What do Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump have in common?

What we talk about says a lot about us. How we say it says even more.
By: Alex Freeman

What do Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump have in common?

They have both battled—and defeated—remarkable opposition to become the Republican nominee for president. Now, how they went about those battles? That is a different story.

In her work Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin assembles a narrative about Lincoln’s run for the nomination using archives from the 1850s. She notes that from the outset, “Lincoln was careful not to disparage any other candidate.”

My, have times changed.

Early on, Jeb Bush erroneously admonished then-candidate Donald Trump that he would not be able to “insult his way to the presidency.” The ad homonym slights kept coming, though, and public rancor surrounding the election heightened until its extraordinary finish in November.

However, students of American politics should not be completely disillusioned by this shift in dynamic; it is a new political epoch, and holding any modern politician to Lincoln’s standard of campaign chivalry seems unrealistic.

But what does this say about the state of our nation, that political cage matches are slowly becoming the expectation, and who we are? Are we a “house divided against itself,” or just a people temporarily blinded by our passions? In the coming weeks in Washington, I look forward to studying the origins, current status, and direction of public discourse. I anticipate rigorous discussion with students from across the country. Each seminar participant is bound to examine the origins and implications of this year’s public discussions with a different lens. They will attribute the president-elect’s victory to different social trends based on where they live. They will see the status of American polity as either precariously avoiding implosion, or headed for exciting new highs. It is my hope that we, as a seminar of engaged citizens, can reveal some truths about the unique political animals unleashed from inside most every American in 2016, and how these evolving political spirits will be significant going forward.

That said, the question of “what the hell happened in 2016?” might be the question of the next decade—not just the next two weeks—so we should maintain a healthy element of short-sightedness as we navigate Washington. Personally, I hope to meet policy advisors and researchers with connections to Drake who can explain their typical workdays and how they first got involved in politics. Career conversations with other influential speakers and guests of The Washington Center should also afford us a practical perspective on what employment opportunities exist for the ranging interests in our group.

As for the inauguration, which will cap off our D.C. experience, my expectations are unwritten. However, if president-elect Donald Trump wishes to pacify the rancor of the 2016 election season, I would expect him to ditch his campaign slogan in his Inaugural Address.


Donald and Melania Trump sit with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Ryan has sparred with Trump in the past, but the two will soon have to work together to craft policy. Photo: New York Times

Abandoning his signature phrase on January 20th might help the president-elect showcase his willingness to harden his statesman-like facade and begin working with his own team of rivals (i.e., Congress) on, well, making America great.


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