Trump Betrays the Party of Lincoln

The president’s disquieting behavior is the realization of one of Lincoln’s principal fears: the citizenry’s loss of faith in representative government.

An illustration of Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump.
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Andrew F. Lang, an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University, is the author of numerous books on the American Civil War Era, most recently A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era.

The GOP proudly calls itself the party of Lincoln, in tribute to the first president elected on the Republican ticket. Abraham Lincoln demonstrated an enduring faith in the importance of free elections and democratic political institutions. Today, however, the Republican Party is led by a man who has repudiated the legitimacy of the electoral process. Donald Trump may be Lincoln’s successor, but his behavior mocks Lincoln’s efforts to preserve the republic.

During his campaign, Trump asserted that Democrats would steal the White House through widespread manipulation of mail-in ballots. He even floated the idea of delaying the election, which he claimed would “be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.” Following the November 3 contest, Trump called on officials in key swing states to rescind “hundreds of thousands of [allegedly fraudulent] votes.” He also asserted that Dominion voting machines—products of an alleged international conspiracy—had erased millions of Trump votes.

The Trump campaign and its affiliated legal teams have filed scores of lawsuits to overturn the election’s results. To remedy what they consider a duplicitous election, the president’s political allies have also endorsed martial law and a suspension of the Constitution; petitioned the Supreme Court to block the electoral results in four swing states; proposed the secession of “law-abiding states”; and put forth alternative Electoral College ballots that favor Trump, in defiance of states that legally certified Joe Biden’s election. In a blatant transgression of democratic norms and executive authority, Trump also pressured Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” extra votes to nullify Biden’s slender majority in the state. When Congress convenes tomorrow, at least 10 Trump-loyal Republican senators have suggested that they will vote against the certification of Biden’s Electoral College triumph. All presidential elections evoke what Alexis de Tocqueville once labeled the “ardor of faction,” but even so, this is a remarkable, unsettling record.

A century and a half ago, Lincoln faced his own electoral crises—and the principles he articulated then can still guide us today. After Lincoln’s election in 1860, and prior to his inauguration in March 1861, seven states of the Deep South seceded from the United States and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy intended to chart a novel course in human affairs. Alexander H. Stephens, its vice president, explained that it was “founded upon exactly the opposite ideas” proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. The Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition,” Stephens announced. “This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Lincoln indicted secession as an unlawful transgression of democratic norms, American constitutionalism, and the law of perpetual nationhood. Slaveholding secessionists shattered the republic because they had lost a presidential election to the Republican Party, an organization committed to curtailing theSlave Power” and restricting the spread of human bondage. The act of disunion, Lincoln charged, “is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism.”

Secession violated the most basic and essential principle of democracy: the primacy of the popular will. The United States waged war against the Confederacy to prove the viability of popular government, free institutions, and electoral legitimacy. To tolerate secession as a constitutional recourse would justify future electoral minorities rejecting the outcome of free, fair elections. The fate of democracy depended on the ability of a free citizenry “to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets,” Lincoln said.

At stake was the constitutional order established by the American Founders, who, Lincoln argued, brought forth a “proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves.” The slaveholders’ rebellion exposed the precarity of that founding proposition. The survival of American democracy was not foreordained. The constitutional structure required the citizenry’s persistent respect and restraint, to prevent its deteriorating from negligence or malice. Lincoln maintained that citizenship mandated “acquiescence” to the terms of democratic elections. The people and their representatives forged a reciprocal bond to uphold the political will of the majority and to protect the constitutional rights of the minority, regardless of an election’s outcome. To do otherwise would plunge the Union, in Lincoln’s words, into “anarchy or despotism.”

The signal test of Lincoln’s faith in representative democracy came when he ran for reelection in 1864. After three years of civil war, the republic’s preservation was far from certain. Union armies were bogged down across the wartime landscape. Morale had reached its nadir. The anti-war peace movement fueled the candidacy of the Democratic Party nominee, George B. McClellan, formerly Lincoln’s top general. At stake was not just the presidency, but the fate of the republic and the future of human liberty. Triumphant Democrats might well have offered constitutional protection for slavery in exchange for rebellious slaveholders’ political loyalty, thus legitimating Confederates’ claim to secession as a valid constitutional recourse.

Despite the unprecedented national crisis, Lincoln never considered delaying or suspending the election. A war to preserve the Union and the Constitution required that the ordinary mechanisms of democratic life keep functioning, to validate the republic’s existence. “It seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected,” Lincoln told his Cabinet in August. “Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration.”

The president nevertheless secured reelection, supported by Union soldiers who cast mail-in ballots from the front. “The election was a necessity,” Lincoln said. “We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.” McClellan concurred. “For my country’s sake I deplore the result, but the people have decided with their eyes wide open,” he acknowledged upon his return to private life. In reflecting on the crucial occasion, Lincoln praised how “a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility.”

Loyal citizens of the Union aligned with Black Americans, enslaved and free, to use the institutions of democratic life and the rule of law to discredit secession, shatter slavery, and compel essential, enduring constitutional changes through the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The Confederacy’s attempt to establish an independent slaveholding oligarchy yielded to an emancipated and more egalitarian Union. Lincoln saw his reelection as a popular referendum to eradicate slavery and rehabilitate the Constitution. “It is the voice of the people now, for the first time, heard upon the question. In a great national crisis, like ours, unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable,” he reflected. “The common end is the maintenance of the Union; and, among the means to secure that end ... through the election, is most dearly declared in favor of [the Thirteenth] amendment.”

President Trump’s conduct in 2020 clashes with Lincoln’s defense of self-government. Trump premised his candidacy and presidency on the notion that American politics is broken and the system corrupt, and that depraved political elites hold office solely to enrich themselves at the expense of powerless American citizens and national sovereignty. Only an outsider unbeholden to the traditions and norms of popular democracy could right the miserable venality of American political life, he argued.

The president’s behavior in office, however, embodies every political malady he vowed to cure. His conspiracy theorizing, contempt for democratic traditions, and refusal to acknowledge electoral defeat underscore the inherent dangers of demagogic populism, revealing the corrupting extent to which the president demands personal loyalty. How many voters will emerge from 2020 convinced that Trump is the rightful president who lives in exile under an unlawful regime?

The American constitutional order was built to withstand the kind of corruption and intrigue that Trump alleges stole his votes. Indeed, the decentralized nature of elections, the stability of federalism, the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the peaceful transfer of political authority have sustained the United States as a stable democracy for more than 200 years. In 2020, the American people rejected Trump—just as they affirmed him in 2016—by means of the democratic processes and institutions that the president claims to be irredeemably corrupt.

In a testament to the dynamism of American democracy, voters also imposed a crucial check on the federal apparatus. Republicans won scores of down-ballot races, pulled near even in the House of Representatives, and might retain a majority in the Senate. This was not the product of rigged elections and shadowy conspiracies. The current political landscape reflects innate American skepticism of concentrated power and one-party rule.

In late November, when Trump’s lawyers petitioned the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Pennsylvania’s electoral returns that favored Biden, Judge Stephanos Bibas ruled that the campaign’s request to throw away “millions of mail-in ballots would be drastic and unprecedented, disenfranchising a huge swath of the electorate and upsetting all down-ballot races too.” Bibas, a Trump appointee and a member of the conservative Federalist Society, rejected the president’s claims. “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious,” he wrote. “But calling an election unfair does not make it so.” Bibas concluded, in a Lincolnesque turn of phrase, “Voters, not lawyers, choose the President. Ballots, not briefs, decide elections.”

Trump’s disquieting behavior is the realization of one of Lincoln’s principal fears: the citizenry’s loss of faith in representative government, endangering what he called America’s “great promise to all the people of the world.” When citizens—much less the president—spurn free institutions and indict elections as illegitimate, the promise of democracy is perverted.

With striking clarity, Lincoln captured this reality in 1838, when he located the chief danger to American political institutions: “It must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

On January 20, Joe Biden will succeed Donald Trump as president of the United States. The nation is not on the verge of a coup, secession, or civil war. The election of 2020 testifies to the strength of American political institutions, which have protected the democratic process and upheld the will of a free citizenry. But the national soul cannot long endure political cynics who cast doubt on the worth of democracy and undermine its moral integrity.