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Eight Score, Minus Four: the 1860 Lincoln Election Returns

By: Ken Masugi
September 12, 2016

n “The Flight 93 Election,” his cogent rebuke of anti-Trump conservatives, Decius seems at times to be saying that things are now so bad, the trends so ominous, that we have nothing to lose by supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But there’s more to be said about the moment and the candidate. 2016 is shaping up to be an election that will shape America as decisively as the 1860 election that made Abraham Lincoln president.

Accordingly, I see not just grim necessity but wisdom and honor in supporting Trump. Decius’ economic Davoisie and the Republican succession of Bushoisie have suppressed fundamental political issues—until the rise of Trump, the ultimate outsider. He has successfully challenged the bipartisan consensus on free trade, the Middle East Wars, and open immigration. Whether Trump wins or loses, his nomination signals that Republicans need to rethink their policy goals and their political appeal.

Trump’s critics claim that he is repudiating the proposition that all men are created equal, which defined and animated Lincoln’s statesmanship. They accuse him of racism because he denounces immigration policies for expanding our criminal population, expresses doubts about Muslims’ patriotism, and explicitly embraces the cause of “law and order.” House Speaker Paul Ryan and other leaders in both parties found evidence of bigotry in his views on immigration. Some critics dismissed Trump’s recent outreach to black Americans as condescending.

The best recent example of such attacks comes from opinion journalist E.J. Dionne, who paints Trump as an exploiter of racist emotion, and heir to the nativism and xenophobia that repulsed Lincoln. “One way or the other,” Dionne demands, “how can anyone with strong commitments on any issue now support Trump?” A better understanding of Lincoln might have led Dionne to see Trump’s statesmanship and its overarching moral purpose of forging stronger national identity.

Lincoln, we know, had to persuade voters that he opposed slavery but was no abolitionist. His prudent middle course was to demand that America put the institution of slavery in the course of ultimate extinction. Trump’s prudent middle course, which only enthusiasts for open borders could oppose, rejects amnesty, maintains the legal threat of deportation, but embraces sensible, humane treatment for those who have resided, worked, and comported themselves lawfully for many years.

Trump correctly notes that illegal immigration, ultimately, is about American identity. Yes, it causes serious problems—low-skilled workers face increased competition for jobs, police officers and courts must deal with the additional criminals who would have been kept out of our country by wise, capably enforced immigration polices—but the heart of the debate is about what makes us Americans. The principle of human equality means that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. But if duly enacted laws are not enforced, giving individuals not part of the citizenry de facto rights to come and stay as they choose, “We the people” is rendered politically and socially meaningless.

Dionne protests that “the democratic idea is in grave jeopardy when citizens simply shrug over being manipulated and don’t expect more from their political leaders than posturing, positioning and captivating media circuses.” No such thought occurred to him during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, however.

But Trump is educating, not entertaining. His rallies, attended largely by working-class whites, and speeches to black churches, remind all his listeners that they share common interests, economic and political, as fellow Americans.

Trump’s overarching theme—preserving American identity, thereby respecting and protecting the liberty of American citizens—underlies his policies on trade, defending “America First,” immigration, and above all condemning political correctness. He respects voters’ opinions, a common-sense approach to politics that terrifies the permanent government, which believes the range of views expressed on the Washington Post op-ed page encompasses the full spectrum of American public opinion. That respect for ordinary opinion means treating some unsavory characters seriously, but so do Hillary Clinton’s appeals to women on the basis of demographic coincidence and grievance-based solidarity, as did Obama’s appeals to blacks.

Moreover, Trump’s rallies show he can unite Americans, in red states and blue ones, when he brings a consistent message to Mississippi, Arizona, and Washington State. His speeches provide a higher, more solid version of Barack Obama’s fabled 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address, which looked beyond a red and blue America. By making America First, Trump builds a house of bricks on solid ground. Not since Ronald Reagan and his predecessor, Lincoln, have Americans had such an opportunity to sweep aside a decrepit old regime, and support a real unifier: Donald Trump, the outsider.