican Party has adopted.
While the resolution states the right of the people of Hungary to “throw off” their “existing form of government,” it makes it clear that “it is the duty of our government to neither foment, nor assist, such revolutions in other governments.” Yet Lincoln and the drafting committee did not see any probable violation of our “own cherished principles of non-intervention” should the United States be called upon to help fend off an intervention of any other foreign power into Hungary’s affairs, should prudence allow for such a response.
Lincoln and his compatriots held true to the “sacred principles of the laws of nature and of nations”—principles of a social compact of a free and equal people who justly may determine their own nation’s course of affairs internally and externally.
The Republican Party’s general policy of arming “moderates” in nations such as Egypt, Libya, and Syria, for example, runs exactly counter to the traditional principle of non-interference that Lincoln followed. And such policies have predictably led to disastrous consequences for the United States abroad and have weakened our nation at home as well.
align=”left” Finally, the Republican Party has spurned Lincoln’s appeals to natural human equality in favor of the allure of the Rawlsian trinity of race, class, and gender—the same categories Democrats use to divide the American electorate.
Finally, the Republican Party has spurned Lincoln’s appeals to natural human equality in favor of the allure of the Rawlsian trinity of race, class, and gender—the same categories Democrats use to divide the American electorate.
After Mitt Romney’s ignominious defeat in 2012, the Republican Party issued its famed autopsy, which infamously put forward “comprehensive immigration reform” in order to win the “Hispanic” vote. The autopsy noted also that Republicans needed “to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them, too.”
Clarence Thomas pointed out the problems inherent in this approach in a 1987 speech to the Heritage Foundation. He noted that such a pandering strategy utterly failed regarding blacks because it treated them as a priori off limits to conservatives.
“The political Right . . . concedes that blacks are monolithic, picks up a few dissidents, and wistfully shrugs at the seemingly unbreakable hold of the liberal left on black Americans,” Thomas said. “Everyone was treated as part of an interest group. Blacks just happened to represent an interest group not worth going after.”
Blacks, just as other races or groups, were being assessed solely upon the basis skin color or some other perceived distinguishing feature of victimhood, an obvious break with the colorblind principles of the American Founding. And this was during the halcyon days of the Reagan Revolution!
Lincoln, by contrast, appealed to Americans as citizens who had “the father of all moral principle in them”—namely the belief in the equality of men in their natural rights and the concomitant principle that just government can only spring forth from the consent of the governed. The principle of liberty born of equality before God—the “central idea” from which all “minor thoughts radiate” in America—is the philosophical grounding of American citizenship rather than accidents of birth such as race or ethnicity.
align=”right” Trump has harkened to Lincoln’s teachings in his appeal to American citizens who are bound together by a patriotic friendship instead of the false idol of identity politics.
“America was a land for individuals,” Ken Masugi has written, “not of, by, and for castes, whether of class or race, and thus it was a land of opportunity for those who cherished work, character, and faith.”
Lincoln’s statesmanship provides a way forward for the GOP if they are willing to listen. Donald Trump has harkened to Lincoln’s teachings in his appeal to American citizens who are bound together by a patriotic friendship instead of the false idol of identity politics. As Trump stated in his first inaugural address and again soon after the Charlottesville unrest, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”
In order to become the Republican Party Lincoln would recognize, the GOP would do well to strongly condemn the scourge of identity politics, reassess its foreign policy in light of our national interests, and put forward trade policies that do not put abstractions above the common good of the American people. A party that is defined by these principles—principles that Donald Trump has championed—will once again deserve to carry the mantle of the party of Lincoln.