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Donald Trump and Abe Lincoln.

July 13, 2017

lincoln

trump

Having  recently read  Ronald White Jn’s recent biography, I’m struck by the extent to which Donald Trump time and time again functions as a sort of anti-Lincoln.

Trump has a kind of habitual need to desecrate just about everything that is admirable about the United States and accordingly during his election campaign, Trump took the time to deliver his own version of the Gettysburg Address at that hallowed site in Pennsylvania.   While Lincoln spoke movingly about those who had given their all because they believed in something bigger than themselves, Trump trampled on the memory of selfless patriotism by choosing to focus on purely personal grievances.

More significant, is their attitude to literacy.  White’s biography confirms and extends a universal consensus among all who have studied the life of Lincoln that Abe had a lifelong passion for reading.  Abe did not think of himself as having grown up especially poor – certainly not poorer than most pioneer families in Kentucky and Indiana – but he certainly had little formal schooling and he earned his bread as a young adult with heavy physical labour.  With extraordinary determination, Abe sought after both books and reading opportunities wherever and whenever he could find them.  He became a self-taught lawyer and a brilliant rhetorician capable of extensive (if subtle) literary allusions.  He could never read enough to satisfy his literary appetites, and this passion for reading was a lifelong characteristic.

This compulsive reading was cognate with Lincoln’s qualities as a supreme listener.  To read well, it is essential to engage with someone else’s perspective for a significant period of time.  His legal and political skills were based on a readerly ability to entertain the views of others, to understand the arguments of others – where those arguments came from and where they were headed.

In short, careful reading helped forge a compassionate and conciliatory personality.

By way of contrast, Donald Trump, America’s least compassionate and conciliatory president was born with greater inherited economic opportunities than any of his predecessors.  His extreme ignorance of the world is a function of a lifelong distaste for reading.  Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of Art of the Deal, who studied Trump closely, doubts whether Trump has had the concentration span to read a whole book in many decades.  And to see Trump at the G20 summit was to see a lonely boy, unable to participate in the adult conversations around him. Unfortunately, too many people assume a false equivalence between ignorance and innocence, as though his sheer lack of knowledge about the wider world denoted a kind of “freshness”.  Not so.  When someone with Trump’s inherited wealth is ignorant, it is a consequence not of innocence but arrogance.  To read is to learn, and you can’t learn without respecting the contributions of others.  As a lifelong school bully – Trump has to keep himself stupid if he’s to keep himself vicious.  The Trump family ethic of despising everybody outside your immediate family is incompatible with being anything other than ignorant.

We live in a wicked world in which massive inherited wealth and complete contempt for others is all you really need to become the world’s most powerful human.  Having inherited the means to insure himself against the consequences of his own decisions, Trump is devoid of any sense of responsibility whatsoever.

Lincoln was burdened by epic responsibilities.  He was vilified by journalists throughout his career, and always responded carefully and politely to the press, subordinating his own feelings to his own careful and constantly evolving sense of a national interest.  Trump on the other hand refuses to admit the idea of any distinction between personal and national loyalty.  His political thinking is essentially Feudal.   Paradoxically, the American Revolution itself was sponsored by the idea of creating a polity more admirable that Trumpish European dynasties.  The American Revolution, that Lincoln sought to understand, protect, refine, and complete, involved a nation of laws not of individuals, in which those who sought high office were subject to legally defined limits and a higher standard of national (and indeed international) obligation.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s entire rise and fall and fall and fall will strike future generations as a bizarrely deliberate attempt to despise and refute the entirety of Abraham Lincoln’s personality and career – as though the historical existence of Lincoln somehow necessitated the emergence of his opposite – something that has broken through from an ungodly dimension of anti-matter, in order to seek cosmic balance through negation.

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