The Lincoln Comparison

Kirk Swearingen
9 min readSep 10, 2020


Detail of painting of Lincoln by Peter Baumgras (McLellan Lincoln Collection, Brown University)

Is it a small thing that Donald Trump has taken to comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln?

It may seem so at the moment, when we consider just a few of the revelations of summer 2020: Trump did nothing when he learned Russia had put bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan; Trump decided the GOP didn’t need to write a new platform to run on because the platform is Trump; Trump reportedly refers to people who have died in service to the country as “suckers” and “losers”; and Trump knew way back in late January just how dangerous the coronavirus was and decided to underplay it because the president, whose entire campaign is based on scaring people, says he didn’t want to create a panic.

But I don’t want to let the Lincoln comparisons pass — one, because that’s what Trump counts on while sowing chaos each and every day and, two, because I was surprised where this piece took me: It’s not Trump who can compare himself with Lincoln — it’s Biden, though, of course, he would never do so.

The current occupant of the Oval Office, whose Resolute desk remains resolutely unmussed by work, compares himself to Lincoln fairly regularly now — in how mistreated he is, in how much he has done for Black Americans, in how little admired he is for his new beard. (Okay, not that last one.) He even broadly hints that he ought to appear with Lincoln, and the other heavy-hitter U.S. presidents, on Mount Rushmore.

During the Republican National Convention tortured comparisons of Trump and Lincoln were made by Vice President Mike Pence, in a video called “Lincoln,” in which Pence stood outside Lincoln’s boyhood home in Spencer County, Indiana, and by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who invoked a 28-year-old Lincoln who was concerned about law and order in some context listeners ostensibly would go to their bookshelves to look up after her remarks.

These Lincoln comparisons would be unintentionally humorous if they were not part of the massive effort of the Trump organization to gaslight America — which would be the honest tagline for the campaign (“Trump/Pence: Gaslighting America, 2020”). In the Handbook of Propaganda, one learns: Lie big enough and say it often enough, and some people will buy it.

As far as the endless gaslighting goes, perhaps this particular falsehood can be admired for a little uncharacteristic subtle wit, given that Lincoln lived in an era before electric lighting.

From the speakers at the Republican National Convention, many Americans were nonplussed to learn (often at top volume, conveying that extra level of honesty) that Trump is a defender of immigrants, a protector of women, and a man swelling not only with a steady diet of KFC and hamberders but with empathy for others.

To connect Trump to our beloved 16th president, one must re-imagine a Lincoln who referred to women as “nasty,” who called the newspaper and magazine reporters of his day the “enemies of the people” (often savaged by the press, he said no such thing), and who shrugged about the Civil War dead, remarking: “It is what it is.” A Lincoln who openly mused about soldiers who were captured or killed during that struggle as “suckers” and “losers.”

By early December, the United States is projected to have more than 310,000 dead, on Trump’s watch, due to COVID-19. He and his enablers are apparently sanguine about reaching Civil War–like death numbers if he wins a second term. (One wonders what term he uses for those who have fallen to COVID-19.)

As Trump likes to tell us as if he has discovered it, Lincoln was a Republican. But Abraham Lincoln had much more in common with today’s Democrats. He would support a platform calling for inclusion and diversity and for social and economic justice. As the president who first set aside land in a public trust for the enjoyment of the public (including the Yosemite Valley, which is so, so good in this context; Trump cannot even pronounce it, rendering it in one attempt apparently a Jew-hating area of California) and who, in 1863, established the National Academy of Sciences (also very good), Lincoln would immediately understand the critical need to act on climate change and ensure that the United States took a leading role in leading on the solutions.

As much as one may admire the ads being created by The Lincoln Project (and they have been uniformly great and even witty — “We Go Low, So You Don’t Have To.” Brilliant!), the modern Republican Party has been the “Party of Lincoln” in name only. And now, after decades of ratcheting itself further right and orphaning its moderates, it is simply the Trumpist Party, the choice of white men with grievances against minorities and women; businessmen who, in the face of environmental regulations, turn anti-science for profit; and, well, a strange tumult of others who hanker to find their identity in “owning the libs,” in conspiracy theories, and in brandishing guns in public.

To think of Trump as Lincolnesque, one also must conceive of a Lincoln who would speak, bigly, in favor of retaining monuments to heroes of the Confederacy.

Another large distinction that separates the likes of Trump with Lincoln can be gleaned in a brief passage from A. Lincoln, by Ronald C. White, Jr.:

Lincoln did pledge that, if elected president, he would govern by the motto “Justice and fairness to all.” By “all,” he meant a widening set of concentric circles of his constituencies. He would not distinguish among Republicans who did or did not support him. He had always worked with Democrats and intended to do so again. Most important, he would make no distinction between North and South.

In every respect, the Lincoln described here is presidential, not someone demanding abject loyalty and making critical distinctions between “red” and “blue” states.

To the comparisons with Lincoln dreamed up by Trump and his acolytes one cannot rain down enough scorn.

When one considers it fairly, of the two candidates it is Joe Biden one can meaningfully compare with Lincoln, in at least two ways pertinent to the presidency.

First, like Lincoln, as a lawyer, Biden has a deep understanding of, and respect for, the rule of law.

Second, like Lincoln, Biden has faced a deepening human experience — personal tragedy and a heavy burden of grief.

Lincoln and his wife, Mary, lost their son Edward (“Eddie”), just before his fourth birthday, while they still lived in Springfield, Illinois, and then their son William (“Willie”) died, aged 11, while they were in the White House. Lincoln suffered from bouts of melancholia (what is now called clinical depression) and tried to help buoy up his wife as her own depressions brought her low.

In losing his wife Nielia and their one-year-old daughter, Naomi, after a car accident in 1972 — an accident which severely injured his two sons, Joseph (“Beau”), 4, and Hunter, 3 — Biden suffered unimaginable shock and grief. When Beau died of brain cancer in 2015, at the age of 46, the family was wrenched again. One could say that Joe Biden has experienced a nineteenth-century level of grief.

In his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders movingly imagined a grieving Lincoln repeatedly visiting the graveyard where Willie was interred. One does not have to be a novelist to imagine Biden making similar graveyard vigils. (Incredibly, Biden was mocked in a tweet by Trump campaign staffer Francis Brennan during a Memorial Day visit to the cemetery to visit the graves of his daughter, first wife, and son.)

Can one imagine Donald Trump, wracked with grief, making visits to a cemetery?

As reported in “Like Father, Like Son: President Trump Lets Others Mourn,” by Annie Karni and Katie Rogers, in The New York Times:

“He discards people who are no longer useful, and it doesn’t matter what renders the person no longer useful,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “If you are disgraced, or you’re dying, or deceased, you no longer exist to him.”

It is uncomfortable to mention, but I think it must be said that this lack of emotion on the part of Donald Trump appears to extend even to his own siblings. In her recent memoir about her uncle, Mary Trump wrote that while her father and Donald’s older brother, Fred Jr., lay in the hospital dying, Donald went to the movies. And when his younger brother, Robert, lay dying in a New York City hospital in August, Donald reportedly did make a late visit, on a Friday, and then managed to fit in a round of golf at his club in Bedminster, N.J., on Saturday, the day Robert died, at 71.

So, from the testament of family, friends, and associates — and from our own experience of him — it is abundantly clear that Donald Trump utterly lacks empathy. As former president Barack Obama noted in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, he just does not possess the tools for the job: “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.” And to use business terminology that Trump might conceivably understand — if he were really a businessman; he’s just told us incessantly that he is, yet another con — having empathy is one of the key performance indicators for a leader.

Competence and work ethic and knowledge of history and comprehension of the Constitution go without saying, but empathy is the essential thing in a leader of people. As presidential historian Jon Meacham noted in his remarks during the Democratic convention, invoking the better angels of Lincoln, “the struggle to be who we ought to be is difficult, demanding, and ongoing…. It requires We, the People, and it requires a president of the United States with empathy, grace, a big heart, and an open mind.”

Empathy. Grace. A big heart. An open mind.

It is a natural thing to want to connect with the spirit of Lincoln. My wife and I have traveled to Springfield to visit the Lincoln home and the splendid museum. On one visit to the home, as we approached his bedroom I noticed that nearly everyone looked into his wooden shaving mirror, and in trying nearly everyone had to get up on their toes (Lincoln was 6'4"). We had been told by the docent that the mirror is one of the few items in the house that belonged to the Lincolns, so it was naturally an object of reverence. People wanted to see their face reflected in the mirror that once held his. (I did the same and was so moved I wrote a poem about the experience, “Lincoln’s Mirror,” which became my first published poem.)

The earliest personal tragedy Lincoln faced was the death of his mother, Nancy, at 34, of the “milk-sick.” As biographer White writes in his A. Lincoln,

On October 5, 1818, Abraham stood in a densely wooded grove of persimmon trees while his mother, age thirty-four, was buried about one-fourth of a mile from the family log cabin. He was only nine. Abraham never mentioned her in any of his autobiographical writings. That she was a loving, nurturing presence we hear from others. Nathaniel Grigsby, Lincoln’s boyhood Indiana friend, said of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, “Her good humored laugh I can see now — is as fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday.”

Apparently, Lincoln did not have much of a relationship with his father, but when his father remarried, his stepmother was also a warm person.

Research has shown that the first years of life are critical for lifelong development, that having anything essential withheld — reading, a sense of security, love, and tenderness — can hamper a person’s growth for years, indeed, imprint that person for life. Living in poverty has a cruel effect, as recently reported by Jason DeParle in “The Coronavirus Generation” in The New York Times, but so does living in emotional poverty.

We know about the close-knit family in which Joe Biden grew up, and we know all too much about the dysfunction of the Trump family. Not much more needs to be said.

A little remembered tragedy in Lincoln’s life was the death, during a typhoid outbreak in 1835, of his “first love,” Ann Rutledge, at age 22. In his “Spoon River Anthology,” Edgar Lee Masters wrote a poem about Ann, imagining these words on her tombstone:

Out of me unworthy and unknown
The vibrations of deathless music:
“With malice toward none, with charity toward all.”
Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions,
And the beneficent face of a nation
Shining with justice and truth.
I am Ann Rutledge who sleeps beneath these weeds,
Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,
Wedded to him, not through union,
But through separation.
Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom!

How beautiful is that?

Masters takes liberties, ascribing to Ann some part of the greatness to come in Lincoln. But as we know now (and as Masters intuited), to feel loved early in life, to laugh often — and to suffer great losses — will engender love and laughter and empathy later on; indeed, it might create empathy enough to heal a suffering nation.



Kirk Swearingen

Half a lifetime ago, Kirk Swearingen graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. His work has most recently appeared in Salon.