It goes without saying that Donald Trump is no Abraham Lincoln.
The 16th president was born in a log cabin in Kentucky and grew up poor before becoming a self-educated but successful lawyer and politician in Illinois. The 45th president was born into wealth in New York City and became even richer as a businessman and television personality.
One was tall and gangly. The other is tall but leans to the beefy side.
Lincoln was, for a brief time, a soldier, serving as a volunteer in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War. Lincoln never saw combat but was elected captain of his first company. Trump was granted four deferments during the Vietnam war.
Lincoln was a gifted, focused and inspirational speaker — think Gettysburg Address — without the benefit of teleprompters. Trump, although he can fire up a crowd of his supporters, sometimes goes off the rails mangling facts and history as he did when his teleprompter shut down during a Fourth of July speech.
Lincoln took office as president at age 52, and was only 56 when he was assassinated. Trump, in his third year in office, is 73.
So unpopular was Lincoln in Mississippi, the state seceded from the United States after his election. Trump, on the other hand, is more popular in Mississippi than in his native state of New York.
The contrasts could go on.
But interestingly there are some similarities between the two men and their presidencies.
One is their relationship with the news media which, in Lincoln’s day was the press. Newspapers were the mass medium of that era, and they were far more opinionated than they are today.
Editors were not shy about supporting or opposing public officials, some of them running for office themselves.
Lincoln had his favorites like Trump loves Fox News. But, also like Trump, he had plenty of critics in the press, and he and some of his subordinates even went so far as to shut down some critical newspapers during the Civil War on the grounds they were treasonous.
Some of them were.
Lincoln didn't stop all the critics though. On a recent visit to the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ill., I saw a large collection of editorial cartoons which were tougher on Lincoln than anything I see on Trump these days.
On some critical constitutional issues, Lincoln and Trump seem to differ more on style than substance.
Trump has been justly criticized for his verbal attacks on federal judges and the chairman of the Federal Reserve, how he’s directing funds to immigration enforcement and for declaring the constitution gives him the “right to do whatever I want as president.”
Lincoln, though, went further than Trump has in suspending basic constitutional rights during the Civil War.
Among other things, with the backing of Congress he suspended the right of habeas corpus and defied an order by the chief justice of the Supreme Court contradicting such authority. Lincoln insisted he needed to suspend the rules in order to put down the rebellion in the South.
The late Shelby Foote, a Mississippi native historian and novelist who wrote a three-volume history of the Civil War, describes this in Ken Burns’ 1990 PBS documentary on the Civil War.
I started watching the series again the other day. It’s worth a second or third look not only for the history refresher but also for the haunting music and to hear Shelby Foote talk.
Another Lincoln and Trump similarity is they both took office in a politically divided country,
But without a doubt, the nation was far more divided in 1861 — and probably even 100 years later during the civil rights movement and then Vietnam era — than it is now.
If history repeats, we’ll survive.