Donald Trump has described himself as the most “presidential” candidate since the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.
This is despite the fact that, when asked in an interview by Bob Woodward what made Abraham Lincoln so successful, Trump took 84 words to say absolutely nothing:
“I think Lincoln succeeded for numerous reasons. He was a man who was of great intelligence, which most presidents would be. But he was a man of great intelligence, but he was also a man that did something that was a very vital thing to do at that time. Ten years before or 20 years before, what he was doing would never have even been thought possible. So he did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time.”
What’s more, as a recent article in The Atlantic by Sidney Blumenthal explores, Trump’s policies, particularly those regarding immigrants, could not be further from what Lincoln and the Republican Party in his time stood for.
Lincoln decried nativists and stood up for the groups they sought to persecute, namely Irish immigrants and German immigrants – like Donald Trump’s grandfather, Frederich Drumpf, who arrived in the US from Germany in 1885 under the U.S.’s open immigration policy.
As Blumenthal writes, following the collapse of America’s Whig Party with the defeat of presidential candidate General Winfield Scott in 1852, the Know Nothings emerged as a fast-growing force.
“Suddenly, a new party emerged on its ruins—the Know Nothings, or the American Party. Between 1845 and 1854, 3 million immigrants arrived in the country. About 40 percent were poor Irish Catholics fleeing the ravages of the potato famine. About another 40 percent were Germans escaping from the failed revolution of 1848. Conservative Protestants viewed the Irish especially as a source of crime, corruption, and poverty. Both the Irish and Germans were beer drinkers, a habit that aroused temperance crusaders who condemned them as drunken, lazy, and sinful.”
In the months following the election of 1852, the Know Nothings attracted over one million members as people rallied around their stance that only American citizens who were born Protestant should hold public office.
Their slogan? “Americans Only Shall Govern America.”
To Lincoln, nativism was also dangerous because of its implications for the anti-slavery movement.
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain,” he wrote in 1855, in a meditation that reverberates all the way to our current election. “How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
Then, as Blumenthal explains, at the meeting where the Illinois Republican Party was born on February 22, 1856, the question of whether being a Republican also meant being against the Know Nothings came to a head.
One of the anti-slavery newspaper editors who had convened the meeting, George Schneider, editor of the German-language newspaper Staats-Zeitun, proposed adding an anti-Know Nothing platform. This was met with resistance from some of those present, so Schneider said he would submit the proposal to Lincoln, who the Illinois Republicans had invited to be their leader, and respect whatever he decided.
“’Gentlemen,’ declared Lincoln, ‘the resolution introduced by Mr. Schneider is nothing new. It is already contained in the Declaration of Independence and you cannot form a new party on prescriptive principles.’ For Lincoln, opposing nativism was consistent with opposing slavery. ‘This declaration of Mr. Lincoln’s,’ Schneider recalled, ‘saved the resolution and in fact, helped to establish the new party on the most liberal democratic basis.’ Lincoln’s judgment made possible the creation of the Republican Party, which became the instrument that would carry him to the presidency.”