Martin Dyckman: Of Donald Trump and Abe Lincoln

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Donald Trump, who stays up late watching himself being satirized on “Saturday Night Live” and snarling at his critics on Twitter, could make better use of his time by reading some American history—specifically, about Abraham Lincoln.

Granted, “Trump” and “Lincoln” don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, but there are parallels, and a distinction, that would be in the nation’s interest, as well as his own, for the president-elect to take to heart.

For one, he’s on track to become the most reviled president since Lincoln, who was universally honored only after his assassination. Various Lincoln websites recount an unceasing torrent of venom.

“He is no more capable of becoming a statesman, nay, even a moderate one, than the braying ass can become a noble lion,” said the Salem Advocate, a newspaper in Lincoln’s home state before his inauguration. “The European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President.”

It got worse. The Chicago Times called the Emancipation Proclamation “a monstrous usurpation, a criminal wrong, and an act of national suicide.” In 1864, when even Lincoln was sure he would be defeated for re-election, the New York World quoted with approval from the Richmond Examiner, “The obscene ape of Illinois is about to be deposed from the Washington purple, and the White House will echo to his little jokes no more.” Some in the press panned even his inaugural and Gettysburg addresses, now considered among the greatest ever spoken.

“He was called a coward, ‘an idiot,’ and ‘the original gorilla’ by none other than the commanding general of his armies, George McClellan,” wrote Mark Bowden in the June 2013 Atlantic.

Here’s the distinction. Although Lincoln had nothing like Twitter to bite back at his critics, he would not have used it.

“If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business,” he told Francis B. Carpenter, a portrait artist who spent six months in the White House in 1864. ” … If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

Such wisdom, it’s plain to see, is not one of Trump’s virtues. But if anyone has his ear, he needs to be told that his Twitter outbursts are harmful not only to the country, but to him.

Each one inspires more criticism than it answers, and sharpens the perception of him as a narcissistic, thin-skinned and undignified bully.

The potential for harm to others is real and it is great.

A union leader in Indianapolis received threats against his children after debunking Trump’s claim to have saved as many as 1,100 jobs at a Carrier factory. Trump’s tweet threatening to cancel Boeing’s contracts for two new presidential airplanes, sent shortly after its CEO had warned of the costs of a trade war with China, temporarily carved nearly $1.5-billion out of its market value, a severe loss for any stockholder who was panicked into selling.

“The President-elect’s tendency to go after people who criticize him by spreading false and provocative statements about them to his 16 million Twitter followers is not only dangerous to those people,” wrote former labor secretary Robert Reich on Facebook. “The practice poses a clear and present danger to our democracy, which depends on the freedom to criticize those in power without fear of retribution. No President or President-elect in history has ever publicly condemned individual private citizens for criticizing him. Unchecked, this is the start of tyranny.”

Trump acts as if thinks he’s Teflon-coated — and his outrageously bad Cabinet choices so far certainly reflect that — but it’s his “petty” and “vindictive” outbursts, as Reich describes them, that will wear thin on the public faster than anything else.

Electing a bomb-thrower who’ll “clean the swamp” is one thing. Watching him disgrace the office he won is much different.

Among other things, his outbursts stoke the fear of him taking rash actions with disastrous consequences. What is the point, he wondered aloud during his campaign, of having nuclear weapons if we don’t use them?

Abraham Lincoln could not have imagined nuclear weapons, but he would have known the answer to that question. Trump’s hot-blooded temper tantrums serve warning that he hasn’t learned it yet.

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Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper now known as the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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