A recent poll, widely reported, found that a slight majority of self-described conservatives say Donald Trump is a better president than Abraham Lincoln. God only knows what such a response means, in an age when our mass media considers it their democratic duty to dox and fire ordinary people for their opinions, and when most historians regard it as unprofessional to teach American history in a way that leaves students with a favorable impression of America.
As a university teacher of American politics and American history, I wouldn’t say that Trump is a better president than Lincoln. More useful would be to ask how the principles Lincoln stood for and the policies the Republicans of his era favored can be adapted to the United States of today. After all, it is more than a century and a half after a Democrat and celebrity actor decided to sacrifice his life and career to star before a D.C. audience in actual assassination porn.
The Republican Party—from Lincoln to Ford—had a constitutional vision and a policy agenda. Republicans in Congress enacted pro-growth, pro-equality, domestic policy: civil rights for African-Americans, the Morrill Land Grant that subsidized higher education for the children of farmers and workers, fiat money, and the Homestead Act. Republicans enacted tariff and antitrust protection of American industries, and immigration restriction to protect American workers, so that “cheap goods” did not make “cheap men.”
Republican presidents focused on protecting America from external threats and internal disorder, and endeavored to appoint judges who were big believers in judicial restraint and the “dead Constitution.” Laissez faire, free trade dogmatism, “hard money,” wars for democracy, and “substantive due process” were the slogans of some of their Democratic opponents. When graded by the “Grand Old Party” agenda, Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and the two Bushes have a lot to answer for.
The 21st century’s big tech monopolies have betrayed freedom and equality many times over. For big bowls of rice pudding they have helped Communist China censor the Internet. Aiming to crush all competition, they now bring “Chinese values” home with their own versions of “social credit” that keep wrongthinking people and enterprises from full economic citizenship. Drastic measures of economic protection and antitrust enforcement would seem to be required if these monopolists are not to reshape American minds to suit their self-imposed Chinese masters.
To preserve quality, access, and intellectual diversity, America’s colleges and universities must be restructured by radical reform: the tuition subsidies that now exist must be complemented with price caps, and all secular universities that benefit from public funds should be compelled to adhere to to basic canons of academic freedom.
Judges should be chosen who know that laws are not made in court but by the elected branches or by the constituent power of the American people themselves, and that the judge’s duty is simply to apply the laws with due regard for the supremacy of the fundamental law of the Constitution.
Finally, the entire national security state, civilian and military, needs to be brought to heel by its elected master, the president, just as Lincoln sifted through his generals until he found U.S. Grant, who would obey Lincoln’s orders and win the war.
Time, and history, will tell if Trump is “better” or “greater” than Lincoln. But if he is re-empowered in 2020 to make—and actually does make—these great Republican principles work, Trump would be the Lincoln we deserve. Or perhaps—to improve on a prophecy made November 2, 2016, by West Virginia journalist Don Surber—President Trump will be “Lincoln enough.”